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Attention: Spoiler Alert. Do not go further or view the images if you have not seen Episode 2. Missed this episode? Want to watch it again? Click here to see PBSs streaming videos of Downton Abbey 3, Episodes One and Two, available for a limited time only.

Two episodes, two weddings, two radically different endings. Poor Edith. She’s rapidly turning into the Upstairs version of Mr. Bates. Poor Edith/poor Bates. See how these two phrases can be used interchangeably? But Edith’s fate is not what this post is about. I am asking you to cast your critical eyes upon the two wedding dresses and two wedding parties and vote for your fave. Who sported a more breathtaking 1920s bridal outfit? Whose flowers blow your mind? And who spurred guests to dress better? Edith or Mary? Curious minds want to know. Find the poll at the bottom of this post.

Mary and Edith in full wedding regalia

Mary and Edith in full wedding regalia.  Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

 

Edith walks down the aisle with Papa

Edith walks down the aisle with Papa. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Mary with her man, veil, and bouquet

Mary with her man, veil, and bouquet. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Edith with her man, veil, and bouquet

Edith with her man, veil, and bouquet. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Edith with her sisters

Edith with her sisters. (That’s Anna in the background.) Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Edith, Cora, and Sybil in the pews at Mary's wedding

Edith, Cora, and Sybil in the pews at Mary’s wedding. Credit: Courtesy of ©Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Cora's hat at Edith's wedding

Cora’s hat at Edith’s wedding. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

The pews at Lady Mary wedding

The pews at Lady Mary wedding. Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Wall/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Violet at Edith's wedding

Violet at Edith’s wedding. Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Downton Abbey Season 3, Episode 2 Wedding Dress Poll

Alas and alack the results of the two weddings were radically different. While one couple experienced wedded bliss, the other couple, well, uncoupled. Sir Anthony, cad, fleed the scene, leaving poor Edith bereft and without purpose. Poor Edith. I am firmly on her team.

Feel free to leave your comments about Episode Two, but no spoilers about later episodes please. Review to come.

Other Downton Abbey Series 3 Posts on this Blog

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The anticipation is over for American fans. PBS has aired the first two-hour installment of Downton Abbey Season 3 and we have had 6 days to digest the goings on of the Crawleys, their friends, relatives and spouses. All week people have been asking me: What are your thoughts?

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Let me confess, I saw the entire series before Christmas and have since dithered. How to review a program that contains a minefield of plot spoilers? I decided to share my thoughts one week at a time. So, without further ado, I’ll break down the first 120 minutes.

Shirley Maclaine as Martha Levinson

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

I salivated, I yearned, I couldn’t wait for Shirley’s appearance KNOWING that she would be Maggie Smith’s equal in retorts and sarcasm. Boy, was I wrong. My dreams of epic verbal sparring between two battle axes were dashed, leaving me feeling as flat as a bottle of Champagne left open for too long. The best line was Martha’s opening salvo when she first sees Violet:

Martha: “Oh dear, I’m afraid the war has made old women of us both.”
Violet: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that – but then, I always keep out of the sun.

I expected more zingers between these two characters, but alas they were few and far between. Martha is a brash American who wears her fortune on her person and looks a bit too newly-minted. She also apes her youngers in dress and fashion, a species whom Violet refuses to acknowledge as her sartorial betters.

Martha lacks proper manners, and here is where the Brit writers got her wrong, for Martha lives in Newport, Rhode Island, one of the snobbiest enclaves for the rich in early 20th century America. As Edith Wharton so brilliantly attested in her novels, there is nothing snobbier than a New York/New England socialite. A nouveau riche American trying to make a dent in that upper strata would have to learn to behave. Martha might be gauche and her money might be fresher than yesterday’s salmon, but she would have known about proper etiquette and manners, make no mistake about that.

My biggest surprise was Shirley’s physical presence. Maggie looms large in every scene, whereas Shirley’s hunched figure seemed diminished in contrast to Maggie’s stiff upper lip and upright posture. Worse, there was no connection between Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Martha (Shirley). The viewer was left to wonder about the back story between mother and daughter. A short but marvelously written scene could have given us insight as to what makes Cora tick, but this never happened. An opportunity lost? You betcha.

Sad violin music for Bates and Anna

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

As a member of Team Bates I’ve had enough! Will someone please break Bates out of prison before I start rooting for Thomas? I’m sick of watching Anna and Bates making moon eyes at each other across a prison table. Anna does show some moxie in that she’s determined to sleuth in order to free her man. And who knew that Bates could be so ruthless with his cell mate? No patsy he! Still … I yearn to see Bates and his Anna in a more uplifting story line and it isn’t happening anytime soon.

The dissolution of the finest villanous couple in PBS history

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

I’m at a loss for words. Who’d have thunk that the writers would mess with Thomas and O’Brien? I never thought of them as separate entities but as ThomasanObrien. They were always plotting in back corridors as we watched in glee. The reason for their estrangement is so piddly it’s barely worth a mention. Thomas is worried about keeping his job at Downton Abbey and O’Brien’s wants to promote her too tall nephew to footman. THAT’s the conflict. It’s llike asking circus lions to perform a kitten’s trick, or akin to morphing The Clash of the Titans into a bitch fight at a “Real Housewives” party.

The truncated wedding of Mary and Matthew

If you blinked at the wrong time you might have thought that you time travelled. One moment Matthew is making goo goo eyes at his bride at the altar and in the next they are dashing around the countryside in an automobile. No I do’s. No kisses. No tossing of rice, and no cavorting under the sheets in wedded bliss. When the wedding scene was cut short, a gasp went around the room (7 of us viewed the first episode together) and then we shouted – “We wuz robbed!” Anna and the viewers do get a glimpse of Mary and Matthew in bed — much much later. All I could think was: “What if Anna had walked into the room while they were doing IT?” To paraphrase Cher Horowitz in Clueless – “Ewwww.”

Lady Edith, shameless hussy

World War One and influenza did more to reduce Europe’s male population than untold centuries of starvation, hunting accidents, duels, or bar brawls ever did. After 1918, there were a gazillion fertile young women for every man. No wonder Lady Edith set her sight, hooks, and clamps upon Sir Anthony Strallan. While considerably older than the nubile Edith, he’s not all that decrepit a specimen of British aristocratic manhood. He still has his teeth and hair, and can offer her a fine house. While one of his hands can no longer do the job for which it was intended, the other can still unhook Lady Edith’s underthings if Sir Anthony so desired. What else would a young lady of breeding age want? With her biological clock ticking and her eggs shriveling by the minute (and with nothing much else to do), Edith hones in on Sir Anthony like a heat seeking missile, which makes Papa Crawley’s innards crawl The viewer is asked to wonder why, since historically young aristocratic British maidens were SACRIFICED on the altar of land and wealth with nary a blink of an eye by their doting papas.

Tom Branson and his Sybil

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Our former chauffeur turned newspaperman wears ill-fitting suits and cannot let go of his political fervor even at the dinner table. The servants sniff and snort within his vicinity, unable to withhold their disdain for a man who married his BETTER. The servants resort to the tools they know best to put him in his place. When serving him at table, the footmen hold platters of food too high or low for comfort, or for too short a time. Others sling sideway looks and lift their noses as if smelling a putrid excrescence. Violet shows much more tolerance towards Branson, for in her book he has become FAMILY.

As for Saint Sybil, she’s turned into the invisible woman. Branson leaves her in danger in Ireland to save his own hide, and when she finally shows up at the Abbey, she’s pregnant, dowdy, and all but mute. What’s happened to our feisty miss? I’m not feeling her this season and apparently she’s not feeling it either..

Violet, the Inviolate

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Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

In this instance the writers have not messed with perfection. Either that or Maggie Smith is able to rise above hasty script writing. She’s given fewer zingers this go-round, but every utterance is platinum in my book. Do not criticize my Maggie or you will be banished from my blog forever.

In Conclusion

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Let’s face it, the first episode is off to a slow start. The writers are juggling too many story lines, but the main problem with season three is the lack of real conflict. Season One featured the sinking of the Titanic, which killed off Downton’s heir, and Season Two played against the backdrop of World War One. The only thing Season Three has going for it thus far is that the earl has lost Cora’s money out of sheer stupidity by investing all of it in one railway, and that Matthew refuses to save the day with Lavinia’s dead daddy’s money because of his tiresome high-mindedness about having let Lavinia down. Mary’s still willing to marry him and not pull a Clytemnestra, which boggles the mind. Meanwhile, as Daddy Crawley is forced to contemplate selling his books and his beloved dog Isis, and firing all the servants in order to make ends meet, his daughter Mary is spending money on her trousseau like no tomorrow.

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

With tepid fare like this, the 120 minutes seemed to drag on. At the end of the first episode, I sang in my best Peggy Lee voice, “Is that all there is?” Well, no. There is more to come and the season does gain momentum. There will be plot twists and turns that will leave viewers stupefied, howling with grief and laughter, or wanting more. Too bad that the first episode barely hinted at the drama to come.

I did a quick survey among friends and colleagues this week and tallied up the scores. Half the people I talked to loved the first episode, the others felt like me. All were let down by Shirley MacLain’s performance, except for one. The best line regarding saving Downton Abbey from bankruptcy came from Market Watch, which asked: “Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you were Earl and Countess of Grantham, what would you do?” One person answered, “I say buy life insurance on Mary and knock her off. Ghastly woman.”

Hah!

Please, in your comments, NO plot spoilers.

The New York Times has an interesting take on the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey

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I’ll admit it: The only thing that Jane Austen and Sherlock have in common, aside from their Britishness, is PBS and the BBC, who co-produce the many excellent film series and costume dramas that Jane Austen fans enjoy. That is my main excuse for reviewing a mystery set in the modern age. After watching Season One of Sherlock,  I eagerly looked forward to Season 2. I was not disappointed with the first episode, A Scandal in Belgravia. A number of viewers in the U.K., however, were outraged.

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, dominatrix

Parents who watched the Belgravia episode with their young children wrote to the BBC complaining about the plot – which revolved around a dominatrix – and the nudity. While no female parts were anatomically shown, a great deal of bare flesh was displayed for about 2-3 minutes. I seriously doubt that young children are able to understand the double entendres spoken by Sherlock and Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), the woman whose craftiness and intelligence equals his. Much like a championship tennis game or chess match, it is great fun to watch these two characters connive, spar, tease and flirt in a game of mental and verbal one upmanship. And so, I surmise, that the irate parents were concerned about nudity, not subtext. Frankly, I’d be more angry about the explicit violence their children are exposed to in film and on television and try to put a halt to that, but what do I know?

Irene talks nonchalantly as the two men try not to react.

The plot in the first Season 2 episode is really is not so much about solving the mystery as about Sherlock finding himself  in thrall of Ms. Adler’s devious mind. A dominatrix who possesses incriminating photos of her sexual involvement with a British royal, she is able to do mental battle with Sherlock and hold her own. Upon first meeting her, Sherlock cannot make a “read” on her, for she reveals no clues about herself. How could she? She’s naked.  And so he finds her irresistibly intriguing.

Sherlock and Dr. Watson in Buckingham Palace. Unwilling to come, he refused to dress, a fact that barely surprised his roommie.

Some critics yawned at the plot, but I think they missed the point. This episode is all about Irene Adler tempting Sherlock out of his celibacy and distracting him with sexual thoughts. The episode was purportedly written to deflect any thoughts about Sherlock and Dr. Watson engaging in a homosexual relationship. I never had such a thought, but apparently many did.

Tit for tat. Cumberbatch gets to do a partial nude scene.

Once again Benedict Cumberbatch has done an outstanding job in portraying a man who, aside from his brilliant mind, is completely off his rocker. To me he is the definitive Sherlock. No other actor, past or present (even Robert Downey Jr) can match him in my eyes. By now, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman), has grown accustomed to his strange roommie, and can anticipate how Sherlock will react at any given moment. The two odd friends have solidified into a smooth-working team.

Sherlock refuses to visit the crime scene, but is willing to study the site via WiFi. In this scene he is lecturing the inspector for suspecting the suspect.

Guest star, Lara Pulver, is one brave actress. Not only did she perform an important scene entirely in the nude, she was convincing as the woman who could outsmart Sherlock. I was highly captivated by their interplay.

Sherlock and Irene Adler discuss the crime in her sitting room. The camera zooms in on the actual scene as the two are solving the mystery. It’s these original touches that make this series so visually exciting.

If , after reading my take on the first episode, you still think the topic of A Scandal in Belgravia is too mature for your children, I suggest that you rent a movie for your offspring, trundle them off to a different room, then sit back and enjoy one of the more weirdly satisfying and witty mystery series on TV.

Sherlock will air tonight and on May 13th and May 20th for 1 1/2 hours at 9 PM EST (or check your local listing.) PBS has also arranged a twitter party during these events. Hash tag #SherlockPBS.

The episodes will stream online at PBSs website one day after the initial air date. Click here. 

Read my reviews of Sherlock Season One here.

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The second episode of Birdsong just aired on PBS Masterpiece Classic. If  you missed the series, you can watch both episodes online at this link through May 29th. I urge you to watch it. This is not a review of the show, simply my reaction to it, as I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot.

Eddie Redmayne and Clemency Poesy as the star crossed lovers

Eddie Redmayne is perfect as Stephen Wraysford. He effectively portrays Stephen as a boyish man when he meets Isabelle (Clemency Poesy), and grows up in front of our eyes as he experiences heartbreak and the horrors of war. The final scene had me reaching for yet another hanky.

