If you’re like me, even the brilliant Oscar fashions of last night didn’t fill the gaping hole on Sunday night now that the second season of Downton Abbey is over. To console myself, I rented PBS’ Manor House, fully expecting it to be a watered down version of the sumptuous Downton Abbey. But I have to admit I fell in love with it and kept wondering why in the world they didn’t do another season.
Manor House was a fascinating social experiment that occurred in 2001. An upper middle class family in England was chosen to live like royalty from the Edwardian period for three months. PBS then cast people to fill the roles of butler, housekeeper, footmen, maids, and chef. Everyone involved was to completely shun all modern amenities and conveniences and live as they did back in the early 1900’s. For Sir Olliff-Cooper and his family, this meant wearing diamonds, eating caviar, riding horses, having someone else dress them, and generally having their every whim catered to. For the downstairs staff, life meant waking up at 5:30, stoking fires, waxing floors, polishing countless pieces of silver, running trays up and downstairs, and rarely taking a break. It was interesting to see how quickly people started to identify with the role in which they had been cast. The downstairs staff came to resent a lot of the people living upstairs. And while they formed deep bonds from working so hard and so closely with each other, none of them felt that it was work they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. In stark contrast, Sir Olliff-Cooper wondered how in the world he would ever be able to return to his normal life. Lady Olliff-Cooper felt that the manor house had become her real home and the 21sth century was simply some futuristic dream.
While watching the show, I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether or not I liked the Olliff-Coopers. With reality TV, editing can do so much – if producers decide to make someone unlikable, it’s fairly easy for them to do so, simply by leaving out some things and emphasizing others. It’s hard for me to identify with people who enjoy being waited on all day and who really live a life of pleasure (though I readily admit that running a house and looking after 300 employees would take some work). I also didn’t like the fact that there was such a division among the two groups – if a maid saw Lady Olliff-Cooper in the hallway, she was to avert her gaze and retreat to a corner so the lady of the house wouldn’t be incommoded by having to acknowledge her. However, some of the comments made by Sir and Lady Olliff-Cooper made me like them more and wonder if they were really so terrible after all.
I highly recommend the series. It made me think quite a bit about what role I would have preferred – something downstairs or upstairs? I also came away feeling very grateful to live in a more modern world where people expect and demand certain rights. If only we could bring back some of those dresses…