Brian Viner: Oh, for the days of parlourmaids

Share
Related Topics

The enduring British fascination with life above and below stairs gets another stoking from Sunday, with ITV's transmission of Downton Abbey, a seven-part drama set in a grand country house just before the First World War and naturally starring, in the regrettable absence of Dame Judi, Dame Maggie Smith.

Comparisons with Upstairs, Downstairs, of ITV and blessed memory, (and incidentally co-created by another of our great dames, Eileen Atkins, the daughter of an under-butler) are inevitable. Writer Julian Fellowes even drowns a couple of his aristocrats on the Titanic, which was also the fate of the lovely Lady Marjorie Bellamy, played by Rachel Gurney, on Upstairs, Downstairs back in October 1973.

He will be a happy Fellowes indeed if the nation gets anything like as immersed in the life of Downton Abbey as it did in the comings and goings at 165 Eaton Place. When Lady Bellamy copped it, a grief-stricken couple in Worcestershire, mistaking fiction for reality, paid their respects by draping their front door with black crepe paper.

However engrossing Downton Abbey proves to be, one can't imagine anything like that happening again. Only reality shows seem to have that kind of grip on the public imagination these days, and if we've changed since 1973, just think how we've changed since 1912.

On Monday my wife Jane and I dropped in on our local stately home, the National Trust-run Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, because we'd heard that they offer a very good below-stairs tour, and since Jane is writing a novel partly set in a big house at the turn of the 20th century, she reckoned the tour would constitute useful research. It did, not least because it was conducted with terrific wit and brio by a woman called Sarah Pedro, proudly dressed as a parlourmaid. And of everything she explained to us about life below stairs a century ago, what struck me most forcefully was how extraordinarily good they were at recycling.

We might think we've got pretty decent at it, with our bottle banks and green wheelie bins, but compared with the Edwardians and their predecessors we are novices. At Berrington Hall the servants saved the contents of every chamber-pot; the urine was left to mature and then used to soak the bed linen, while the solids went on the compost. Leftover cooking fat was sent to the local candle-maker, and cigar ash was mixed into a paste used to clean the cutlery.

And here's another thing: they got their job titles right in those days. You knew where you were with a laundry maid, an under-gardener, a hall porter and so on. By dispiriting contrast, the estimable Sarah Pedro, a guide if ever there was one, sported a badge marked "interpretationassistant".

What did Jane Austen do without Probus?

Sticking with stately homes, last Friday I got to have dinner at one of the stateliest, a black-tie do in the lovely Orangery at Blenheim Palace, social highlight of The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival. The guest speaker was Peter Snow, talking fascinatingly about the Duke of Wellington's military campaigns, the subject of his new book, and dinner duly comprised food from that era, including a delicious consommé just like the one served to Tsar Alexander at the Elysée Palace in August 1815. One up, again, for the past over the present. In another respect, though, we are very much better off than our ancestors were. We know from Jane Austen that leisure activities in the early 19th century, even for the wealthy, didn't amount to much more than hunting, riding, walking and dancing, whereas now we have myriad ways of filling our spare time.

Alongside me at the Blenheim dinner were a charming elderly couple, John and Mary, who live locally in Woodstock (population less than 3,000) and told me that older townsfolk have no fewer than 22 clubs and societies to choose from. One of the most vigorous, said John, is Probus, which I confess I'd never heard of, but is an international organisation for retired professional and business people.

The word Probus is a contraction of pro(fessional) and bus(iness), but John explained that he prefers to think of it as an acronym for Prostate Removed, Other Bits Under Suspicion. I nearly spat out my mouthful of Tsar Alexander's soup.

A northerner's guide to pronunciation

Everyone I've talked to about ITV's remake of Bouquet of Barbed Wire agrees with me that it ended risibly. Regarding the pronunciation of the word "bouquet", however, there seems to be no consensus at all. For some the first syllable rhymes with "goo", for others it rhymes with "go".

This reminds me of the official starter on the Old Course at St Andrews, whose job it is to announce each golfer over a loudspeaker, and who once found himself discombobulated by the name of a Frenchman, a Monsieur Fouquet. Before he switched his microphone on, the starter, a taciturn fellow with a broad Fife accent, had several goes at enunciating Fouquet, but it kept coming out rather unfortunately rhyming with "bucket". "I'm sorry sir," he eventually said to M Fouquet, "but you'll have to answer to the name Patterson."

And that story in turn brings me to a pet hate, which is the way journalists from the south of England present the nation's favourite expletive, when uttered by a northerner, as "fook" or "fooking". Just because we pronounce those words differently from you supercilious southerners doesn't make them wrong, and doesn't require different spelling. And we're not from "oop north", either. So fooking stop it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Recruitment Genius: Java Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity for an ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea