Reviewer: Carissa Horton
In every well-to-do British household during the early
1900s there were strict rules. The master, mistress,
and their family resided upstairs, and the servants
worked downstairs and never the twain shall meet.
Well, in the household of the Bellamy's, things are
a tad different.
The elder servants, butler Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson) and cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), are perfectly aware of and content with their station. However, when new maid Sarah (Pauline Collins) steps into the picture, she upsets the entire household with her radical views. She refuses to remain a maid forever and manages to corrupt house parlor maid Rose (Jean Marsh) to her thinking. Sarah tries to fit in at first, but believes herself to be bred for a higher calling, to be a fine lady. Contentedness will never do. When an artist is hired to paint her mistress' portrait, Sarah is sent to him with a basket of gowns from which to select. He chooses the most fascinating and least modest of the dresses and contracts a fanciful attachment to Sarah. Insisting on painting her portrait, on every one of Sarah's days off she goes to his studio and lies on his bed in her underclothes. Naturally, he paints her nude, and even goes so far as to add her roommate Rose, back turned, to the canvas. With no thought for the consequences, the artist intended to exhibit both portraits, termed The Mistress and The Maids, at a local gallery. Horror is swift to follow, and Sarah delights in every moment.
When Miss Elizabeth Bellamy (Nicola Pagett) returns from her schooling in Dresden, there are hints that she is no longer the sweetly obliging young lady they know so well. Her maid, and dear friend Rose is the first to comprehend the change but refuses to believe it. Miss Elizabeth holds London society in absolute contempt and refuses to bow to any of the traditions laid down by her parents. Disappearing from the ball where she was to be introduced to the Queen herself, Elizabeth disgraces her father Richard Bellamy (David Langton), seat holder in Parliament, and distressed mother, Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney). Attempting to settle down to her parent's wishes, Elizabeth remains at home for a time. When a gentlemanly German baron makes an appearance as a guest, having once met Elizabeth, her affections take a turn for the worse. He seems kindly enough but there is more to him than meets the eye. He creates complete disorder in the household through his actions and utterly corrupts servant Alfred (George Innes), breaking Elizabeth's heart in the process.
Never leave a discontented wife in the care of a handsome young man who shares many of her interests. Thus learns Richard Bellamy. Lady Marjorie forms an intimate attachment to a dear friend of her son, James Bellamy (Simon Williams). The charming army captain is enchanted with Lady Marjorie and a romantic interlude begins which could completely destroy not only her good name but the untarnished name of her faithful husband. We should have known that Miss Elizabeth could not contain her rebellious nature for long. While her parents vacation in the country for a weekend, Elizabeth goes against all better judgment. Inviting her socialist friends over for tea, Elizabeth sees their behavior as perfectly normal. Hudson is horrified, but there is little he can do to calm the seas. Miss Lizzie is determined to try out her wings, and in her own home. With little regard for the feelings of her parents', she storms from the house when they return home and give her a severe dressing down. Ungrateful and ill-tempered, Elizabeth is the bane of her family.
Violence is slim and none. A girl is found dead, hanging from the rafters of her room after her heart had been broken. Language is limited to sometimes mild, sometimes fierce, innuendo. Spiritual and political conflicts are far more prevalent. Elizabeth's beliefs are bizarre. She wants freedom without law. We know that laws are placed there for our protection. We need the fences or would become completely corrupt. Elizabeth wishes to remove all semblance of society and allow people to live as they wish. It never works that way. She has no consideration for the concept of marriage, for political advantage, nor even for common courtesy. She simply wants what she wants now, with no consideration for others. Oh, she will try to convince people that she is acting in the best interests of the poor and downtrodden, but that is not the case. Not when she refers to Christians in a disdainful tone as "Bible-thumpers" and constantly flouts any religion or even the concept of sin. On a plus side, the idea of abortion is dealt with harshly. This season is inherently pro-life. When a housemaid is considering abortion, Richard Bellamy states that anything of the sort is murder of the most horrendous kind. Witchcraft makes an appearance in the form of a sance in "A Voice from the Past." Even though it's disproved of, it certainly wasn't necessary.
Homosexuality reared its ugly head, much to my disgust. Don't judge too quickly, however, because it is treated as an abomination and a perverse practice. The last thing I expected was that the Bellamy's would be intolerant of such behavior, so that was another plus in their favor. My greatest complaint is Sarah, who appears in about five episodes, and James, who makes an appearance in eight episodes. Sarah is a very promiscuous young lady. She very nearly became intimate with the artist in "The Mistress and the Maids" and with James in "Board Wages." She and James yield near the end of the season, quite happily too. Elizabeth, although still a virgin, holds any kind of innocence in disdain and would have gladly given her greatest treasure away had it been asked. I was never so happy as when Alfred finally left the Bellamy employ. The man was downright unnerving, and you get the distinct impression that he may have raped the previous under-parlor maid and would have done the same to Sarah if given the chance. People are taken advantage of emotionally, and abandoned. There is absolutely no nudity. Anything of that sort is kept carefully concealed, even though you see people in bed after a sexual romp.
Corruption runs like a vein of rich silver through many of the characters, which is why such jewels as Richard Bellamy and Mr. Hudson shine forth brilliantly. Mr. Hudson constantly reads his Bible and puts into action that which he reads. He rules the staff with a firm hand but is not without compassion for those less fortunate. Mr. Bellamy is a kind soul. He detests conflict, but will become embroiled in such distasteful business for the sake of others. They are both honorable men. The acting is of the highest caliber. The talents stem from many familiar faces, especially Pauline Collins, who also acted in another British series by the name of No, Honestly! Even the guest cast fit into their roles perfectly. In only one episode, "The Key of the Door," do you feel as if you are watching something from the 70s. Everything else is completely realistic.
I find this series to be a fascinating glimpse into British history in the 1900s. They're not a perfect household by any stretch of the imagination, but the people in it genuinely like and usually respect one another. Don't misunderstand, I still have many issues with this first season. If I am expected to admire Elizabeth Bellamy, than they failed miserably in her character development, for I find her abhorrent in every respect. You cannot condone Lady Marjorie's affair either. Only a few characters are truly worthy of admiration, with the rest corrupted beyond recognition. And yet, even the depraved characters had their good points, just as every human being. Affection for them may bloom in time. The story is a continuing saga of one family, both upstairs and downstairs. I shall continue watching even through the difficulties. One reason is that Anthony Andrews, my beloved "Scarlet Pimpernel," is to make an appearance in the 5th season, and another is for the sake of Mr. Hudson and Richard Bellamy. When they bow out, most likely so will I.