Even on the battlefield, Stephen's thoughts are not far from Isabelle

Clemency Poesy is simply splendid in the part of the unhappy wife who turns to Stephen for love and comfort, and so was Joseph Mawle as Jack Firebrace.

Clemency Poesy as Isabelle

I have read a number of accounts of the Somme offensive, all of them horrifying. This film does justice to the young men who lost their lives in what can only be described as a scene from hell. At first I wasn’t sure that I would like the frequent cutting back and forth from the battle scenes to Stephen’s memories of his love affair with Isabelle at Amiens, when the countryside looked beautiful and pristine, but now I think the director and writer made the right choice.

Had we watched the story unfold chronologically, the unrelentingly harsh scenes in the trenches and on the battlefields would have worn me down. Just when the story became too emotionally raw for me to take in, the scene would shift to a softer, more romantic time, when Stephen’s life was starting out and he was filled with hope and ambition. There were perhaps a few missteps when the scene would cut away abruptly, but overall I began to see and look forward to the visual and emotional rhythms that this technique created. Life in the trenches was gray and dull and beige. Life with Isabelle was filled with sunshine, lush interiors, birdsong, and green leafy trees.

Eddie Redmayne portrayed Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. His face, with its unique bone structure, is as sensitive as James Dean’s. Coming off his acting stints in My Week With Marilyn, Pillars of the Earth, and his current role as Marius Pontmercy in Les Miserables, I have no doubt we will see him in many more films in the future.

The relationship between Jack Firebrace (Joseph Mawle) and Stephen Wraysford is as important as Stephen's with Isabelle.

As an aside, I urge those of you who enjoy these great PBS offerings to support your local PBS stations now that their funding has been greatly reduced. I was so sad to hear that the NEA sharply cut its funding for PBS. If you enjoy Masterpiece Classic and Masterpiece Mystery, and all the great arts specials, then we must individually step up to the plate and support PBS. Thank you for reading my rant. (And, no, I was not paid to make it! :))

An emotional scene after the Battle of the Somme was when the names of the men of one unit who had gone into battle were called. Only one replied.

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Tonight PBS Masterpiece Classic presents the last installment of its homage to Charles Dickens in honor of his 200th year anniversary. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a 120 minute special about an opium-addled choirmaster, John Jasper, who believes his nephew, Edwin, stands between him and the woman he fancies, 17-year-old Rosa Bud.

Mathew Rhys as John Jasper, Tamzin Merchant as Rosa Bud, and Freddie Fox as Edwin Drood

Gwyneth Hughes wrote the ending to this adaptation. Charles Dickens died half way through writing the novel, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the question of his disappearance hanging in the air. This Dickens tales is one of the few that I don’t like, no matter how hard I try, for I simply could not care for the characters or relate to John Jasper in any way. Of course, my opinion of the book colors my lukewarm reaction to the film.

Tamzin as Georgiana

Jane Austen film fans will recognize Tamzin Merchant as young Georgiana Darcy in Pride and Prejudice 2005. In a curious coincidence, Freddie Fox (Edwin) is the real life younger brother of Amelia Fox, who played Georgiana in Pride and Prejudice 1995.

Sacha Shawan plays Neville Landless

Your thoughts?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain. Check your local listings to be sure. Watch the special online starting April 16th.

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Young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) visits Satis House (Holdenby House's courtyard transformed digitally by Triad Digital).

One of the most polarizing aspects of Great Expectations 2011 is Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham. Many people loved it; as many hated it.

At 43 years of age, some critics regard the actress as being too young for the part. Yet Martita Hunt played Miss Havisham in David Lean’s classic when she was 47, only fours years older than Gillian. Helena Bonham Carter is set to play Miss Havisham in a new theatrical film version coming out later this year. She will soon be 44 years old.

Others find Gillian Anderson’s take on Miss Havisham to be all wrong. I agree with the critic who wrote that regardless of how one feels about the actress as Miss Havisham, she dominates her scenes as the jilted bride. Paired with the CG changes made to Holdenby House to transform it into Satis House, the viewer is treated to one of the creepier interpretations of Miss Havisham in her rotting manse.

Stone angel in courtyard strangled by vines.

The film sets up Pip’s first meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella by transforming the courtyard into a dark, vine-strangled environment. This alone should tell Pip that all is not right with his new patron.

Transformed courtyard.

Miss Havisham glides down the stairs like a ghostly apparition.

In this adaptation, Pip’s first glimpse of Miss Havisham is of her gliding down the stairs in a candle-lit, dark oak stairwell. A break in the curtain backlights her figure and features. Not a word is said. In the novel, Pip has heard that Miss Havisham is an immensely rich and grim lady who led a life of seclusion.

The stairs are covered with dust and candles are fully ablaze despite the day light.

Miss Havisham as an eerie apparition is enhanced in this scene in which her white figure is indistinct and as fuzzy as the dust on the stairs.

When she discovered that her bridegroom-to-be had absconded with her money and her heart, Miss Havisham was at her dressing table putting on her bridal clothes. She had put on one shoe, her other foot was stockinged. Gillian Anderson is seen walking barefoot, a change in Dickens’ story that I found perplexing. In fact, many of the changes in both plot, scenes, and costumes seemed odd.

Surely the dress would have been yellower and more ragged and tattered after having been worn for so long?

While I enjoyed Gillian Anderson’s reworking of Miss Havisham into a neurotic recluse with a tendency towards self-mutilation, I wondered at the decision to make her appear like a mini-me version of Bette Davis’s Baby Jane. Her wedding gown, I suppose, was meant to look like a Regency version of a bridal dress, but to my way of thinking it resembled a nightie. Her curls, which were not supposed to have been touched in years, hung tight around her face. By the time Pip met her, her white hair would have looked like a rat’s nest.  The delicate fabric of her gown remained remarkably intact – it should have been frayed, especially at the edges and where she sat. She was not wearing a veil, which should have been attached askew on her head. And her train would  have been tattered and filthy, and had an ombre look about it, going from black at the floor to dark gray, to lighter grey until it met the yellowing white color of the gown higher up.

One way to assess if the changes were beneficial is to turn to Dickens’ own words:

In Dickens' great tale, Pip met Miss Havisham as she sat near her dressing table.

However the only thing to be done being to knock at the door. I knocked and was told from within to enter. I entered therefore and found myself in a pretty large room well lighted with wax candle.s No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it. It was a dressing room as I supposed from the furniture though much of it was of forms and uses then quite unknown to me. But prominent in it was a draped table with a gilded looking glass, and that I made out at first sight to be a fine lady’s dressing table.”

