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This Sunday, PBS will air on most stations an hour presentation of  Secrets of the Manor House, a documentary narrated by Samuel West, that explains how society was transformed in the years leading up to World War One. Expert historians, such as Lawrence James and Dr. Elisabeth Kehoe, discuss what life was like in these houses, explain the hierarchy of the British establishment, and provide historical and social context for viewers. For American viewers of Downton Abbey, this special couldn’t have come at a better time.

The British manor house represented a world of privilege, grace, dignity and power.

For their services for the King in war, soldiers were awarded lands and titles. The aristocracy rose from a warrior class.

This world was inhabited by an elite class of people who were descended from a line of professional fighting men, whose titles and land were bestowed on them by a grateful king.

Manderston House, Berwickshire.

For over a thousand years, aristocrats viewed themselves as a race apart, their power and wealth predicated on titles, landed wealth, and political standing.

Huge tracts of lands with fields, villages, laborers' cottages, and forests surrounded country estates.

Vast landed estates were their domain, where a strict hierarchy of class was followed above stairs as well as below it. In 1912, 1 ½ million servants tended to the needs of their masters. As many as 100 would be employed as butler, housekeeper, house maids, kitchen maids, footmen, valets, cooks, grooms, chauffeurs, forestry men, and agricultural workers. Tradition kept everyone in line, and deference and obedience to your betters were expected (and given).

22 staff were required to run Manderston House, which employed 100 servants, many of whom worked in the gardens, fields, and forests.

As a new century began, the divide between rich and poor was tremendous. While the rich threw more extravagant parties and lived lavish lives, the poor were doomed to live lives of servitude and hard work.

Lord Palmer pulls on a false bookcase to open a passage to the next room.

Manderston House in Berwickshire represents the excesses of its time. The great house consists of 109 rooms, and employed 98 servants just before the outbreak of World War One. Twenty two servants worked inside the house to tend to Lord Palmer and his family. Every room inside the house interconnected.

The curtains in the ballroom of Manderston House look as fresh as the year they were made in 1904.

The curtains and drapes, woven with gold and silver thread, were made in Paris in 1904 and cost the equivalent of 1.5 million dollars. Manderston House itself was renovated at the turn of the century for 20 million dollars in today’s money. This was during an era when scullery maids earned the equivalent of $50 per year.

Once can clearly see the differences in bell sizes in this photo.

The servant hall boasted 56 bells, each of a different size that produced a unique ring tone. Servants were expected to memorize the sound for the areas that were under their responsibility.

Scullery maids were placed at the bottom of the servant hierarchy. They rose before dawn to start the kitchen fires and put water on to boil. Their job was to scrub the pots, pans and dishes, and floors, and even wait on other servants.

Life was not a bed of roses for the working class and the gulf between the rich and poor could not have been wider than during the turn of the 21st century.

Thoroughbred horses lived better than the working classes.

While the servants slept in the attic or basement, thoroughbred horses were housed in expensively designed stable blocks. As many as 16 grooms worked in the stables, for no expense was spared in tending to their needs.

The stables at Manderston House required 16 grooms to feed, care for, and exercise the horses.

As men and women worked long hours, as much as 17-18 hours per day, the rich during the Edwardian era lived extravagant, indulgent lives of relaxation and pleasure, attending endless rounds of balls, shooting parties, race meetings, and dinner parties.

Up to the moment that war was declared, the upper classes lived as if their privileged lives would never change.

The Edwardian era marked the last great gasp of manor house living with its opportunities of providing endless pleasure. For the working class and poor, the inequities within the system became more and more apparent. The landed rich possessed over one half of the land. Their power was rooted in owning land, for people who lived on the land paid rent. The landed gentry also received income from investments,  rich mineral deposits on their land, timber, vegetables grown in their fields, and animals shipped to market.

The lord of the manor and his steward can be seen walking among the farm laborers, many of whom were women.

The need to keep country estates intact and perpetuate a family’s power was so important that the eldest son inherited everything – the estate, title, all the houses, jewels, furnishings, and art. The laws of primogeniture ensured that country estates would not be whittled away over succeeding generations. In order to consolidate power, everything (or as much as possible) was preserved. Entailment, a law that went back to the 13th century, ensured that portions of an estate could not be sold off.

The Lord Mayor of London was seated at the center of the table next to the Countesses of Stamford and Lichfield.

The system was rigged to favor the rich. Only men who owned land could vote, and hereditary peers were automatically given a seat in the House of Lords. By inviting powerful guests to their country estates, they could lobby for their special interests across a dinner table, at a shoot, or at a men’s club.

