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.
8 – “Get Me to the Church on Time” Edwin falls hard for a friend of Martha’s. Sutton’s romance with Polly seems to have stalled. Martha must make a decision about her future with Gerard.
9 – “The Actress and the Bishop” Martha’s gets injured, which closes the play and sends the Bretts to court. Jean quits her post due to a personal issue, and won’t accept help from Martha.
10 – “Forbidden Fruit, Part 1” Thomas travels to Berlin, observing Weimar Germany and and its anything goes Cabaret lifestyle. Charles wonders about Thomas and whether he will come home with a man or woman.
11 – “Forbidden Fruit, Part 2” The Bretts learn about Gerard, and Martha wallows in her grief with the aid of cocaine. Edwin’s juggling of multiple girlfriends may affect his career.
12 – “All Right on the Night” Charles tries to hire a new secretary. Once again everyone thinks Charles and Lydia are cheating on each other.
13 – “Grand Finale” With the Princess Theatre in ruins after a fire, the Bretts gamble on a Christmas pantomime of “Cinderella” to rebuild the theatre and their coffers. Youngest daughter Perdita seems a natural for the lead — to everyone but Lydia, who isn’t sure she wants her youngest child to follow in her acting footsteps.
Series 2 (6 episodes on 2 discs)
14 – “Home and Away, Part 1” Charles is looking very run down. His doctor urges the actor to take a vacation, so he and Lydia set off for the south of France, where Edwin is renting a villa. The Bretts don’t realize that Edwin is also hosting a lady friend — the actress wife of the director of his latest movie.
15 – “Home and Away, Part 2” Fergus Ryan, Hegarty’s nephew, shows up on he Bretts’ doorstep. Charles is recovering from his heart attack, Lydia is interviewing new cooks, and Martha is still in the south of France with Edwin, who has just been suspended from his film contract for moral turpitude.
16 – “A House Divided” Charles fights with Equity, wanting to remain independent. Martha thinks Eduardo is paying too much attention to Perdita and breaks it off with him — and gets a brutal response. Oliver Mortimer (Hugh Fraser from Poirot, and Belinda Lang’s real-life husband) demonstrates just how unfavorably she would be perceived in court if she tried to bring charges against Eduardo for assault.
17 – “The Luck of the Irish” Hegarty finds out the real reason Fergus is in hiding and tries to protect him. Oliver asks Martha to campaign for him, and all of the younger Bretts get caught up in the campaign — although on differing sides. Lydia and Charles perform as Juliet and Romeo — on the wireless.
18 – “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” Sutton is despondent, feeling responsible for Hegarty’s death. Charles is resistant to Edwin and Martha’s suggestions to turn some of their theatres into cinemas. Martha must sort out her feelings for Oliver.
19 – “The Golden Dustman” Edwin is back with former flame Diana, but this time seems more focused on his career than romance. Lydia has been offered the starring role in the musical Strike Up the Band. Oliver asks Martha to marry him, but she isn’t sure he will support her continuing her career. Edwin, Perdita, and Charles act in the film Our Mutual Friend, with Charles having a hard time making the adjustment from stage to film acting. The Bretts all gather for a celebration and a big announcement.