In this film, Miss Havisham walks Pip through a room filled with dusty glass dome-covered scientific specimens that her dead brother had collected from exotic places, much as a docent would accompany a visitor through a musty science museum.

Dead specimens under dusty glass.

Pip’s actual first impression of Miss Havisham after walking through a dark house was much more powerful and immediate:

In an armchair with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand sat the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.”

Once beautiful butterflies pinned into a frozen position, a rather obvious visual simile.

Dickens gave the costume and set designers a plethora of descriptions to work with:

She was dressed in rich materials, satins and lace and silks, all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair; and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck, and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses less splendid than the dress she wore, and half packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on, the other was on the table near her hand; her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief; and gloves and some flowers and a prayer book all confusedly heaped about the looking glass.”

Gillian Anderson's lips are as parched as dry paper, but the curls are too neat for someone who has not tended to her hair in decades.

I have no quarrel with Gillian Anderson’s age. The book is written through Pip’s eyes, and a young boy would have found anyone in their 40’s to be ancient. Gillian did an excellent job of resembling someone who had not seen sunlight in decades, and whose physical condition was deteriorating as a result of physical and emotional neglect. Her curls make her look much too young and are incongruent. Why would she take care to wear such beautiful curls when she has neglected everything else about her appearance?

Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham in the yet to be released Great Expectations

If viewers were turned off by Gillian’s creepy Miss Havisham, with her high-pitched little girl voice and nervous bird-like mannerisms, then the above photo indicates that Helena Bonham Carter’s take on the spinster is set to go over the top as well. Let’s go back to Dickens’ description of Pip’s first meeting with his new patron to see if these interpretations fit in with his vision of the jilted bride:

It was not in the first minute that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first minute than might be supposed. But I saw that every thing within my view, which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and, like the flowers, and had no brightness left, but the brightness of her sunken eyes.  I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. “

Miss Havisham was a skeletal, withered shadow of a woman who shone as dimly as a pale moon hidden behind clouds. Gillian’s Miss Havisham shines just a little too brightly.

Pip approaches Estella for the first time.

It was when I stood before her avoiding her eyes that I took note of the surrounding objects in detail, and saw that her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine.”

For some strange reason, the clocks in the film had stopped at 11:00. It’s these minor inattentions to detail that grate.

Izzy Meikle-Small plays the haughty young Estella.

“Look at me”, said Miss Havisham. “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born.”

These words would have been much more powerful in the introductory scene than Gillian’s museum tour guide of her rooms.

David Lean's Great Expectations featured a rather mature Jean Simmons. Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Tony Wager as Pip.

David Lean’s set was dark, as described by Dickens. Too much sunlight was allowed inside the house Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham inhabited. This served to make Satis House look much dirtier but less creepy.

I find it remarkable that many critics found this adaptation visually too gloomy. I think there is too much light. Dickens described the curtains as emitting no light whatsoever.

I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it once, while now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of every thing, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

So she sat corpse like as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress looking like earthy paper, as if they would crumble under a touch. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen, but I have often thought since that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust”

The above description tells us why it would have been more important for the set designer to have kept Miss Havisham in total darkness. While some of the effects of the light on the dust and dirt was striking, the only evidence of “earthy paper” was on Gillian Anderson’s parched lips.


This set of the decaying bridal banquet is gorgeous. The house itself is allowed to rot (and Pip begins to notice the water damage and crumbling walls as he matures), much as Miss Havisham is allowing herself to rot inside and out. There were moments when the production shone. The film’s colors follow the current trend for digital color correction to create atmosphere. Whether you like it or not, I’m afraid the trend is here to stay.

The wedding cake looked skeletal and creepy, as if bugs were ready to crawl out of it. Still, would so much of the food and flowers have remained recognizable?

Miss Havisham's self-mutilation is evident early on in the film.

The self-mutilation, in this instance, Miss Havisham is constantly scratching her hand, was an interesting touch that added another layer to her manic obsessions. At times she seemed completely insane and incapable of self-possession. In this adaptation, Gillian portrays Miss Havisham as a weak victim who somehow finds the strength of will to plot her revenge on all male-kind.

The letter of betrayal from Compeyson, the fiance who jilted Miss Havisham.

The incongruity of a perfect white veil over the decaying flowers and (finally) the tattered sleeves struck me as being wrong in Gillian’s final scenes. While I loved the cinematography of the exterior sets, these visual mistakes detracted from my enjoyment of the story. One other thought: while I enjoyed watching the young Pip and Estella, I was bothered by their older counterparts. It was very hard for me to swallow that Pip was more beautiful than the girl he loved.

Vanessa Kirby as Estella and Douglas Booth as Pip

Your thoughts?

You can watch Great Expectations online through May 8th on PBSs website.

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From the moment the new adaptation of Great Expectations opened, viewers knew that this was not going to be their grand daddy’s sentimental interpretation of Charles Dickens’ classic. I struggled with how to review this PBS special, which aired last night, and realized that I could only do it through visuals. In the first 15 minutes, with very little dialogue, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister captures the essence of Pip’s bleak life and visually sets up the rest of the plot. (Problems with the coloration of the screen captures must be blamed on my poor photo editing skills, not the cinematographer’s!) If you missed the first episode, you can watch it online until May 1.

Like some preternatural creature, Magwitch rises from the marsh waters. One of the ships in the background is the prison ship from which he escaped.

It is said that Ray Winstone has always wanted to play Magwitch

These scenes were shot in Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex, known for its wildlife. The fog adds to the sense of isolation.

Sketch of the church on the marsh. David Roger, production designer. Image @PBS Masterpiece Great Expectations. How much of these scenes were due to CG design?

Our first view of Pip (Oscar Kennedy) is at his parent's graveside. The smaller stones represent his dead siblings. "There were five of us," he told Miss Havisham sadly. So far, other than the booming of the ship's cannon, not a word has been said.

Pip should have been mortally scared of Magwitch and never come near him again. There is nothing pretty about their first encounter.

Pip's run to the Forge, where he lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, shows how isolated this section of the country is - flat, with few landmarks on the horizon. It would be nearly impossible for Magwitch to find a hiding place.

Orlick (Jack Roth)is Joe Gargery's assistant and no friend of Pip's. In this scene he almost looked like a zombie appearing through the mists. His encounter with the boy as he runs home to find a file for Magwitch is filled with hate and jealousy on Orlick's side, and dread on Pip's. It sets a malevolent tone to an already edgy opening.

The Forge is little more than a hovel.

This scene is quiet and pivotal. For many precious moments, Magwitch does not speak or move when he understands what Pip is offering him. Knowing how harsh Pip's life is, I too was moved by the boy's generosity.

The marsh lands through Florian Hoffmeister's lens are harsh and unforgiving. Magwitch can only cling under the platforms in the muck, but he will have no place to go when the tide rises.

