Monday, October 22, 2012

DVD Review: The Duchess of Duke Street

The Duchess of Duke Street: The Complete Series 10-Discs (27 hours)
Released by Acorn Media on October 23rd 2012. SRP $79.99 (DVD)

If you ever come to this site and skim through my reviews rather than read them, then just read this: I loved this series! That being said, I have never seen it before until I needed to for this review. I have a friend who reads this site quite a bit who has been suggesting this series to me for years. I just had other things I wanted to watch and I knew I would get to it at some point. Of course that point never happened so when this title came up for review from Acorn Media, I thought this would be as good of opportunity as any to check it out. Not only did it not disappoint but what a ride!

The Duchess of Duke Street is a BBC series that aired between 1976 and 1977. It was just two series but it covers a ton of ground. The series was created by John Hawkesworth. As I mentioned in other places, when I see his name attached to something I take notice. He produced Upstairs Downstairs and these two series cover roughly the same ground in terms of when these series take place. The Duchess of Duke Street is based roughly on the career of Rosa Lewis who was known as the Duchess of Jermyn Street. There are striking similarities between the main character of The Duchess of Duke Street, Louisa Trotter and Rosa Lewis.  

If you are coming to this series cold, then you are in for a treat. When you put Disc #1 into the DVD player, you have no idea where this series is going to take you. It starts off simple enough. Louisa Leyton joins service into a house where she wants to be a cook to Lord Henry Norton. Louisa is quite independent and also quite outspoken. Even to her superiors she has a lot to say and it is clearly difficult to keep her mouth shut. I almost dismissed the series out of hand at this point. It was nice but it started to feel like Upstairs Downstairs in the way that someone who is super independent is trying to gain a place in a manor home such as Sarah at the beginning of Upstairs Downstairs. Plus as an aside note, I never really cared for the character of Sarah. The difference between Louisa and Sarah is that Louisa is fair and she means well. Through all the jobs she ever had, she made sure that her parents were looked after and she also looked after Mary who was a welsh maid in the household. Louisa has spirit and is invigorating to watch.
After being the apprentice to Monsieur Alex, Louisa gets the shot of a lifetime and cooks a last minute dinner. Little does she realize that one of the guests at the dinner is the Prince of Wales himself, Albert Edward. After meeting her, Edward is not only taken by her cooking but by her looks. She is pressured into becoming Edward’s mistress and is forced to marry a nice butler by the name of Augustus “Gus” to keep up the air of respectability and not to cause a royal scandal. The marriage between Gus and Louisa is strained from the start. They are no longer in the service of Lord Norton but the Prince has looked after her well. He bought a house for Gus and Louisa to live in and Louisa has started to make a name for herself by being a chef; she is hired out to cook meals for prestigious clients. Her reputation as an amazing chef in London continues to grow. Gus, on the other hand, refuses to do anything. He wants Louisa to love her and she does not. She isn’t even attracted to him but she tries to put up with the situation the best she can. Everything changes once the Prince becomes the King.

Queen Victoria dies in 1901. Prince Edward becomes King Edward and he has no other choice but to cut off his relationship with Louisa. I found it interesting from the entire time that Louisa was Edward’s mistress how much she respected him and cared for him. This relationship is believed to have happened in real life between the Prince of Wales and Rosa Lewis. Things start to get really dicey between Gus and Louisa. Gus drinks more and more while Louisa tries her best to keep things afloat. What Louisa begins to understand is that Gus wants to be his own person and not live in the shadow of Louisa. Her solution is for Gus and Louisa to pool the money they have left, sell the house and buy the Bentinck Hotel located on Duke Street and Gus can manage it. On their way to the hotel, Gus jokingly anoints Louisa as The Duchess of Duke Street.
The sad thing about Gus is that when the series starts out, he is respectable and kind. It is very sad that things didn’t work out for him but eventually his demons take over. He drinks heavily and spends all the profits from the hotel on entertaining friends that he wants to look important to for his own social endeavors. Louisa finally has enough as she returns from a 3 week working trip to find that the hotel is in horrible debt with no one staying in it. Louisa loses it and literally (and I mean literally) kicks him and his meddling sister out of the hotel for good. That is one problem solved but what about the Bentinck? The series had been really good up to this point but now is where it is truly kick-ass!

The story turns from a woman who has a ton of potential and is held back by her drunken-husband to a series of rebuilding her life and creating a reputation that was known all throughout not only the United Kingdom but Europe. Upon doing her best to pay the debt that has been built up by Gus, she works herself to exhaustion. She collapses after she runs into Charlie Tyrrell. We actually meet Charlie in the very first episode of the series as he propositions her but as someone in service, she declines. Even though Charlie appears to be a bit of a playboy, it is impossible not to like him. Once he finds out what is going on in Louisa’s life, he pays her debts and buys part of the hotel to become partners with Louisa. He doesn’t want to run it but he hands that duty to Louisa. Charlie just wants his own suite he can stay in when he is in town.
If this wasn’t a serious drama, The Bentinck could be confused for Fawtly Towers in the sense that Louisa is a bit of a snob. The hotel isn’t one that just accepts anyone. It only accepts people of high standing and who are rich. After Louisa spends a considerable amount of time and money to redecorate the hotel; it looks great. Louisa then needs to hire staff. She already brought over with her Mary from Lord Norton’s house and they inherited the hotel butler Merriman who is old but still does his job well. Louisa hires a porter by the name of Starr who was in the military but there is some mystery behind him but he always has his dog Fred with him at all times. Eventually they get one of their first customers Major Toby Smith-Barton.

