I know many of you have already heard the news about Ossian's impending release of the Shadow Sun for iDevices. However, the first screenshots of the game were released yesterday, so head on over to the Ossian website for a look. I know that if the Shadow Sun is successful, the plan is to port the entire intellectual property over to the PC. I'm not aware of too many really big CRPGs in the works, so there is certainly the need for another.
While I continue to mull my NWN2 future, I've been catching up on lots of entertainment I've put off... or in this case, I've rewatched a series I first saw a few years ago. However, my latest guilty pleasure does have at least something to do with TMGS in addition to being a fascinating six hours of viewing.
First, I have an admission. I am a reality TV junkie. Not the truly horrid stuff like Flavor of Love or Megan Wants a Millionaire that literally melt your mind as you watch, but I do like shows like The Amazing Race and Survivor. On occasion, though, reality TV actually reaches a higher level and becomes educational as well as entertaining.
Enter Manor House - although I understand it's called The Edwardian Country House in the UK - in which a modern family and fourteen strangers now playing the role of servants move into an Edwardian-era mansion and return it to the life it had one hundred years ago.
So what's the connection to TMGS? Well, I first viewed this series when my parents gave it to me around 2004. I am forced to admit that the images stuck with me as I turned to my imaginings of the VanGhaunt Mansion and how it must have once worked. Of course, I knew that the mansion had to be largely decayed and empty today, but I wanted there to be the ghosts of something grander, something much more along the lines of what is depicted in Manor House. The layout of the VanGhaunt Mansion, most notably the inclusion of a dance floor, was inspired by the series. Casting Thess LeHugh in the role of a Lady's Maid, Jellica's memories of the grand balls of her youth, and the book outlining the kitchen operation all had their genesis in this series. Most directly, the Rules for Servants book found in one of the lower bedrooms was a direct rip-off of some of the information found on the series' website. Whereas Navatranaasu itself is more reflective of my interest in medieval history, the mansion itself is much more modern in feel, and that is most directly attributable to my memories of this series.
First, I see on Amazon that the DVDs sell for roughly 40-45 dollars. I wouldn't pay that, but if you have a local library or even NetFlix or a more reasonably priced digital download (legal, of course), it's definitely worth the time, although it isn't perfect. So having said all that, I'll review the series.
Manor House sees a modern family, the Olliff-Coopers move into Manderston House as a newly-lorded Edwardian couple. "Sir" John and the Lady Anna Olliff-Cooper are a businessman and ER doctor in the 21st century, but they are dramatically elevated in class for this series. In addition, their two sons, Jonty and Guy, and Lady Anna's sister, the unmarried Avril, also join in on the experiment. (Incidentally, during my Google Searches for this write-up, I learned that Jonty is now a "senior researcher" with some kind of Progressive Conservative think-tank in England, so he's obviously entered into politics in the nine years since this show. And no, I don't know what a "Progressive Conservative" is either.)
Meanwhile, fourteen others move in to fill the "downstairs" side of the upstairs/downstairs equation and assume every position from the butler at the top of the downstairs ladder to the scullery maid at the bottom. What follows is a intriguing look not only at lifestyles a hundred years ago, but also human psychology. It is both fascinating and horrifying to see how quickly people who are given so much come to both think of it as theirs and justify how they deserve it.
The Olliff-Coopers seem like they are a perfectly nice family and "normal" in almost every way... in the 21st century. Once back in the early 20th, however, they adapt a little too easily to the role of aristocrats. Sir John, of course, is at the very top, and it takes almost no time for him to pompously complain that the staff discipline isn't high enough. When he institutes punishments, the kitchen maid complains, only to then be told that it isn't proper for someone like her to talk to someone like him. In fact it isn't by the conventions of the day, but most of us in the 21st century would (I hope) have a problem actually saying that. Not Sir John, however. A month after becoming a lord for the first time, he is already entrenched in the mindset. In his private diaries, he confesses somewhat high-handedly that he isn't blind to his staff's plight, but what can he do? As he says another time, "if they're not serving him, they don't have jobs." To the end, he remains entirely blind, believing that his staff loves him as he loves them, and is literally in tears as he walks out the final day. Of course, those tears are for the loss of his staff not as people but as his servants. He opines that he alone of all the people in the house will be diminished in status when he leaves whereas all the rest will presumably raise in status when they return to the 21st century. He doesn't make clear as to whether he thinks his own wife will be diminished or raised.