This fight in the muck was elemental. I flinched as I watched this. At this point we are only 10 or 12 minutes into the film and I could not pull my eyes away.

Magwitch is caught, covered with mud and blood, yet still defiant. It is obvious that he has the grit, determination, and ingenuity to escape again.

In all these early scenes, only Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley) shows Pip genuine love, concern, and kindness. His steady support of Pip provides the only real stability in the young boy's life.

The travelers journey through what seems to be a flat, bleak land. As observers of wildlife know, marshes teem with life, offering food for scores of creatures, both transient and permanent.

The two travelers are mere specks in this vast landscape. It would seem to be a perfect dystopian setting for The Hunger Games.

My next visual review will take us into Miss Havisham’s house. Great Expectations, 2011 was directed by Brian Kirk and adapted for the screen by writer Sarah Phelps. The cinematographer was Florian Hoffmeister and the production designer was David Roger. I commend them all for setting the stage so well for Pip’s story. Young Oscar Kennedy plays a compelling young Pip who stirred my heart strings.

Read the fabulous interview with production designer David Roger at this link.

The following links describe the Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex.

Google map of Tollesbury marshes

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We’re well into Season 2 of Downton Abbey and some obvious patterns in coupling are beginning to emerge in this historical or historic melodrama. Let’s examine how some of our favorite characters are getting on, shall we? (Caution: there will be spoilers for those who have not kept up with the series. Some might also be offended by the language in parts.)

Bates and Anna: The Daisy Saw Chain of Desire

Yes, we will, no we won’t Yes we will, no we can’t. Yes we hope, darn she’s back!

It’s hard to remain on Team Bates when all this couple is allowed to do is react to circumstances beyond their control. We want to root for them, don’t we? The lovely maid Anna and stoic Bates have won our hearts from the start. After becoming sweethearts against his will (for he is married, after all, a minor matter), they give each other romantic looks and sighs, and confess their modest dream of starting their own inn and family.

Bates and Anna. Image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Then a nasty surprise in the shape of the very inconvenient Mrs. Bates arrives to dampen their plans (but not their ardor).

The wickedly delicious Vera Bates lights up the small screen with her foul plans to destroy the couple and the Grantham family because of her intense hatred for her husband. Bates turns into such a milquetoast when she spouts her venom that you just want to kick his butt to force him into action and whack her one. Alas, he remains a milquetoast.

It is up to Sir Richard to use his nouveau riche power and slap the woman down. Vera more than meets her match in Sir Richard, and frankly, these two spark more fire in their short scenes together than Anna and Mr. Bates ever could.

Poor Bored Lord Grantham

Being the head of a landed estate and master of a multitude of subordinates just isn’t enough to keep him busy, thus poor Lord Grantham is shown reading the newspaper in half his scenes in Series 2. His disappointment at not being given an active commission and sent to the front, where he would stand a 50-50 chance of being killed or maimed, sends him sulking to his small corner of the library.

To make matters worse, now that Cora has won her war of wills over Isobel, she has more important matters on her mind than to keep his lordship entertained. The soldiers must be taken care of: Lists made, sheets folded, accommodations planned, meals ordered, and the day in general organized.

Poor pitiful Lord Grantham is starting to feel neglected and lonely. Rather than working with his steward to reorganize his farms to grow vegetables for the army, and mobilizing his workers to do all they can for the cause, the earl behaves like a spoiled two-year old and attends to matters that are best left to others – namely that of hiring a comely war widow as the new maid. To be fair, Carson consulted him first, but shouldn’t this be Mrs. Hughes’ decision, plain and simple?

The Mary-Matthew-Lavinia Triangle

First Mary didn’t want Matthew. Then she wanted him. Then she changed her mind. Then she changed her mind again, which is when he left her, suspecting that she only wanted him for his eventual title not his humble self. Their parting in Season One gave satisfaction to noone but Mary’s sister Edith.

So Mary had to search in other quarters to snag herself a man. He’s not as pretty or accommodating as Matthew, but boy-oh-boy does her new rough-around-the-edges, no-nonsense and ruthless tycoon promise an exciting romp in bed. In the high stakes game that is the marriage mart, love played absolutely no role in Mary’s decision to bind herself to Sir Richard.

Woebetide Mary.

After rejecting his one true love, Matthew hied away from Downton Abbey, only to return two years later with a fiancee named Lavinia. His choice for a wife is as exciting as a crumpled piece of paper. On their first meeting, Mary sidles up to Lavinia with a polite but fixed stare and welcomes her to the Abbey. Lavinia, in awe of her surroundings and the fact that she will one day rule as supreme mistress of the premises, fails to notice the electric looks of longing and passion that pass between Matthew and Mary.

Masochistic Mary, who’s stiff upper lip is firmly planted in front of her clenched teeth, actually tries to be supportive of Lavinia while pretending to be a mere friend to Matthew.

C’mon, Mary! Fess up! One word from Matthew and you’ll drop Sir Richard like a hot potato and jump into Matthew’s sack. Mary experiences a hiccup in that desire when she discovers that Matthew’s unfortunate paralysis has resulted in his inability to perform those rites of passage that turn a blushing young bride into a woman of the world. But then she consoles herself with the thought that, thanks to Pamuk’s manly charms, she has already crossed that heavenly threshold.

Upon seeing Matthew lying prostrate in bed and learning that his prostate is of no use whatsoever, Miss Swire, who still hasn’t figured out that bees come from bees and birds from birds, cries her virginal heart out. She senses that whatever Matthew is trying to tell her must not bode well for their marital relations (whatever that means!).

As for Matthew’s steadfast love for Lavinia: I scoff. I laugh. I guffaw. Honestly, if both women competed in The Dating Game, Lavinia wouldn’t even come in third.

Upstairs Downstairs Love

First he drove her, now he wants to ride her. Branson’s a brash young Irishman who knows his worth. It’s a new age, and social unrest and the war have turned the world topsy turvy. It’s not unusual for a healthy young servant buck to turn his lascivious eyes on the master’s nubile daughter, but to act on his emotions and dare to declare his love? Now that’s awfully balsy of him…n’est pas?

Branson’s object of desire, Lady Sybil, is no namby pamby miss. She was all for the suffragette movement before the war, and actively supported Gwen’s right to improve her life with a typewriter. Sybil’s become a VAD, or volunteer nurse, and washed men’s bloody stumps and tended to their most intimate ablutions. She’s even seen their parts! (Our lovely Sybil has come of age in more ways than one.)

Still, her attraction to Branson, and his to her, is a social taboo that defies the world order as Lord Grantham and his mama know it. Will they find out? Will our hapless couple overcome all obstacles on their path to true love? Or will they part in sweet sorrow? Stay tuned as their world churns.

Lady Edith and Uh, Uh, Uhm ….