Thoroughbred horses were valued for their breeding and valor, traits that aristocrats identified with.

The Industrial Revolution brought about changes in agricultural practices and inventions that presaged the decline of aristocratic wealth. Agricultural revenues, the basis on which landed wealth in the UK was founded, were in decline. Due to better transportation and refrigeration, grain transported from Australia and the U.S. became cheaper to purchase. Individuals were able to build wealth in other ways – as bankers and financiers. While the landed gentry could still tap resources from their lands and expand into the colonies, the empire too began to crumble with the rise of nationalism and nation states.

The servant hierarchy echoed the distinctions of class upstairs. The chef worked at the end of the table on the left, while the lowest ranking kitchen maids chopped vegetables at the far right. The kitchen staff worked 17 hours a day and rarely left the kitchen.

Contrasted with the opulent life above stairs was an endless life of drudgery below stairs. On a large estate that entertained visitors, over 100 meals were prepared daily. Servants rose at dawn and had to stay up until the last guest went to bed. Kitchen maids, who made the equivalent of 28 dollars per year, rarely strayed outside the kitchen.

Steep back stairs that servants used. Out of sight/out of mind.

One bath required 45 gallons of water, which had to be hauled by hand up steep, narrow stairs. At times, a dozen guests might take baths on the same day. House maids worked quietly and unseen all over the manor house. The were expected to move from room to room using their own staircases and corridors. Underground tunnels allowed servants to move unseen crossing courtyards.

Manderston House's current butler shows the servant's hall

Maids and footmen lived in their own quarters in the attic or basement. Men were separated from the women and were expected to use different stairs. Discipline was strict. Servants could be dismissed without notice for the most minor infraction.

Footmen tended to be young, tall, and good looking.

Footmen, whose livery cost more than their yearly salary, were status symbols. Chosen for their height and looks, they were the only servants allowed to assist the butler at dinner table. These men were the only servants allowed upstairs.

Green baize doors separated the servants quarters from the master's domain.

Green baize doors were special doors that marked the end of the servants quarters and hid the smells of cooking and noises of the servants from the family.

The Jerome sisters were (l to r) Jennie, Clara, and Leonie.

As revenues from agriculture dwindled, the upper classes searched for a new infusion of capital.This they found in the American heiress, whose fathers had built up their wealth from trade and transportation. Free from the laws of primogeniture, these wealthy capitalists distributed their wealth among their children, sharing it equally among sons and daughters. The ‘Buccaneers,’ as early American heiresses were called, infused the British estates with wealth. ‘Cash for titles’ brought 60 million dollars into the British upper class system via 100 transatlantic marriages.

Working class family

Transatlantic passages worked both ways, even as American heiresses crossed over to the U.K.,  millions of British workers emigrated to America looking for a better life. The sinking of the Titanic, just two years before the outbreak of World War One, underscored the pervasive issue of class.

Most likely this lifeboat from the Titanic was filled with upper class women and children. Only 1 in 3 people survived.

The different social strata were housed according to rank, and it was hard to ignore that a large percentage of first class women and children survived, while the majority of third and second class passengers died.

Labor strikes became common all over the world, including the U.K.

Society changed as the working class became more assertive and went on strikes. The Suffragette movement gained momentum. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was a proponent of reform, even as the aristocracy tried to carry on as before.

Lloyd George campaigned for progressive causes.

Inventions revolutionized the work place. Electricity, telephones, the type writer, and other labor-saving devices threatened jobs in service. A big house could be run with fewer staff, and by the 1920s a manor house that required 100 servants needed only 30-40.

Change is ever present. The last typewriter factory shut its doors in April, 2011.

Women who would otherwise have gone into service were lured into secretarial jobs, which had been revolutionized by the telephone and typewriter.

Many of the aristocratic young men in this photo would not return from war.

The manor house set enjoyed one last season in the summer of 1914, just before war began. Many of the young men who attended those parties would not return from France. Few expected that this war would last for six months, much less four years. Officers lost their lives by a greater percentage than ordinary soldiers, and the casualty lists were filled with the names of aristocratic men and the upper class.

Over 35 million soldiers and civilians died in World War 1

Common soldiers who had died by the millions had been unable to vote. Such inequities did not go unnoticed. Social discontent, noticeable before the war, resulted in reform – the many changes ushered in modern Britain.

As the 20th century progressed, owners found it increasingly hard to maintain their manor houses. According to Lost Heritage, over 1,800 have been lost.

Watch Secrets of the Manor HouseJanuary 22 on PBS. All images from Secrets of the Manor House.

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Oh, my, Upstairs Downstairs turned down a darker road in the second episode, which can be seen online this week until May 24th.