Everything I have written so far only covers up to episode 5, A Bed of Roses. This is where I become a little more coy as the fun of the series really begins and if I ruin this beautiful series, I would never forgive myself. One thing I find funny is that when I started to watch the series, I assumed that these characters from the start would be with us for the entire run such as Gus or even Lord Norton. Now into episode 5 the series settles down. People who I didn’t expect to see for the long run stay with the series until the end such as Starr, Merriman or the Major. For me, very quickly, I have grown to love these characters. Each one of them brings a smile to my face when I see them. Merriman is old but he has a fascination with Sherlock Holmes. Whenever there is some kind of mystery in the hotel, Merriman is always the one to look into it. He relies on his long-time career in service as a butler plus the knowledge he has built over a lifetime. Mary is a simple and honest Welsh girl. She was mistreated by the other staff members at Lord Norton’s house but Louisa has given her a chance to be someone which is more than a chance she would have ever had at her previous employer. Starr (and Fred) and the Major are my favorites. At first I didn’t know what to make of Starr since he was awfully coy in the interview to be Porter but I soon learned to really enjoy him as a character. He is a gentle person with a serious past. He sits and talks to his dog Fred as if he was a real person and the two are quite a couple. The two of them are great. Has anyone who has ever seen this series before ever noticed that Starr’s shoes squeak every time he walks, at least one of them. No one ever does anything about it! I thought that would be fixed for Series 2 and it wasn’t! The Major is an amazing character. He was someone who I just thought would be a resident at the Bentinck but turns out to be one of the real pillars of the hotel. The Major ends up being a confidant not only to Louisa and Charlie too. There are times in the series that Louisa would not have made it without the Major. He is one of the greatest supporting characters I have ever seen.
In the series, they make references to past events. For example, in the episode A Test of Love, King Edward VII dies. This prompts a visit from Major Farjeon. As they speak of old times, I think back to all that has happened in previous series….wait, this is still only Series 1! So much has happened in this series yet it doesn’t feel rushed at all.

There are some really great moments in this series such as A Lady of Virtue where we get a guest cast that includes Robert Hardy and John Horsley. Robert Hardy’s character of politician George Duggan tries to seduce a married woman. Starr’s past comes to plague him in the episode Trouble and Strife. This episode has a guest appearance by Maureen O’Brien and she is simply excellent in this episode as is John Cater who plays Starr. Easily one of the highlights of Series 1. It’s fun to see Louisa at her spikey best when she buys a summer resort next to Charlie’s private club in Plain Sailing. She is able to ruffle old feather very easily.  Throughout this series Charlie and Louisa’s relationship goes through many changes but it is clear the two are very fond of each other.
There are a series of episodes in Series 2 which I think are my favorite. Just like in Upstairs Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street has episodes set during World War I. In Upstairs Downstairs it takes up all of Series 4. It takes up just 5 episodes of Series 2 of The Duchess of Duke Street and they are the most pivotal episodes of the series. There are ups and downs but there are horrible losses changing the landscape of the series during these episodes. I have seen these episodes over a week ago and I still think of them. I still get emotional thinking of them and thinking of these characters. This series isn’t just good, it is beyond excellent.

This series is something so special and wonderful and clearly the industry agreed. Back in 1980, this series, as part of Masterpiece Theatre in the US, was nominated for an Emmy. It should have won. The one thing I would be careful about that if you watch as many episodes as I have in a row the theme tune by Alexander Faris never leaves you but more importantly, nor do these wonderful characters.

On the extra front, there is nothing too amazing just simple and straightforward extras of a Biography of Rosa Lewis, Edwardian period background, photo gallery, and cast filmographies. The extras are fine to me for a release like this. These extras don’t appear to be included in the R2 PAL release from Playback.

On the back of the set it does mention that due to the age and availability of the material it is the best that Acorn Media could get a hold of for this release. I will be honest and say I think the video quality on these episodes are quite acceptable. There are episodes that exhibit occasional video tear from the tape within the episodes but not really that often. One episode, For Love or Money, has a weird thing going on where some shots are crisp and clear like all the other episodes and some shots (within the same scene) almost look like a generation or two down from the original master tape. They become darker and almost smeary looking. What I do like is that each episode ends with a little card saying it is a co-production with Time-Life which is nice to keep on there. I am not sure if those are on the UK releases. If not it does make me wonder where these masters come from. Are they the old 2” recordings originally made for Time-Life shown on Masterpiece Theatre in the 1970s or are they new? If they are old they actually don’t look bad at all.