Speaking of the Lady Anna, she is the most fascinating psychological study in the entire show. In the 21st century, she is an ER doctor with a high degree of literally life-and-death responsibility. Upon entering the house, she is reduced to augmenting the prestige of her husband. She spends upwards of five hours per day getting dressed several times, as she must wear different clothing at each meal. She has a Lady's Maid to prep the clothes and help her get in and out of the overbearing outfits (think corsets and endless skirts). Then there's the constant hair pampering, make-up and so on. All this so she can entertain her husband's guests by chatting them up in the parlor and... well, I'm not quite sure what else because the downstairs staff does all the cooking, cleaning, and serving. Her early comments on the absurdity of it all show that she is quite bored. And then...
It isn't long until this ER doctor finds herself entirely entranced by the fairytale. The endless dress-up sessions with a myriad of jewels and new hairstyles, once so tedious, soon become a joy. Whereas early on, she laments the loss of quality time with her youngest son due to the rigid separation of spheres of influence, this seems to stop bothering her later on. She admits as she lays in her bath - drawn for her by an overworked maid - that she has lost track of her youngest son and that she is sure he is with the servants downstairs. But her sole concern is that he will need to put distance between himself and the servants because when he inherits Manderston, he will need to give them orders... Oh, wait. It's all make-believe, and he will never inherit Manderston. Even she temporarily seems bemused at how quickly the fiction has become her reality! At another point, she remarks casually that it really isn't a chore to entertain at Manderston; even a grand ball is no problem... as the downstairs staff of fourteen have their normal workdays of 16 hours increased to 18+ just to get the extra work in. By the end, much like her husband, Lady Olliff-Cooper laments that she will need to return to the 21st century. "I am more at home in this time," she practically sobs. "All these other people will return to the homes when they leave here. I alone will be the one leaving my home." Oy, vey! This 21st-century highly-educated doctor who takes to her new role as a mere bauble on the arm of her husband like a duck to water will almost certainly make modern feminists cringe.
The downstairs staff are too many to go into detail for each, but the star of the entire show is undoubtedly the butler, Hugh Edgar, an international architect in real life whose grandfather was a butler. As the master of the downstairs servants and one of the few who actively engages the upstairs family, his observations are almost invariably the most interesting and the most prescient. One has the sense that he is at least the social equal of the family in the 21st century, but he takes to his new 20th century role with as much gusto as anyone. He seems determined to try to understand his own grandfather's life, and it is the insights he gains that are the most poignant. At one point, he mentions that his grandfather was intensely strict with the motto that children should be "seen and not heard" and "speak only when spoken to." A short while later after handling a disciplinary issue brought about by a 21st-century-inspired slight loosening of the rules, he turns to the camera and laments that he has made a most terrible discovery this day, for he finally understands why his grandfather had to be the way he was. Two sentences in a review don't do justice to the moment's pathos, but it was quite moving.
The other great personality among the staff is the temperamental French chef, Monsieur Dubiard, who creates his own fiefdom in his kitchen by terrorizing the kitchen and scullery maids. Slightly hunched-shouldered and wearing spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, he's almost stereotypical in his ranting and raving as he demands his stove be constantly kept hot or the footmen get the food up to the table before it gets cold. At one point, the egomaniacal chef learns that Sir John is complaining about the unendingly rich food and lack of any roughage - a diet typical of the day but one that is wreaking havoc upon his digestive track - and so Dubiard responds by literally cooking a whole pig in untold sticks of butter and serving it face towards the family at the next dinner. He merrily waves at the face and chimes that he'll "see you soon" as he closes the oven door on it. Sir John, for once unsure the 20th century is for him, complains that it's hard to eat when the beast you're eating is looking at you and promptly sends it back. As the show wraps up, the temperamental chef feels the need to confront Sir John just so he can call him a fraud.
