The Bretts, a British comedy series from the late ‘80s, was co-created by Rosemary Anne Sisson, (Upstairs, Downstairs) and features a multi-generational family of actors in 1920s London. The Brett family is full of drama, and the show features the sorts of scandals that actors in every generation get into — drugs, illegitimacy, illicit romances, and fatal diseases. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, the Bretts’ servants also get a good deal of screen time, their lives intertwined with their employers.
The focus of the show is squarely on the bickering acting duo of patriarch Charles Brett (Norman Rodway) and his wife Lydia (Barbara Murray), both famous and successful stage actors. Their children — Edwin (David Yelland), Thomas (George Winter), Martha (Belinda Lang), and Perdita (Sally Cookson, away at school and not seen until late in the series) — are hard to distinguish from each other in the first few episodes. There is also an older married daughter, Nell, who only shows up once or twice. But by the third or fourth episode everyone in the family gets their moment to shine — their dry wit and constant money and personal struggles become quite endearing.
Faithful butler Sutton (Tim Wylton) and Charles Brett in the Princess Theatre before a show.
The production values are simple, with the action centering around the Bretts’ manse and the Princess Theatre. The series seems a bit old-fashioned, not just because of the period setting, but because of the filmed-in-studio look, more in the vein of a Masterpiece Theatre classic like I, Claudius than the more contemporary-looking Poirot. But the acting and costuming are great, and the lighting and camerawork improve as the series progresses. The subtle changes in costumes and hairstyles from the first to the second series reflect the prodcers attention to period detail.
The characters also evolve through the course of the 19 episodes; the love affairs of the younger Bretts come into play, and Charles’s and Lydia’s careers begin to be affected by the advent of Hollywood and talking pictures. The servants’ lives also provide lots of drama, especially chauffeur Fergus. The Bretts are an enjoyable clan to watch, and it is easy to get caught up in their manic lives and productions. Nineteen episodes don’t feel like enough.
Following the family and their overly-dramatic lives from the late ’20s into the early ’30s makes for many hours of enjoyable television viewing. The Bretts: The Complete Collection is a treat, especially if you like your drama high-toned and high-pitched.
The Bretts: The Complete Collection includes 19 episodes on six discs, with a total running time of 975 minutes. There are no extras, but subtitles are available. The episodes are as follows:
Series 1 (13 episodes on 4 discs)
1 – “The King Shall Not Die” Charles hires a secretary to help him manage his bills, which causes Lydia to walk out when she sees her. Will a potential knighthood help bring Lydia back as well as revive Charles’s career?
2 – “Driving Ambition” Charles and Lydia buy a car, but Charles is not much of a driver, so enter an old friend, Hegarty (Billy Boyle), to be their chauffeur. The Bretts also gain the Princess Theatre and a new secretary, the daughter of Lydia’s former dresser, Miss Lacey (Janet Maw).
3 – “Vagabonds and Thieves” Thomas and his play are a success, but he only has eyes for his leading lady. Charles expects Thomas to write a part for him in his next play, but Thomas is more disturbed by some news he receives from Lydia.
4 – “Full House” Charles’s parents (Frank Middlemass and Helena McCarthy) move in, Thomas moves out, and theater manager Piers makes moves on both Martha and Miss Lacey.
5 – “Moving Pictures” Flora (Rhoda Lewis) sees Edwin in a movie, at first scandalizing the family and staff, and then opening up all sorts of new and unexpected opportunities. John Castle guest stars as filmmaker Laszlo Sandor.
6 – “Broadway, Here I Come” An American songwriter pursues Lydia to return to Broadway and Martha for romantic reasons.
7 – “Revenge is Sweet” Edwin feuds with an unflattering newspaper critic from The Chronicle, Charles doesn’t like Lydia’s American co-star and Hegarty befriends a female gossip reporter – who also works for The Chronicle.