Lady Edith on her fine piece of equipment. Image courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Poor Lady Edith. As if it weren’t bad enough to be caught in the middle of two dynamic and beautiful sisters, she was born with neither personality nor looks. It was Sybil who advised Edith to find her special talents. Well, we know all about one of them – to make Mary’s life hell. But then the war interrupted her favorite sport of baiting her sister. What to do? Drive a tractor, of course, and make sport with the farmer’s wife’s husband after digging deep furrows in his fertile ground. A discreet romp on top of the hay (with all their clothes on) and a joining of moist lips was all it took for the farmer’s wife to aim her proverbial pitchfork at Edith and order her off her man and the land she was plowing.

Poor Edith. Now what? She starts wandering around the house like her papa, with wide vacant eyes, making me wonder if Season 2 is turning into Downton Abbey and Zombies. Then, all of a sudden, Edith discovers the joy of letter writing and transcribing the thoughts of injured soldiers. She plumps up their pillows, fetches their newspapers and books, and takes lessons from the family dog to learn how to become a loyal and useful shadow.

Edith’s good deeds garner her accolades and she blushes from the unexpected glory. Can Edith be saved? Will she turn into an interesting character? So far she’s fooling everyone except Lady Mary, who turning bug-eyed keeping her eyes on both Matthew and her back-stabbing sister.

Yo Mama Wuz Right and U Wuz Wronged

We kind of liked Ethel from the moment we met her, didn’t we? Cheeky and uppity, a bit selfish, too assured, and totally clueless. She’s going to move up in the world and nothing, not even a maid’s position, is going to stop her. When O’Brien plays her tricks on Ethel we laugh,while feeling sorry for her. It’s our first glimpse of the young maid’s vulnerability. She’s all bravado and not too smart.

Caught by Mrs. Hughes in bed with an opportunistic snake, Ethel is cast out of Downton’s downstairs with nothing but the clothes on her back and a growing surprise in her belly. Alas and alack, Ethel’s story arc reflects events that actually happened in the past.

While the Lothario walks away with impunity, the seduced young woman must pay a steep price and become a social pariah.

This Marriage Makes Kim Kardashian’s Seem Eternal

William loves Daisy. Mrs. Patmore loves William like a son. Daisy adores Thomas, but he’s, like, TOTALLY unavailable.

Good old Mrs. Patmore, feeling sad about her nephew’s death, pushes an unwilling Daisy into William’s arm. “C’mon, luv”, she urges the young scullery maid, “It can’t hurt being nice to him – the poor sod is going off to war! What harm can it do?” So a reluctant Daisy goes along with the well-meaning cook and hands William her photo, which is akin to Britspeak for “engaged to be married.” Armed with her image, William knows that he can face a fearless death, which he does, for he returns from Amiens with shattered lungs and takes to his death bed.

Daisy is cattle prodded by the well-meaning staff to marry poor William, who is stoic with the thought that although he is unable to deflower her in his pathetic condition, he can keep her in flour (and butter and tea) for the rest of her life by bestowing her with his name and pension.

The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham, and Everyone Else

Whenever Violet encounters anyone, the two immediately become a couple, with Violet gaining the upper hand within a milli-second. Take Violet’s scene with the reluctant minister, for example. With a firm grip on her walking stick, a cemented half smile, and an implacable attitude, she twists his aging co hones by sheer force of her will until he succumbs and marries poor Daisy and the near-dead William, whose face has turned blue. Had Violet been born in another time and social strata, she would have become a dominatrix par excellence!

One other couple must be mentioned: Thomas and O’Brien. As thick as thieves, these two villains cannot get enough of each other and their machinations. Of all the couplings in Downton Abbey, surely this one is meant to last.

And now we can all settle in for the next installment of Season 2 and the goings on at the Abbey. From what I understand, Season 3 is guaranteed. Which coupling shall last? Which shall be fruitful and multiply? And which shall wither on the vine and remain barren? Stay tuned.

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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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Dear Readers, this article, written by Tony Grant, continues on his blog, London Calling. Tony recalls events that actually happened to his great grant uncle, William McGinn.

Arras British Cemetery

Graves at the Arras British cemetery. There are about three thousand graves here.

Tony Grant touches his great uncle's name

It took Marilyn, Alice, Emily, Abigail and myself well over an hour to find Williams name on the Lutyens monument. There are 35,000 names of the missing carved on this monument.Here I am reaching up to touch his name.

Lutyens monument

The entrance to Lutyens monument to the British dead who were killed in the fields around Arras.
A map, showing Aveluy Woods , south of Arras where my great uncle William McGinn was killed.

Aveluy Wood

This picture of soldiers working on the road that passed through Aveluy Woods was taken about a month before my uncle was killed.
A map showing the German advance during the last great Battle of the Somme. The last great battle of this terrible war on the Western Front.
My greatuncle William McGinn, taken in France.

Wimbledon camp where William trained

The military camp on Wimbledon Common where many rifle regiments trained before going to France. My uncles regiment, The Civil Service Rifles trained here.

William McGinn disembarked in Rouen, 1918

The last postcard my great uncle wrote from France. This is the port of Rouen a great embarkation point for Brtiish troops on their way to the Western Front.

This is what he wrote to my great Grandmother.
All the families of soldiers who died on the Western Front received a message from the King.

William McGinn at nineteen

William McGinn, before embarking for France. He was 19 years old. He survived in France for three weeks.

WORLD WAR I, AN OVERVIEW OF THE POLITICAL, THE HOME FRONT AND THE MILITARY.

World War I is coming to our screens through the medium of Downton Abbey. The series has reached the Summer of 1914, a time of shifting tectonic plates in the power of nations and Empires, very much like the time we live in now, brought on by the great financial crisis we are all living through. This present series is a reminder to us all.

My own family have been very much part of the terrible traumas of the past two world wars. Close members of my family have died in action in both wars. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, my maternal great grandmother and grandfather, Susie and William McGinn moved from County Limerick, in the South of Ireland, to Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England. The move was to enable my great grandfather to get work in the shipyard, Swan Hunters, on the Tyne. They lived in a three story house,a pigeon loft installed in the roof, at 12 Airey Terrace Walker, close to the River Tyne and Swan Hunter’s yard.

Their son, also called William, was a very bright lad and passed his civil service exams to get him a prized job with the civil service. At the age of 18 he returned to Ireland to work in the post office in Dublin as a clerk. It was the moment the IRA was preparing for the Easter Uprising against British rule in Ireland. Although my great uncle was a true Irishman, born in Ireland, but because he had emigrated to England and his parents were living in England, he and his family were regarded as traitors and he was threatened with the message, “Your next McGinn,” meaning the IRA would kill him. He wrote home and my Great-grandmother sent him the money to return to Newcastle.