The arrival of parlor maid, Rachel Perlmutter, changes the mood of the show from light-hearted to somber. She is a Jewish refugee from Germany who is forced to work as a maid, a career that is dangerous to her asthmatic condition.

Rachel (Helen Bradbury) suffers from asthma, which strikes her at the most unexpected moments.

Race and prejudice are the very obvious subtexts of this episode, in which Mr. Amanjit, who at first lived apart from the staff, is slowly accepted downstairs.

This scene, in which Mr. Amanjit was invited to listen to music on the radio, was most gratifying

Harry Spargo, the chauffeur, has developed a political interest that is typical of many people in the 1930′s, but his leanings are towards the far right and with the black shirts of Oswald Mosley’s fascist party.

Harrys social politics will place him at odds with the family and lead to tragedy belowstairs

A bored Ladie Percie flirts with danger as she pursues the chauffeur and his interests.

Bored and rebellious are not a good combination in the mind of a none too bright woman. Lady Percie races up the stairs to join an unsuspecting Harry at a far right rally.

And Agnes, the mistress, is pregnant.

A montage shows the stages of Agness pregnancy in swift succession

While I liked that Upstairs Downstairs embraced the many social upheavals of pre-war Britain, the one hour format is too rushed for these complex plot developments. I know the original series was based on one-hour shows, but back then each episode centered on one plot line that was often developed over several episodes. There were too many holes in the various plots that have been introduced and this series seems rushed, giving almost no time to character development. I hope that the pace slows down in Season 2 next year. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what develops in Episode 3, for at this point the twists and turns have intrigued me.

I must admit to being disappointed with the costumes, which did not appeal to me at all.

Other Upstairs Downstairs posts on this blog:

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Upstairs Dowstairs returns

Coming to PBS this Sunday, April 10th,  is Upstairs Downstairs, the newly minted series. Except for Rose, the characters have completely changed, but the nature of the program, following the family and the servants who cater to them, has not.

165 Eaton Place

It is 1936, and only six years have passed by since the Bellamys last lived at 165 Eaton Place. The townhouse is an abandoned shell when Lady Agnes Holland (Keely Hawes) and her diplomat husband, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), arrive from abroad to renovate it as their first home in England.

Keely Hawes as Lady Holland looks towards a new future

Rose (Jean Marsh), the only holdover from the original series, has left service to care for a sick aunt and is now self-employed, finding work for other domestics. A frugal Lady Holland solicits her to fill her house with servants. This means she does not mind employing help with little experience and who need training.

Young Johnny (Nico Mirallegro) needs training

Heidi Thomas, who also wrote the script for Cranford, delivered a crisp, intelligent, and witty script that draws viewers in right away, preserving the elements that drew us to the original show. This series (which has been renewed for a second season) stacks up well against its parent very well indeed. (Although my heart will always be with Hudson, the first butler.)

Jean Marsh as Rose

Thirty years or so ago, Upstairs, Downstairs was a television sensation, and rightly so. The series had been conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who was working on another project when filming began, and so she did not play a maid alongside her friend, Jean. Thankfully so, for Ms. Atkins has returned as Maude, Lady Holland a character who lights up the screen as delightfully as Maggie Smith’s dowager Countess  in Downton Abbey.

Eileen Atkins as Lady Maud Holland

In this year of The King’s Speech, it is interesting to note that Wallis Simpson makes an appearance in the first episode and that the cast listens to Edward’s first radio speech as king. The story of the king and his abdication has long legs this season (he and Wallis were also featured in Any Human Heart, also shown on PBS)

Although invited to the party, Wallis Simpson's (Emma Clifford) appearance is not welcome.

Comparisons of Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey are inevitable, but this is unfair. After all, Upstairs, Downstairs arrived on the scene decades earlier and provided the template for all the master/servant stories that followed. Viewers will not be disappointed with the renewal of a most beloved series. I certainly wasn’t.

Image @Radio Times

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Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) examines microscopic evidence

Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. The ending of the final episode of Sherlock!, which represented the final Mystery! for PBS’s 2010 Masterpiece season left me sitting on the edge of my seat, and … I won’t spoil your enjoyment if you haven’t watched it yet. Click here to view The Great Game online if you missed it. Two of the three episodes will be available until December 7.

The countdown clock is ticking: 12 hours

Sherlock’s ingenuity is put to the test in The Great Game, which a darker and more complex tale than the previous two episodes. Holmes races against time to solve a mystery that began when he was a boy. Clues arrive from an adversary worthy of Sherlock, whose detective skills are put through their paces. Dr. Watson is also on top of his game, and more critical as Holmes’s partner than ever.