Another smart looking set from Acorn Media. The outer box holding the two amary cases (1 for each series) is nice looking and the two cases inside has a really nice photo of Gemma Jones as Louisa Trotter. It is an elegant look. Each amary case holds five discs so it is quite the substantial set and you really feel like you are getting your money’s worth before you even stick one disc in the player. The only thing that bothers me, and I think this is from being a repackaged release is that all the discs for Series 1 does not have a “Play All” function on them. It is a big pet-peeve for me as I often like to watch things as a marathon. I never understand why studios do this. The good news is that there is a “Play All” on the Series 2 discs.

In the 1970s there are a lot of series that are costume drama that take place in Victorian or Edwardian times. There are some that are good and some that are average. This is neither. This is truly a special series. As a fan of British television like me, don’t be like me by waiting so long to watch this series. It’s addictive, fun, tragic and emotional. It’s a fun ride to be on!
Disc breakdown:

Disc 1: A Present Sovereign, Honour and Obey, A Nice Class of Premises
Disc 2: The Bargain, A Bed of Roses, For Love and Money

Disc 3: A Lady of Virtue, Trouble and Strife, The Outsiders

Disc 4: Lottie’s Boy, No Letters, No Lawyers, A Matter of Honour

Disc 5: One Night’s Grace, Plain Sailing, A Test of Love
Disc 6: Family Matters, Poor Catullus, A Lesson in Manners, Winter Lament

Disc 7: The Passing Show, Your Country Needs You, The Patriots
Disc 8: The Reluctant Warrior, Tea and a Wad, Shadows

Disc 9: Where There’s a Will, The Legion of the Living, Lottie
Disc 10: Blossom Time, Poor Little Rich Girl, Ain’t We Got Fun

Have a great week!
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Anonymous said...

Fantastic review. I will be picking this up!

Greg said...

Very cool. Please let me know what you think of it!

Take care,

Dave G said...

Finally! As you say in your introduction, I have been recommending this for about three years now. Glad you not only have now seen it but love it as much (if not more!) than I do. Truly a treat to see how enthusiastic you are about Duchess. Bravo!

Greg said...

I think it's been more than 3 years. I think this goes back to the PPL days. The series was great and thank you for introducing it to me years ago!

Dave G said...

Just recently started watching this again, wonderful stuff. Geting close to the end of the first series and looking forward to more.

As for the release history, Acorn initially released series one and two individually, then in 2008 released the complete series in a digipak - 5 trays with a disc on each side, with a nice slipcover. It sounds like for this re-release they have just put the old individual releases in the slip case, although I don't know for sure what sort of packaging the original releases had.

Now, the end card with the Time-Life association. I have given this a good deal of thought and can only conclude that Acorn didn't put a ton of effort into getting the prints for the release and did just get the old MP Time-Life prints rather than go to the BBC for the originals, Again I can't be certain, but the way the end credits run for the episodes fade out with the music then cut back in with this card just make me suspicious.

Oh well, it's all good when such a wonderful series graces the television screen.

Greg said...

I would agree that these are probably from the old Time-Life video recordings but the quality of the episodes are pretty outstanding for being from analogue video from the late 1970s and early 1980s. I would be very interested to know if these cards are at the end of the R2 Playback releases...but knowing them, I'm sure there not.
Take care,

Monica the Garden Faerie said...

Also recently watched this series for the first time (along with the original UpDown) and loved it. I'm feeling pretty lucky my local library has so many of the British series on dvd!

Greg said...

Hi Monica,

It's good isn't it? Really an enjoyable series. For something similar, I would also recommend Lillie. It's another series I didn't quite know what to make of it when it started but ended up absolutley loving it. Maybe your local library might be able to get a hold of that?

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Hello Greg -Thank you for your wonderful write up on the "Duchess of Duke Street". I am watching it again on YouTube after a couple years when I bought the DVD Part 1 and 2. I have NEVER loved a dramatic work as much as I love this one. Sometimes I watch a particular section a couple of times to be sure to get all the nuances. What I love most about Part 2 is that Mrs. Trotter is in all the scenes A LOT. She does not appear for a couple scenes every 10 minutes or so. She is the fabric of the drama with all her wonderful period dresses, her London accent, her wonderful generosity and sureness about life and how she should react to it.

I have been on Google a lot getting every photo I can of Gemma Jones both in the Duchess series and all recent photos and in-between. I just found one of Jones and Cazenove sitting on some steps in 1976 - A black and white photo. I wondered if they might have briefly really fallen in love during the make of the series.

I think the "Duchess of Duke Street" is WHO Gemma Jones is. Frankly I think the producers and directors of todays movies have not given Mrs. Jones good roles in their movies. I watched "Marvellous" last night, wanting to see Mrs. Jones in another movie. She had maybe 10 minutes of film in the entire movie I think of 121 minutes. To me this typifies the LONG TERM GROSS BLINDNESS of movie makers over the years since "Duchess of Duke Street" in not offering her other noble and long scripts. It is really a travesty of wasted talent.

I am hoping to send a litter to Mrs. Jones and telling her of my experience of watching the "Duchess" and finding out what little I can about her life. There is not much on the internet really.

So, I am not sure when you wrote this review, but I could not help adding my two cents here about this FANTASTIC MASTERPIECE. Johanna Baumgartner, Longview, WA

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