To read the rest of the story, click on this link to London Calling.

Gentle Readers, please note that I make no money from my blog. The advertisement you see has been generated by WordPress, not by me.

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Lady Almina

Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle during the turn of the century and through World War 1, had many qualities in common with the fictional Cora, Countes of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Upon Lady Almina’s marriage, her fortune staved off financial ruin for the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and helped to renovate the mansion.

Like Lady Cora, she allowed her house to be turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers, running it at her own expense.

WW1 soldier recuperating at Highclere Castle

On her orders, each wounded officer had the luxury of his own room, with down pillows and linen sheets. She  made beds and dressed wounds” (The Daily Mail).

Lady Almina put together a skilled orthopedic operation at Highclere Castle and she had very good nursing skills, so good that she was often sent some of the hardest cases.

Soldiers were nursed back to health on fresh linen sheets, propped up on fat down pillows so they could gaze out over a beautiful country park. Silver service dinners were followed by a game of cards in the library while sipping a glass of beer, naturally from the house’s very own brewery. A butler was even on hand to pour the convalescents a nip of whisky before dinner. – The Real Downton Abbey: How Highclere Castle Became a World War 1 Hospital (includes a video).

Playing games at Highclere Castle and enjoying home brewed beer

In this matter, Almina showed one of her kinder sides, for she was reportedly a terrible mother and lived largely a selfish and extravagant life until her fortune ran out. The war touched all lives and all class stratas, and not a family was left standing at its end that did not experience a loss:

“All their young men are gone,” lamented the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens of the sons of  Mells Manor, one super-romantic house in Somerset. That was in 1919 when he went to help choose the site of the village war memorial – a figure of St George on a column. The pain of the Horner family at the loss of their son Edward, the last of the male line, can be seen from his monument in the church: a moving statue of the young cavalry officer by Munnings. – The Telegraph, What Next For Downton Abbey?

For several centuries during wars and conflict, great country houses had been conscripted for medical services. One of the earliest country houses to be used as a hospital was Greenwich Palace, which was converted to a navel hospital in 1694.

During World War One:

A genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI. – Houses as Hospital: the country house in medical service

The numbers of wounded soldiers who were returned from the battlefields of northern France and Belgium were unprecedented. It was enormously difficulty to remove wounded men from battlefields riddled with shell pocks and guarded by staggered rows of  barbed wire barriers that were miles long. Scores of soldiers who could have survived under immediate medical attention were left to die unattended.  Medics practiced triage, making instant decisions and leaving behind those who stood little chance of surviving or who could not withstand the rigors of being carried to safety. Even when soldiers were successfully brought back to camp, many had to suffer a long wait, for doctors and nurses were overwhelmed, supplies were short, and field hospital conditions were ghastly. A large number died behind the front waiting to be transported.

The soldiers who were brought back to England overwhelmed the hospitals and medical staff that were available. Auxiliary hospitals exploded around England,  many of them the country homes of aristocrats. These houses were not ideally suited for their new positions. During the late 19th century, Florence Nightingale influenced the design of hospitals, noting the importance of separating unsanitary scullery sinks from patient beds, for example, and improving cleanliness and introducing hygiene. While country houses did not provide antiseptic conditions, they became ideal havens for convalescents and for those who suffered from tuberculosis, for these patients required clean country air.

In the second episode of Series 2, the less seriously wounded soldiers or those whose injuries were healing and who needed convalescence were sent to Downton Abbey.  In real life, hospitals and convalescent houses were staffed by a commandant in charge, a quartermaster in charge of provisions, a matron in charge of the nursing staff, and the local voluntary aids, who were trained in first aid and home nursing.

To accommodate the soldiers, family members were confined and restricted to certain rooms in their own home. One would assume this would not be a hardship, since the houses were so large, but the labor shortage and the need for injured soldiers to be housed in large rooms without going up the stairs would most likely necessitate some appropriation of a family’s favorite rooms.  Lord Grantham’s library was divided, so that most of the room became a recreational space and a small section was left to him. Downton Abbey’s central hall became a dining area. Such changes must have grated on the privileged class, who, while wanting to perform their patriotic duty, could not escape encountering the hoi polloi in their daily routine.

With so many men serving as soldiers, servants were stretched thin and forced to perform duties that normally were outside of their scope and that stepped over the boundaries of etiquette. Anna helped to serve at dinner, which would have been totally unacceptable during peace time. Carson, in an effort to maintain the status quo, ruins his health and thus worsens the situation when he is laid low in bed.

Due to the war and its many effects, society was in turmoil. Social change happened on many fronts and class barriers began to blur. As men fought and died in France, women, including those who formerly worked as servants, filled their positions in factories, corporations, and farms. Great houses began to feel the pinch of being short staffed, and genteel ladies who were accustomed to being served had to cook and sew for themselves.

To feed the army, country estates converted their flower gardens to grow fruits and vegetables. At Hatfield House, the Cecil family’s “fields and private golf course were filled with trenches and a man-made swamp to create a maneuvering ground for an experimental weapon under development, the tank.”*

Isobel Crawley, once a working middle class wife – until her son, Matthew, was suddenly propelled into the position of heir to the Earl of Grantham –  finds her true calling in ministering to injured soldiers. She was trained as a nurse and had performed charity work in caring for the sick. The need for her professional services made her feel like a valued woman again. Isobel’s zealousness in converting Downton Abbey into a convalescent home placed her in direct conflict with Cora, Lady Grantham, and continued her battle of wills with Violet, the dowager Countess. Isobel’s situation was not unusual, for during this war many people of the working classes who were professionally trained found themselves in positions of superiority over gently bred women who volunteered as nurses aids.  One Indian soldier remarked with some awe that a noble British lady had ministered to his wounds and treated him as an equal.*

It was only because of the war that a former footman like Thomas would dare enter through the front door or that a doctor could serve as head of the hospital and make decisions that overrode those of the owners of the house. Lady Sybil, whose support of the suffragettes was revealed in the first series, became a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse), for there simply weren’t enough professional nurses to go around.

VAD Poster

In many cases, women in the neighbourhood volunteered on a part-time basis, although they often needed to supplement voluntary work with paid labour, such as in the case of cooks. Medical attendance was provided locally and voluntarily, despite the extra strain that the medical profession was already under at that time. – History of British Red Cross

VADs were trained for only a few weeks before working under professional nurses.

Only the middle and upper classes could afford to work for free, and to pay for the courses and exams that were required to become a VAD. Growing up with servants, many of these young women had never had to wash a plate or boil an egg. One girl related how amusing it was to serve tea at the hospital and then return home to have her own tea served by the parlour maid. – The Great War As You May Not Know It

VADs changed linens, sterilized equipment, and served meals, but many were also exposed to the rawer side of war and at times, when the influx of casualties overwhelmed the staff, VADs were expected to perform the duties of a professional nurse.

