Streaming The Grand on Netflix
Vintage BBC Series for Downton Abbey Fans
By: Charles Giuliano - Jan 02, 2014
On Sunday, January 5 the much anticipated PBS series Downton Abbey returns.
High end British soap opera first captured the imagination of American television audiences with the classic series Upstairs Downstairs from 1971 to 1975.
In between was the riveting 1997/ 1998, 18 episode series The Grand.
Recently we streamed it on Netflix and became enthralled. We found ourselves riveted by lively episodes chock full of plot twists and super performances. After the evening news, Jeopardy, and our regular programming we topped off evenings with The Grand.
After yet another cliff hanger ending we looked at each other and agreed to another, then another, and another. One evening that meant lights out at one. Which is way past our bedtime.
The series, scripted by Russell T. Davies, is set in an upscale 1920s Manchester hotel run by the Bannerman family. It is the exclusive inheritance of the eldest son, John Bannerman, a stiff upper lip character as played by Michael Siberry. He has taken loans to invest in an upgrade but in the first chapter the accountant, who has speculated and lost the assets, commits suicide.
The philandering, smarmy younger brother Marcus, played with slick malevolence by the spot on Mark McGann, offers to sell off holdings in slum property to buy in as full partner and save the hotel. But it ensues that he has deeper, more twisted ambitions and sibling rivalry. Which entails gradually seducing his brother’s wife Sarah. She is played with cool conviction by Julia St. John.
We see what happens when women marry for position and security rather than love. That passion has to go somewhere. Men have their clubs and tarts while women are expected to suffer in silence and stand by their husbands and families. It’s no big deal when men fool around but the Fall of the British Empire when women hit the sheets.
Marcus who has his way with women torments his companion the heiress Ruth (Amanda Mealing) who seems to match his cunning. Surprisingly, after season one (eight episodes) she is now his wife, and for no reason that makes sense, replaced by Victoria Scarborough. The two actresses have remarkably different approaches to Ruth. It’s a disruptive disconnect. There is another puzzling switch out when John and Sarah’s son, Stephen, back from the trenches with then undiagnosed PTSD, is played well by Stephen Moyer in the first series and less so by Ifan Meredith in the second.
Why on earth would they switch horses in mid-stream? The norm is to kill off characters and this bait and switch just became confusing.
By early season two John and Sarah have been pushed out by Marcus who has achieved his ambition to be sole owner of The Grand.
He also runs a flapper era jazz club where the idle rich dance the night away. In a bad move Stephen is made the manager.
While the drama focuses on the rise and fall of a provincial British family the help, downstairs and on the floor, are every bit if not even more fascinating.
There are the usual scullery maids and porters with the requisite romantic intrigues, rivalries and dreams of moving on up the daunting ladder of British society. We really root for the underdogs like the wonderfully innocent and loveable Kate (Rebecca Callard) who is smitten with the bounder Stephen. She knows her place with precision in a manner that he does not. Still he leads her on to no good end.
The strongest character in the series, other than the devilishly fascinating Marcus, is Jacob Collins (Tim Healy) the all-seeing hall porter. In formal attire he directs traffic in the lobby. He is truly wise but speaks only when spoken to and then with disciple and tact. He has a terrible back story involving a deserter son who was hanged.
The most intriguing “guest,” actually a permanent resident, is Esme Harkness (Susan Hampshire) a retired prostitute and Madame who regards her trade as a profession. She is often more than a match for the ladies who scorn her as much as she is adored by their men.
Esme undertakes to tutor a house maid, Monica Jones (Jane Danson), in her seductive arts. This turns out rather badly but we won’t ruin it. It is oddly poignant when we hear Esme claim that she is only looking out for the best interests of the girls. She has elevated herself from utter poverty to living with cash and style. As proto feminism she wants to see other liberated women have those opportunities.
She, a woman of remarkable compassion, appears to genuinely care for her distinguished Johns. When put on the spot, with a twinkle in her eye, she claims to know the fathers, husbands, brothers and friends of those who put her down.
Esme is cast in the great tradition of European courtesans of 19th century art and literature.
In contemporary society those formerly elegant and skilled women are just hos and hookers. Unless you spring for the platinum credit card. Or, so they say.
Check out this vintage series. It takes a few episodes to get into but from then on it’s an addiction. Last night we watched the incredible final chapter. Expect the unexpected.
Now what to do tonight?
Oh well, on Sunday there’s another season of Downton Abbey.