BBC’s The House of Eliott

art for The House of EliottThe House of Eliott is a British serial drama set primarily in London during the 1920s. The principal characters are the Eliott sisters, Beatrice and Evangeline, and their close friend Jack Maddox, a photographer who later turns film director – and marries one of the Eliotts. When the story begins, Dr. Eliott has just died, tastefully off camera, and the two women (Bea would be nearly 30, Evie in her late teens) are left with no parents, for their mother died when Evie was born. Their only close relatives are a smarmy lawyer cousin, Arthur, who becomes Evie’s formal guardian under the provisions of their father’s will, and his snobbish mother, Lydia.

The Eliott sisters have led a rather sheltered life in their father’s house. When Arthur looks into the late father’s financial affairs, he discovers that the Eliotts have less money than they expected, certainly not enough to enable them to keep the family home or to generate an annual income. So, with little formal education and no previous employment experience, they are compelled to look for respectable ways to support themselves. After a few false starts, they manage to establish a dressmaking business that evolves into a fashion house that forms the basis of the series title. The 30+ series episodes chronicle the fortunes of the house and the main characters over the next few years.

The House of Eliott was the creative child of Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh, who also created Upstairs, Downstairs. Like its long-running and acclaimed predecessor, The House of Eliott portrays a particular period in British history with a lot of attention to relationships between people of different social classes. The action picks up a few years after the Armistice, so it follows quite nicely the timeline established by Upstairs, Downstairs. The screenwriters make very few explicit references to historical events, but regularly remind viewers of the nature of the times. In the first series, Cousin Arthur becomes embroiled in a business that exports liquor to the United States, where Prohibition is very much in effect. A number of the male characters refer to their experiences during the Great War. Jack’s sister Penelope, a regular character in the first series, is an avid feminist who founds a homeless shelter and engages in the kind of service to low-income families that later distinguishes the social work profession.

The fashion house provides an excellent locus for examining social class interactions, particularly among British women of the period. Many of the clients of The House of Eliott are, as you might expect, of the higher social classes. It’s evident that most of them are members of old aristocratic families who live in very large houses with many servants and who have no apparent source of income. (This may explain why the sisters have trouble getting some of them to pay on their accounts regularly, causing cash flow problems for the business.) Although the Eliotts’ father was a medical doctor, they were decidedly not to the manor born, and are constantly having to scramble to maintain their place in the social circles where they must mingle in order to hold on to their clientele. The Maddoxes’ parents, on the other hand, provided them with an education while they were growing up, which places them at a considerable advantage in these social circles (although Penelope scorns such activities).

Bea and Evie design the clothes that bear the Eliott label and interact directly with the clients. The women who do the production are all very obviously working class – we can tell that because they are less attractive than the Eliotts and their clients, and their accents are less refined. They enter The House of Eliott through a basement door, then sit around a big table in a workroom and sew and gossip furiously for hours and hours, sometimes stopping at a neighborhood pub on the way home. Jack’s socially-conscious mother challenges the sisters to become more aware of their workers’ personal lives and their needs outside of the workplace. It’s obvious that this is not something that would have otherwise occurred to them. Of course these women don’t appear to have many needs outside the workplace. Even the married ones don’t talk about their husbands or children. They don’t appear to abuse alcohol, they don’t have unwanted pregnancies, and they don’t suffer from domestic violence. They are always clean and nicely dressed. About the only bit of squalor I remember seeing is the apartment of a ballet dancer who invites Evie over for tea after The House of Eliott designs costumes for a show she’s in.

With The House of Eliott, Atkins and Marsh make excellent use of advances in video production and appear to have a substantially larger operating budget than they did for Upstairs, Downstairs. The colors are exquisite, the costumes lavish, the scenes rich with detail, some of which appears to be entirely gratuitous. In addition to standing sets for the fashion house (multiple rooms), Jack’s photography studio, and the sisters’ apartment, scenes are regularly filmed in other indoor locations, such as manor houses, restaurants, museums, and theatres, with great attention to period detail and the placement of appropriately costumed extras.