Watson accuses Sherlock of enjoying himself, even as another victim's deadline has dropped to 3 hours

The cat-and-mouse games become more and more intricate as clues arrive from Sherlock’s dangerous adversary. His presence has been hinted at in previous episodes, but, again, I won’t give the game away.

Watson (Martin Freeman) puzzles through the clues, which are elementary for Holmes

The script is fiercely funny and its wit sharper than the edge of a freshly honed knife. The ending is shocking. I won’t give it away except to say that PBS MUST air the second season of this series. That’s all.

The ending is a game changer that makes this series a must-see

Reade other Sherlock! reviews :

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Beautiful Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan) is doomed.

Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. While not quite as satisfying as the first episode, The Blind Banker, the second installment of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock! had many fine moments. Sherlock is called by a former schoolmate to investigate the break in at his bank and the vandalism of the portrait of a banker. A bright yellow graffiti line has been sprayed over the banker’s eyes and a cryptic Chinese symbol has been painted on a wall opposite the portrait. What does all this mean? Intrigued, Sherlock follows the clues to solve this seemingly impossible puzzle.

The camera angles are quite original. Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) talks his way into an apartment building.

In this episode Watson is worried over the lack of income to support his and Sherlock’s lifestyle. He needs a job and cash to live on. But Sherlock has not a care in the world. As he waits for an interesting case, he uses the exasperated Watson’s laptop. Insult above injury!

Watson (Martin Freeman) can no longer hide his exasperation with Sherlock

Then Sherlock is called by his old schoolboy friend to investigate a break-in at a bank, and all of a sudden Sherlock springs into action. When a bank employee is found inside an apartment with the doors and windows locked from the inside, Sherlock realizes that the murderer must have scaled the high rise’s walls to accomplish the dastardly deed. In order to solve the encrypted Chinese messages that are left near the victims’ bodies, he must find a “book that everybody owns.”

The victim had just returned from Hong Kong. His doors and windows were locked. So how was he murdered?

In the meantime, Watson has had enough of Sherlock’s lack of practicality. Anxious about food and rent, he accepts a part time job at a medical clinic and finds himself attracted to his boss, Sarah.

Sarah (Zoe Telford) has the strangest date ever with Dr. Watson

Their first date not only points out Sherlock’s total concentration on a case (the single-minded detective wonders why Watson would prefer a date over solving a mystery) but Watson, still trustful, accepts Sherlock’s offer of tickets to the circus. And then the “fun begins.”

The tickets Holmes gives Watson are to a Chinese circus

While I loved seeing the personal background story about Watson, I was not as riveted watching this episode as the first one. The script is still witty and intelligent, and the action is fast and furious, but this episode seemed all too familiar.  As Sherlock and Watson race against time to prevent another murder, I felt I had seen this plot before.

Which book will help to solve the cryptic Chinese symbols?

All one can ask of a good detective mystery is a good story, and I did find myself sitting on the edge of my seat a number of times. If you missed this episode, you can watch it online for the next few weeks.

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Kenneth Branagh in Faceless Killers

Kurt Wallander’s life is all about work and it is killing him. Kenneth Branagh is perfect as  the world weary Swedish cop who cares about his cases at the expense of his family and physical and emotional health. The actor is fearless in depicting a tired, overweight and unkempt man who drinks too much, sleeps too little, and suffers from diabetes and depression. Wallander’s wife has left him, his relationships with his daughter and father stink, and he has no friends to speak of.

The first three episodes of Wallander (Series One) were a revelation. Series Two is as good if not better. The series is filmed in the bleak landscape of southern Sweden and in the small port city of Ystad. Initially, there was thought of producing a feature film, but Branagh voted against it, saying.

I thought it might be tough in the current climate to produce a film with somebody like me in it and expect it would last much longer than an opening weekend. Just because our business is incredibly brutal.” – Kenneth Branagh

Wallander is the brain child of Henning Mankell, a successful Swedish author who created the character in reaction to the anti-immigration sentiment expressed in his country.

I had no idea this would be the start of a long journey,” Mankell says. “I was writing the first novel out of anger at what was happening in Sweden. And, since xenophobia is a crime, I needed a police officer. So the story came first, then the character. Then I realised I was creating a tool that could be used to tell stories about the situation in Sweden — and Europe — in the 1990s. The best use of that tool was to say ‘What story shall I tell?’, then put him in it.” – Times Online

Tom Hiddleston and Kenneth Branagh in Wallander

Wallander’s single-minded doggedness in solving his investigations leaves him with little room in life for anything else. The solitary detective is miserable but unable to do anything to change his life, as Kenneth Branagh explained in a recent interview:

So there is little room in his mind for small talk, superficiality. He’s not much interested in sport. He doesn’t have hobbies. He doesn’t have extra room or space for what might be therapeutic reflection. It’s almost always about why people commit acts of violence. And complicated analysis and consideration of what drove him or her to it. Or why the person he has interviewed responded in the way they did. And sometimes in his own life why he is unable to say to his own daughter, “I love you”, or return her call.