Red Cross VADs

VADs were generally from genteel, sheltered, and chaperoned backgrounds. Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners – the “Princess Di” of her day – reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was very much against Diana becoming a VAD, as Diana states in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. “She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them,” The Duchess gave in, but “… knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand,” Diana says, and goes on to admit, “I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years.” Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure. – The Great War As You May Not Know It

Serving as a VAD changes Lady Sybil, giving her a direction and purpose. Lady Edith, too, finds new meaning in an otherwise predictable life consisting of dinners, parties, and long stretches of boredom. Lady Sybil advised her sister to find her talent and pursue it, which Edith did. One wonders if Lady Mary will  find a similar passion before she throws her life away and marries a man she does not love or (we suspect) respects.

The strength of Downton Abbey’s plot threads this year is how they incorporate the roiling changes in class structure during a complex political time in which the necessities of war, the dissatisfaction of the working classes, and the continued growth of the women’s movement influenced the lives of the series’ characters. More on this topic later.

If you missed Episodes 1 & 2, they can be viewed on PBS’s site through March, 2012 at this link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/watch/index.html

Please note: You can watch Downton Abbey Season 1 on Netflix as a DVD or streaming.

Other links and references:

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From Prada to Nada made $3.3 million at the box office, both foreign and domestic. I’m surprised to read that it was that much. I happened to watch the film on Netflix this past weekend when I had nothing better to do than wash clothes.

The notion of a remake of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and plucking Marianne and Elinor Dashwood from Barton Cottage and landing them in 21st Century L.A. intrigued me, for Emma Woodhouse’s move from tranquil Highbury to a Beverly Hills high school in Clueless was a resounding success with both critics and viewers. I also liked the idea of switching up cultures, for hadn’t Ang Lee’s hit, Eat Drink Man Woman, been successfully transformed into the delightful Tortilla Soup with its Mexican-American family substituting for the Japanese chef and his daughters? But I quickly came to the conclusion that  From Prada to Nada is to Jane Austen what a black velvet painting is to the Mona Lisa.

Here then is the story:

Mary, Papa, and Nora before his fatal heart attack

Once upon a time in Beverley Hills there lived two very pretty girls in a house called Bonita Casita. They had a Papa but no Mama.

Mary (Alexa Vega) on Rodeo Drive.

One was short and ditzy, liked to shop, and wore party dresses morning, noon, and night. Her name was Mary Dominguez (MD = Marianne Dashwood).

Nora turned norange at Papa's funeral.

The other was a tall, practical, intellectual, wannabee lawyer named Nora (Elinor Dashwood).  While exotically beautiful, she suffered from a fatal Hollywood condition called orange skin. This viewer suspects it was to make her look more cliched Mexican, but should I really be so cynical? Mary had this condition to a lesser extent, and both girls swung from looking tanned to grossly ill, depending on lighting conditions.

I am happy to report that Nora (Camilla Belle) fully recovered from her skin malady shortly after filming.

Neither girl spoke Spanish, a fact that was mentioned often until it was pounded into the viewers’ brains.

While celebrating his birthday with his daughters, Papa falls flat on his face and dies, leaving the two bewildered girls penniless, for everything he seemingly owned belonged to the banks. The girls must move from their cozy environment in 90210 to a tacky neighborhood in East L.A., which is like asking a Swiss palace guard to work in a Columbian prison on short notice.

Casa Bonita in Beverly Hills

Before that indignity, they meet their half-brother, Gabriel, a  surprise from their papa’s past, who arrives for the funeral with his cheesy avaricious girlfriend, Olivia. It seems that bro and his tootsie want to renovate Papa’s mansion and sell it for a profit. In other words, bro flips houses for a living. Real class.

Q'eulle surprise! Half-brother Gabriel (Pablo Cruz) arrives at the funeral with his Tootsie, Olivia (April Bolwby), and she's mean, while he's a wuss

Without a living breathing mother to guide them, as Jane Austen had intended, Maria and Nora have nowhere to go but to their good-hearted aunt’s house all the way over to a neighborhood filled with barrios, gangstahs, and, worse, taco joints. There the girls encounter Bruno (Colonel Brandon) a handsome darkly Latino who obviously did not attend Beverly Hills High.

Bruno (Wilmer Valerrama) and Mary.

He’s friendly, but Mary snubs him, for she begins to suspect that he works for a living and that she  must share a bedroom with her sister. (Not that the two facts have anything to do with each other, but my sentence is no crazier than the plot of the film.)

New house, new neighborhood

In rapid succession From Prada to Nada  throws at least one cliche per minute at the viewer, including a small sweat shop in Auntie’s living room, bad girls in the neighborhood, and clothes and interiors that could have been created by Agador (Armand and Albert’s gay Cuban houseboy in The Birdcage). How could this movie stand a chance with intelligent viewers when charactes are named Bad Guy #s 1-3, Comrade, Fiesta guest, and Chola (urban dictionary definition: the girl my brother gets pregnant)?

I imagine that people living in East L.A. were horrified to see Jane Austen’s fine tale mangled and twisted beyond recognition.

Sewing in Auntie's living room and prepared to hide the evidence at a moment's notice in case of an immigration raid.

The movie stumbles towards its inevitable cliched ending. Edward Ferris falls instantly for Nora and gives her a splendid job in his law firm. They part and then they come together for no reason that I can fathom, except that he is always coming around the house with a truck filled with big items.

Rodrigo (Kuno Becker) meets the aunties

Mary falls head over heels (instead of twisting her heel in the English countryside) for a tutor named Rodgrigo Fuentes, Willoughby’s stand in. He eventually visits Mexico then dumps her and purchases Papa’s hideously renovated mansion from her flipper bro.

Bruno's amazing studio in his tiny house

Flipper bro turns out to be a nice guy, as does Bruno, who happens to be an immensely talented artist living in the body of a mechanic. For some reason, after her car accident Mary totally flips for the ever patient, long-suffering Bruno, who was able to see past her materialistic ways the moment he met her.

Bruno in his barrio uniform.

After I finished watching this movie, I realized I should have stayed in the basement with my laundry and read a good book as I waited for my washer and dryer to finish spinning. The producers of this clunker forgot one extremely important asset that no self respecting movie can do without: a well-written, intelligent script.

Not all the good intentions in the world of Latinizing Jane Austen, and thus making her more available to those who might otherwise be turned off by her English characters, can save a film so completely devoid of entertainment, originality and wit.

No Tex-Mex film is complete without a fiesta.

I imagine that Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have said of this film: “I take no leave of it. I send it no compliments. It deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.” Amen to that.

Edward Ferris (Nicolas d'Agosto), the prince charming, comes bearing gifts, sweeping Nora off her feet.

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