The Duchess of Duke Street was first broadcast in 1977 in Britain and a year later on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre in North America. I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the series the first time around, so I was both delighted and a little apprehensive when I got the chance to review the complete collection of episodes from both seasons, coming out on DVD on August 26 from Acorn Media. Would the series seem dated? Would I wonder what on earth I saw in it all those years ago? I needn’t have worried. The Duchess of Duke Street, thirty years on, is as gripping and entertaining now as it was then. The Duchess hasn’t aged a bit.
Visually, the series looks very good, though sharp-eyed folks might notice very occasional haloing, and there is a slight fluttering in one episode. I found the production a visual delight, with an attention to period detail in dress and sets that keeps the production from looking dated. There is nothing of the 1970s here; the production is Edwardian from its well-coiffed head to its well-shod toe.
The Duchess of Duke Street was created by John Hawkesworth, who was also responsible for Upstairs, Downstairs, and the two productions share some characteristics. Both beautifully recreate their time period and both give a sharply detailed look at the parallel lives lived by the upper and servant classes. The Duchess’s main character, Louisa Trotter, invigorates the series and the cultural examination, as she inhabits both of these parallel worlds as few other women of her time did.
The show tells the story of how young Cockney Louisa Trotter rises from the scullery to be the most celebrated chef in London, running a very exclusive hotel and befriending many of society’s brightest lights. Louisa is a complex character: a self-professed snob who nevertheless stubbornly retains her Cockney accent and tart, profanity laden tongue, and a discrete open-minded hostess to the upper classes, but a strict hard line employer to her staff. She can be both unexpectedly kind and cruel, and she’s always hard working — indomitable is the word that springs to mind. The character’s flaws are as on display as her virtues and getting her right was critical to the success of the series. Fortunately, Gemma Jones was more than equal to the task, bringing Louisa to life with energy and sparkle that nevertheless never neglects the harder edges or the pathos as she negotiates everything life throws her way.
Jones’ acting is impeccable as we follow Louisa’s path from the kitchen of an upper-class household to the discrete chic Bentinck Hotel, helped not only by her culinary genius and hard work, but also by two equally discrete relationships with well connected gentlemen. It is to Jones’ credit that she allows us to see Louisa genuinely cared for both men, one being the love of her life.
The production’s focus on the entanglements of the residents, both guest and staff, at the Bentinck never descends into soap opera. Not only does the consistently fine writing and acting keep the story sharp, the actors are given the time to fully inhabit their characters. Nothing is rushed. This is not a production wary of pauses or of getting in close to the characters for reaction shots. The story unfolds in its own time, and yet it never feels slow, partly because the political events of the time, whether the suffragette movement or the First World War, impact everyone at the hotel.
Though Louisa Trotter is at the centre of the story, the show has a wonderfully solid ensemble of actors. John Cater is the doorman Starr who comes as a package deal with his dog, Fred; Victoria Plucknett is Louisa’s housekeeper and friend, Mary; Richard Vernon is The Major, whose inability to pay his bills makes him a combination of resident, staff, and eventually friend to Louisa, and John Welsh is the hilarious octogenarian but very sharp head waiter and wine steward, Merriman. Each is wonderful, with John Welsh’s Merriman a particular delight as he sniffs disapprovingly at the shenanigans he witnesses. Christopher Cazenove is another delight as Charlie, Lord Haslemere, Louisa’s great love. He generates some of the most moving scenes of the series, as it becomes clear that the story is as much about unfulfilled love as it is ambitions achieved.