‘So all of that physically just makes you feel heavier. I remember reading the script for the first of these new ones – I’d not been near it for a year – and by the end of it I was hunched and bent over. And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.’  - Telegraph Co.UK

Jeannie Spark as Linda Wallander and Arsher Ali as Jamal, the young doctor she is seeing

The first series, produced by Yellow Bird, Mankell’s film production company, in partnership with Left Bank Pictures, ran on PBS in 2009. Wallander garnered Branagh a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA for Best Drama Series for the first season.

PBS will offer the following episodes in Series 2:

Faceless Killers, October 3


An elderly couple is brutally assaulted in their rural farmhouse. The press takes hold of the foreigner angle, inciting swift and deadly retribution against local migrant workers. But there is more to the case — a potential mistress, a lost son and a large sum of money. Wallander’s inquiry takes him deep into his own damaged psyche, forcing him to examine and question his own motives before he can even begin to understand those of a killer.

The Man Who Smiled, October 10,

Gustaf Torstensson quietly chants “Mea culpa, mea culpa,” as he drives to his death. His son Sten Torstensson, a friend of Inspector Kurt Wallander, begs the detective to investigate the suspicious case — Wallander is his last hope. But hope has all but drained from Wallander’s life, as he’s now on indefinite leave from his work and has been all but forgotten after enduring an on-the-job trauma.

The Fifth Woman, October 17

Inspector Kurt Wallander is torn between two disparate cases while dealing with one harsh and heartbreaking reality — the demise of his father. When another victim is found, it is clear that a serial killer is at work in Ystad.

Other features:

As usual, PBS Masterpiece Mystery provides special features that add dimension to the series.

Other posts

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Oxford University's campus is strangely empty in Your Sudden Death Question

The fourth installment of Inspector Lewis, Season III, starts off with an August Bank Holiday that has emptied Oxford University of professors, students and all but a handful of staff. A small group is assembling for a Bank Holiday Quizaholic Weekend.

Marcus Richards (Alan Davies) the quiz master

The members of the group introduce themselves in teams, including Ethan Croft, an obnoxious, boozing primary school teacher, whose once promising career as a linguist at Oxford U. was derailed by a sex scandal.

Nicholas Farrell and Timothy West play two Oxford professors on the Grey Guardian team

The teams include two older Oxford academics, two students, two young mothers, soldiers, and lawyers.

Alfie Wilkinson( Jack Fox) and Ava Taylor (Tabitha Wady) compete on Team "Toxic Debt"

The cash prize for winning the Quiz is £5,000 lbs, but before the first round even gets under way, Mr. Croft is found floating face down in an ornamental fountain. Lewis and Hathaway interview Jean Croft, the dead man’s stunned widow. She confesses to wanting to kill him for his infidelities. The viewer quickly eliminates her as a suspect, as do Lewis and Hathaway.

Susannah Doyle plays Jean Croft, grieving widow

They mull over the situation a bit more. Was the murder a crime of passion?

Pondering the murder suspects

Ethan’s old flame, Robyn, appeared at the event with her friend, Eve Rigby (Sally Bretton). Ethan is instantly smitten with Eve, and hardly gives Robyn a glance. Robyn realizes that he does not recall their relationship, when she was 14 to his 16. Later she appears to be angry. Could she have killed Ethan out of  jealous rage?

Could Robyn Strong (Ruth Gemmel), a lonely single mother, have killed the victim out of jealousy and passion?

Then Eve is killed, and Hathaway and Lewis must deal with a second body. They are convinced that the two murders are somehow connected. Could the two soldiers, British Army Lieutenant Diane Baxter and Color Sergeant Brian Kaye, have killed the victims on behalf of the government.

Diane Baxter makes an important admission.

As Lewis and Hathaway find out more about a secret project that Croft was involved with, it would not be out of line to suspect the soldiers of killing him on behalf of the Government.

Lewis informs the assembled suspects that they cannot leave until the murder is solved

Professor Milner’s young wife had the affair with Croft, which ended his career at Oxford.

Could Gwen Milner (Helen Grace) have a reason for murdering Croft?