The rest of the staff aren't nearly so interesting. There is a point where the hallboy, Kenny, and the scullery maid, Ellen, begin a romance but have to sneak around to keep it secret. Frankly, the whole thing gets tiring as does the general complaining by most of the servants. Yes, the conditions are horrible and yes, no one in the 21st century would work under them, but this is a one-off experience lasting only three months that I presume they auditioned for. In that case, they need to buck it up and do what's required.
And that, ultimately, is where the weakness of any of these kinds of experiments lies: namely it is very difficult to get modern people - at least those among the downstairs staff - to forget the 21st century. Their arguments about their "rights" and "fair labor practices" are all arguments we would universally accept today, but they'd be utter rot a hundred years ago. No manor of the day would have accepted such complaining and one suspects that virtually all of the junior staff would have been canned and living on the street at the time. The senior staff, including Mr. Edgar and Monsieur Dubiard, generally "get" the uniqueness of the opportunity whereas the junior staff generally does not. To be fair, however, the senior staff all have slightly more interesting jobs than, for example, the maids, who literally work 16-hour days vacuuming (by brush), polishing, mopping, and waxing. Personally, I think it would be interesting being a butler and trying to make a house of that size run smoothly. Being a kitchen maid... not so much.
The six-part series has a set-up and conclusion episode with the middle four episodes each focused on a grand event held at the mansion. A few minutes of each episode is used to explore the events of the day. Theoretically, time "progresses" from 1905 to 1914 during the three months, so the family and staff see papers detailing the death of Edward VII, the sinking of the Titanic, and Emily Davison's tragic demise at the Epsom Derby, among other things. Another few minutes are devoted to various participants' musings on what their lives are like or insights they've had. Most are interesting; a few are whiners that grate on me by the end. Finally, there's the inevitable drama that comes from nineteen people living in close proximity to each other.
The series is narrated by Derek Jacobi, who provides excellent insights into what may or may not have been appropriate or true for the day. Everyone doesn't play by the rules 100% of the time, so this is necessary clarification. I'll also note the main musical theme played mostly as each episode ends is both grandiose and haunting, evincing both the majesty of the house in its prime and also the faded grandeur of the house now one hundred years on. Otherwise, I didn't notice the music very much, and I suspect that large parts of the series had none at all.
One of my main bones of contention with the series, however, is the overwhelmingly negative view it takes of the past. Mr. Edgar at one point summed up the overall theme when he said, "[this society] was sick... and it was swept away!" Certainly, things today are better on balance, but it is a tremendous vanity for the modern person to assume there is nothing we can learn from the past. I won't go into my exact thoughts on the merits of 1910 vs. 2010 any further, but suffice it to say I thought it was unbalanced with only the scantest of off-handed comments during the participants' diary sessions in defense of the past.
The series ended with a couple nice touches. First, it posited a likely fate post-1914 for each of the participants given the immediacy of World War I and the enormous social change on the horizon. Although the viewer understands that all of these people are modern, they do help personalize a theoretical 1914-era mansion that would see many of its inhabitants dead on the fields of the Somme in short order. Secondly, as each of the participants leaves, they are transformed back into their modern clothing. It is nice to see these people we've come to know as they actually are in the 21st century, and the effect simultaneously serves as a sort of time machine to further illustrate the now faded history. Given his prominence in the series, it is fitting indeed that it all ends with the modern-day Mr. Edgar pulling the massive gates shut behind him with a forlorn smile, leaving Manderston a relic of the past once more.