The street scenes are especially noteworthy for their textural density and historical accuracy. These were always a weak point on Upstairs, Downstairs. In The House of Eliott, the shots are wide enough to be convincing, and the streets are full of people and vehicles, including automobiles, motorized lorries, and horse-drawn wagons of the sort still used by many of the trades even at that late date. Most remarkably, I think the scenes are shot in real locations. When the sisters finally travel to Paris, the places they visit look like they are in Paris – in the spring, of course.

I think it’s difficult to sustain dramatic tension in a series like this. The screenwriters of The House of Eliott (who are far too numerous to mention) make liberal use of fairly low-level cliff-hanging devices to accomplish this. The characters are seldom in any real danger. People who die typically do so off camera. Even when the House is having financial difficulties, which it does quite regularly, the sisters are gorgeously dressed, immaculately coiffed, well fed and comfortably domiciled. Domestic quarrels are plentiful, but never lead to acts of physical aggression or the use of shocking or abusive language. This is generally a very polite society.

Like most DVDs based on television dramas of this vintage, the set for The House of Eliott doesn’t provide an abundance of special features. You buy these for the quality of the print (scintillating!) and the chance to watch the show without commercial interruption and at your convenience. For viewers interested in the lives of women living in urban Britain between the wars, you can’t do much better than this!

(A BBC/Arts and Entertainment Network Co-Production,
Originally Broadcast 1991-1993, DVD collection released by Acorn Media, 2005 to 2006)

One last thing – about Series Three:

When they became available early in 2006, Acorn Media sent us the DVDs for series three of The House of Eliott. We viewed them later in the year. Since I had already reviewed the first two years of the series, I thought the best way to handle this was just to add a coda to the earlier review.

The story picks up when the Eliott sisters and their employee Madge are wrapping up their evidently successful visit to the United States under the sponsorship of Sears, Roebuck, which has arranged to carry a line of ready-to-wear designed by the House of Eliott. Still estranged from Jack, Bea has picked up a new beau, debonair Sears executive Donald Bradley, who follows the ladies back to England. Over the course of the next few episodes, Bea decides that she still loves Jack and settles down with him just as he is shifting his attention from film direction to investigative journalism. He’s such an engaging character that it’s easy to overlook his rather short attention span.

Through a new employee, a talented but unreliable designer named Grace Keeble, Evie meets a couple of artists, Miles Bannister and Daniel Page. In different ways, each of these young men plays a key role in the rest of the story. Meanwhile, Madge discovers a new love (not her husband Jerry) while Tilly and her husband Norman struggle to keep their marriage together following a tragedy. By the end of the season, The House of Eliott has nearly fallen apart, Bea and Jack have a daughter, Jack wins a seat in the House of Commons, and Evie is married. Does this all sound a bit like a soap opera? I would hesitate to suggest otherwise.

The final episode ends with a heated confrontation that raises serious questions about the future of The House of Eliott and the relationship between the sisters. A bit of background research helped me to put this into perspective. The writers didn’t know that BBC was pulling the plug at this point, and fully expected to have another season to wrap up some of the dangling plot threads. Frustrated, I tracked down a novel titled A House at War (Elizabeth O’Leary, St. Martin’s Press, 1994) that purported to offer a continuation of the story. Alas, such is not the case. This book reads like very badly-written fan fiction. The characters don’t look or act even remotely like the characters in the video series, while the plot line has gone off in a completely different direction. So if you really enjoyed the first two seasons of The House of Eliott, I offer fair warning that you may not appreciate the finale to this season and to the series as a whole.

Series three contains ten episodes, running 521 minutes in total, or just under an hour an episode. Like the earlier two sets, this package contains little in the way of special features other than cast filmographies and scene indices for each episode. The production values are every bit as crisp and bright as those in the earlier sets, making these a visual pleasure, even if the story itself is less than fully satisfactory.


Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.

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