As they wait for Hathaway and Lewis to solve the murders, the teams are allowed to compete in the Quiz game.

Sebastian Anderson (Alastair Mackenzie) and Jessica Neil (Emma Cleasby) are stuck on campus until the mystery is solved.

Different possibilities present themselves, including the Quiz organizer whose shady business practices might have been uncovered by Croft. Or was the mysterious project that he was working on as a linguist responsible for his death?

Lewis and Hathaway go over the clues.

A translator is enlisted to read Croft's foreign language documents.

One by one, the clues tumble into place and before the 90 minutes are up, Lewis and Hathaway have solved the murders and the quiz contestants can go home – all save the killer.

Spoiler Alert!:

I loved this episode for the continued deepening of the relationship between Lewis and Dr. Laura Hobson, and Lewis and Hathaway. Their personal back stories are revealed slowly, like peeling the layers of an onion one story at a time.

Hathaway retrieves his lovely guitar with the aid of Lewis.

Hathaway eavesdrops as Lewis calls Laura Hobson.

Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) understands loneliness every bit as well as Lewis.

The mystery of Your Sudden Death Question was splendid, and this time around I did not solve the murder until the end. I give this episode of Inspector Lewis, written by Alan Plater, three out of three Regency fans! You can watch the episode online at this link from Monday, September 20 to October 19, 2010.

Inspector Lewis, Season III

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Dark Matter, the third installment of season three of Inspector Lewis, is available online from September 13 through October 12.

Peaceful Oxford, or is it?

In this episode, Professor Andrew Crompton, an amateur astronomer and the Master of Gresham College, is found dead at the foot of the University Observatory stairs. Lewis and Hathaway investigate the dark goings on among family, friends, colleagues, and staff. Two murders, one in broad daylight, baffle them until a crucial piece of evidence is revealed. The initial murder is set against the backdrop of Gustav Holst’s The Planet Suite, Mars: The Bringer of War.

Roger Temple (Warren Clark) rides his bike to work

In fact, Holst’s fabulous music and the city of Oxford take a front seat as the murderer goes about doing dastardly deeds and Hathaway and Lewis canvas the streets and university looking for clues and talking to suspects.

Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) playing clarinet

We also learn more personal details about Dr. Laura Hobson, who plays 3rd clarinet at the gala memorial concert, which our detectives have paid to see but must leave as they pursuit the murderer. Before this happens, Lewis enlists Hobson to spy on her fellow orchestra members, notably Gwen Raeburn, also an astronomy lecturer; her husband, Sir Arnold; and the guest conductor Malcolm Finniston.

Lewis and Hathaway go over the clues

As I watched this particular episode I realized why I generally prefer shows produced for British television – middle aged people, indeed those who would be considered elderly, are allowed to find love and romance and are not relegated to stereotypical Golden Girl or old codger roles. The BBC employs skilled and seasoned actors to portray the characters, not some flavor of the month or pretty boy pinup.

Robert Hardy as Sir Arnold Raeburn

Actors like Robert Hardy (Sir Arnold Raeburn), Warren Clarke (Roger Temple), Sophie Ward (the grieving widow, Isobel),

Sophie Ward as Isobel Crompton

Diana Quick (Gwen Raeburn), and Annabelle Apsion (Babs Temple) are at the top of their game.

Annabelle Apsion as Babs Temple, the Crompton's housekeeper

It is simply a pleasure to watch them create a world in which I can immerse myself for an hour and a half.

Malcolm Finniston, guest conductor

Even the young actors, like Ruby Thomas, aren’t just cookie cutter pretty. They can hold their own against their more seasoned counterparts.

Ruby Thomas as Kate Cameron

I solved the murder mystery fairly quickly, but I didn’t care. Its the relationship between Inspector Lewis and Hathaway that keeps me in thrall and tuning in to PBS Masterpiece Mystery every Sunday night. In fact, these episodes give me an excess of joy.

It was nice to see Dr. Hobson wear a dress and pursue personal goals

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Murder on the Orient Express, PBS Masterpiece Mystery!, Sunday, July 11, 9 PM local listings. Starting 7-12, watch this episode online at this link.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Hercule Poirot arrives at Masterpiece Mystery for Series X and the viewer will not be disappointed. David Suchet is back as Poirot, the Belgian detective, and I can imagine no one better in the role. This summer’s Masterpiece Mystery! will feature three new Poirot mysteries based on Agatha Christie Novels: Murder on the Orient Express (July 11), Third Girl(July 18) and Appointment with Death (July 25).

The Orient Express was more than a train – it was an experience. Considered the height of luxury in travel, it was also the turbojet Concorde of its day in that it provided the fastest route from Paris to the East. Agatha Christie and her husband traveled in style all the way to Instanbul, and her trips gave her the background information and details she needed to craft a truly unique murder plot. More a string of luxury sleeping cars, seating cars, couchettes, and dining cars than a regular passenger train, the Orient Express crossed many borders over rail lines owned by a number of companies and nationalities. With so many consortiums and countries involved in its smooth running, one marvels that the train made its destination at all, much less in record time.

Passengers trapped on a snow bound train

In 1929 the train was stalled in a snow storm in Turkey, leaving the passengers stranded for days. Christie based her 1934 murder mystery on that true event, as well as on the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr., which made the headlines in respectable newspapers and scandal sheets for weeks.

Toby Jones plays the evil victim

This PBS production of Christie’s famous tale is darker in tone than the famous Sydney Lumet adaptation of the book in 1974, which starred Albert Finney as Poirot. That movie’s ending was more pat and Hollywood in style. There was no doubt that Ratchett, the villain (Richard Widmark), was evil through and through, whereas the villain (Toby Jones) in this PBS production seems to operate more from fear and self-protection.

The suspects have no place to go

The ending in this most recent adaptation is strikingly dark and ambivalent; raising questions of justice, ethics, and morality. I confess that it has been so many years since I’ve read this mystery that I cannot recall how faithful this film’s ending is to Agatha’s book.

Barbara Hershey as Caroline Hubbard

The actors are once again superb. We do not see Barbara Hershey enough these days, and the fabulous Eileen Atkins makes an unforgettable appearance. Samuel West, David Morrissey, and Hugh Bonneville round out a sterling cast. My major complaint about this production is its length, which was too short to develop the story lines for many of the suspects.

Eileen Atkins as Princess Dragomiroff, one of the suspects

Watch behind the scenes videos at this link.

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Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) and Dolly Bantry(Joanna Lumley)

Last Sunday, Miss Marple made a grand fifth season entrance for PBS Masterpiece Mystery! with its latest episode, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. If you missed the episode, it is available online at this link until June 6th.

Marina (Lindsay Duncan) stares off into space with a look of doom

In this elegant mystery, based on a tragic event in actress Gene Tierney’s life, film star Marina Gregg (Lindsay Duncan) takes up residence at Gossington Hall with her fifth husband, young film director Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman). During a charity garden party, a guest named Heather Badcock (Caroline Quinton) drinks a poisoned cocktail and survives the experience by a mere few seconds. Laid up with a sore ankle, Miss Marple learns from her friend Dolly Bantry (played by the incomparable Joanna Lumley) that Marina was caught staring into space with a look of doom on her face just before poor Heather cocked up her toes.

Marina and husband #5, director Jason Rudd (Nigel Harman)

Enter Inspector Hewitt, whose list of usual suspects includes Marina’s past husbands and entourage of employees, colleagues, and hangers-on, looks for the obvious suspect. An attempt is made on Marina’s life while she is filming a movie, which confirms in Hewitt’s mind that she was the original target for murder, not Heather. Throw in a blackmailer, who is also found dead, and the plot has sufficiently thickened to leave viewers scratching their heads and relying on Miss Marple to make sense of the mayhem.

Inspector Hewitt (Hugh Bonneville, L) and sidekick take a traditional approach to solving a murder

As always, the cast of characters is superb. In addition to Ms. Lumley, Lindsay Duncan (Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Lost in Austen) and High Bonneville (Mr. Bennet in Lost in Austen and Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park) also make an appearance. I’ve grown quite accustomed to seeing Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple, and she fits my idea of that dowdy but sharp-eyed sleuth like a well worn glove. (As an aside, I advise that any of Miss Marple’s friends or relatives should steer clear of her, for where ever she goes, death is sure to follow!)

Why is reporter Margot Bence (Charlotte Riley) making life difficult for Marina?

The setting of a small English village and costumes of the late 1950′s, early 1960′s (the book was published in 1962) are superb. I have had the privilege to watch all three new episodes of Miss Marple this season, and while I liked this tale, it is not the best of the three. Perhaps because Mirror was based on a true story, the murder plot seemed a little loose and diffuse. The ending is enigmatic and lacks the satisfying and tidy wrap up of most of Agatha Christie’s plots. And yet I found my hour and a half well spent.

Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantry

Well done, PBS Masterpiece Mystery! Two more original episodes will be aired (The Secret of Chimneys and The Blue Geranium), including two encore presentations (A Pocketful of Rye and Murder is Easy.) Five Miss Marples in one season! Life can’t get much better than this.

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Jane Austen had a few ideas about what would happen to some of her characters in the future. Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse would live for two more years after his daughter’s marriage to Mr. Knightley, and the letters from Frank Churchill that Jane Fairfax placed before her contained the word “pardon.” These little tidbits of information help to make the books and movie adaptations so much more enjoyable to read and watch.

In my previous observations of the film adaptation of Emma 2009, I mentioned several times that I disliked Romola Garai’s interpretation of the role, but I have now seen the film four times AND rewatched other Emma films, including Clueless, which remains my favorite. I have also been listening to the full book version of Emma on my iPod. My mama sagely told me, “you CAN teach an old dog new tricks”, and after the second episode of Emma aired on PBS last week and after viewing the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma (1996) with a friend, this crotchety old dog has come to the rather astonishing realization that she likes Romola as Emma after all.

Romola’s quick moving, restless Emma captures her immaturity and boredom. Highbury is a town that is much too confining for such a talented, rich and lively young lady, and with so little to do, this self-indulgent and coddled girl can’t help but create mischief. If only Emma could apply herself long enough to become proficient at something, she might have been able to keep her nose out of other peoples’ lives. But she keeps making lists, with every intention of reading the books. As Mr. Knightley observed to Mrs Weston:

Emma reads two pages of Milton

Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.

Emma also paints, but, as her portfolio (and pale painting of Harriet Smith) demonstrates, she is hard pressed to finish these projects.

Emma's very pale painting of Harriet Smith

Emma wished to go to work directly, and therefore produced the portfolio containing her various attempts at portraits, for not one of them had ever been finished, that they might decide together on the best size for Harriet. Her many beginnings were displayed. Miniatures, half-lengths, whole-lengths, pencil, crayon, and water-colours had been all tried in turn. She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to.”

Emma can play the pianoforte prettily enough, but not as well as Jane Fairfax, which bothers her:

Emma is invited to play first at the Coles' party

She did unfeignedly and unequivocally regret the inferiority of her own playing and singing. She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood–and sat down and practised vigorously an hour and a half.

She was then interrupted by Harriet’s coming in; and if Harriet’s praise could have satisfied her, she might soon have been comforted.

“Oh! if I could but play as well as you and Miss Fairfax!”

“Don’t class us together, Harriet. My playing is no more like her’s, than a lamp is like sunshine.” – Emma, Volume 2, Chapter 9

Sandy Welch, scriptwriter of this Emma adaptation, observed that Cher, the Emma character in Clueless, was bossy but sweet and well-meaning. In her script, Ms. Welch wanted to show that the coddled young Emma had an attitude of “well-meaning snobbishness” and that in all her meddling, she sincerely thought:  “doesn’t everyone think like this?”


And so in my fourth viewing of Romola’s performance as Jane Austen’s wealthiest and most entitled heroine, I have finally come to admire this heroine. My change of heart was especially helped when I reviewed previous Emma adaptations during the last snow storm, and realized just how thoroughly this new production fit in with our modern sensibilities.  I (and a few of my Janeite friends) still think that Romola’s  facial grimaces and wide eyed interpretation of a very young Emma in the first half of the series were overly exaggerated, but she toned down her performance as Emma matured and grew in understanding.

Her scenes with Jonny Lee Miller during his proposal were tender and touching and gave a fitting ending to the series. I shall miss these Sunday evenings watching Emma. Thankfully, PBS will be showing reruns of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which were originally shown during Jane Austen Season two years ago. Jane Austen fans can take heart that our time with the bonnet series is not yet over.

Now that you have seen all the episodes of Emma, what did you think?

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POE SpecialsHold on to your thinking caps as you watch this tense and suspenseful psychological mystery to be shown on PBS November 1 & 8 at 9 PM. Juliet Stevenson stars in this excellent production, which kept me guessing almost all the way to the end. In this story, based on a book by Scottish novelist Val McDermit, Julia plays Catherine Heathcote, a workaholic filmmaker who is making a documentary about a murder case that is 45 years old. Thirteen-year-old Alison Carter disappeared walking her dog and was presumed murdered, but her body was never found and the case remains unsolved.

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Catherine stirs up disturbing facts as she digs deep to uncover this story’s secrets. The fast-paced plot switches from modern day investigative work to events that occurred in 1963. Lee Ingleby plays a young Bennet, the police official who seemingly solved the case in 1963; Greg Wise plays Alison’s haughty stepfather; and Elizabeth Day plays Catherine’s rebellious teenage daughter. All the characters add depth to the story, and all the actors are superb in their roles. I wonder, did any of the viewers guess the ending?

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If you would like to see the episode again, PBS will be showing it online starting Nov 2.

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