Ok, I’m going to be totally honest with you: I didn’t care for Upstairs, Downstairs (at least, not the two first episodes I watched). I can’t say why, because it should have been right up my alley. I think it was because one of the main characters, Sarah, was so damn annoying that I couldn’t stand to watch another minute of her acting like a moron. I’ll go back to it someday and give it another go, and I am genuinely excited about the new U-D episodes coming out in the spring, but right now, I actually prefer the Duchess of Duke Street, which was BBC’s answer to U-D. There’s something about the gruff, up-by-her-bootstraps Louisa Leyton that I find interesting and entertaining. Season two, in my opinion, wasn’t as good as season one, but I still loved it, and I figured it’ll help get me in the Edwardian frame of mind ahead of the premiere of Downton Abbey on PBS in January. So, here we go…
London 1900. A nice looking young woman with reddish hair emerges from a brick rowhouse, pinning her hat into place as a horse-drawn bus rumbles past. She flags it down and climbs inside, where she pulls out a letter and starts reading it, smiling and looking excited and a little nervous.
Now in a nicer part of town, the same young woman makes her way past two starched nannies wheeling a pram and approaches a large white mansion. As is appropriate for a woman in her position, she makes her way down a staircase to the underground kitchens.
Inside, she takes a seat in a hallway with two other women. Clearly, everyone’s here after a job. A footman comes out and asks her to follow him into a sitting room, where a woman in a black dress and a man with in a suit with an impressive moustache wait for her. The footman also kindly names our heroine: Miss Leighton. Her first name’s Louisa, which is shorter, so I’ll go with that. Louisa faces down her interviewers, looking slightly paler than she was earlier, and definitely nervous. The woman in black introduces herself as Mrs. Catchpole, Lord Henry Norton’s housekeeper, and the man beside her is Monsieur Alex, the cook. Catchpole invites Louisa to sit and exposits that Louisa’s there to interview for an assistant cook job. She’s been cooking elsewhere, in a middle-class home, but she wants to learn more from a proper French chef, like M. Alex, so she can move up. She’s been in service since she was 12, which wasn’t unusual, and she’s done almost everything, including scullery maid. But it seems cooking is her real love. Catchpole lays out some rules: no boyfriends, and you have to attend church. In return, you get £26 a year, plus room and board, with a bedroom to herself. Louisa’s still game for the job, so Catchpole ends the interview. One Louisa’s shown out, Catchpole remarks that she seems like a nice, sensible sort. M. Alex is worried that she’s too pretty, and he doesn’t want a woman in the kitchen anyway, since they make lousy cooks, in his opinion.
Louisa has been successful and is back home, packing up her meager belongings in a battered leather satchel while her horrible mother squawks and whines and does all she can to make Louisa feel bad about herself. The scene goes on and on, so here’re the basics: mom, who has the most awful voice, is a heinous, selfish, annoying bitch who yanked Louisa out of school when she was a kid (despite Louisa’s desire to stay) so she could shove her daughter into service, and now that Louisa’s attempting to make the best out of her life, mom complains and caterwauls and harps on her daughter to just get married already, like a good little Victorian. While some people might have become horribly scarred emotional cripples after 20-some years of having to live with this woman, Louisa just got stronger, and she yells her mother down, telling her she wants to move up in the world the only way she can, by rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty. With one less silencing shout at her mother, she whirls out and heads back to Mayfair.
There, she gets right to work, whipping up some eggs in the palatial kitchen that makes me weep with jealousy. A tall, skinny, severe looking maidservant glances at Louisa as she passes her worktable, then joins her frizzy-haired friend at the other side of the room, where they immediately commence with the bitchery. Louisa’s being tested by having to make a crème caramel. The bitch sisters talk about how much Louisa sucks and how much her clothes suck, and it’s not long before we learn that this is plain sour grapes—the dark-haired woman (Jean) was up for the job but didn’t get it. Jean claims M. Alex was very upset, actually, that he couldn’t promote her, and she suspects there was some outside influence at work. Sure there was. They start talking about how Louisa looks like a slut, as a young woman with a Welsh accent comes into the scullery, where they’re having their bitch session, and has the audacity to stick up for Louisa. The bitch bullies immediately start in on her (her name’s Mary, and she’s so wet behind the ears you could practically grow mushrooms there).
Later, Louisa takes her crème caramel out of the water bath and sets it out for M. Alex, who’s now dressed in chef’s whites and a giant toque. He gently shakes the caramel and declares it inedible. Crème caramel should shudder slightly when shaken, if it’s done properly. If it doesn’t, it’s a hockey puck and has been cooked way too long. Louisa defends herself, but M. Alex does know his business (even if he’s a bit harsh) and says the thing will be like leather when it’s cool. The Bitch Bullies watch all this from the sidelines, giggling gleefully. I want them to get punched in the face. M. Alex tells Louisa to go to the scullery and help Ivy with the washing up. Louisa indignantly says she’ll do no such thing, because she didn’t take the job to wash up, she came to learn how to cook. M. Alex isn’t used to being talked back to and he strides right out of there. Louisa, red-faced, stands there for a second, being stared at by the rest of the kitchen staff, and then she runs upstairs.
The Bitch Bullies giggle and predict Louisa will be out of a job by dinnertime. Then they call her a slut again, because that’s all they know how to do. Mary scrubs a table and looks sad.
Upstairs, in her room, Louisa paces, looking agitated, and finally grabs her satchel and starts packing it, clearly expecting to get the sack. Someone knocks on the door and she calls them in after shoving the satchel under the bed. It’s Mary, with a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. Mary conspiratorially says she managed to sneak it up past everyone, and the others would kill her if they knew. Louisa thanks her, accidentally calling her “Maisie.” Mary corrects the name, and Louisa apologizes. Mary goes to leave before she’s missed, but when she hears someone else coming up the stairs, she starts to look panicky. Louisa asks her what she’s so scared of and Mary says she’s scared of Ivy, she of the frizzy haired bitchery, who’s found an easy target in the young scullery maid. It’s so bad, Mary admits, she’s thought of running away sometimes. Louisa fiercely tells her never to run away, wait until they chuck her out, but don’t leave a minute sooner, because then the others win. Plus, if you leave, you can’t possibly get a reference, which is as good as the kiss of death for someone in service.
Louisa sits down with her tea and asks what the gossip is in the kitchen. Mary tells her M. Alex went up to see the housekeeper, and the others say Louisa will be sacked. Can you imagine going home to that mother of hers after getting fired after one day of work? Louisa admits she needs to learn to keep her mouth shut and control her temper, but Mary thinks she’s pretty awesome for standing up for herself. She slips out, and after a few moments, Louisa follows.
Back down in the kitchen, Louisa stands around, waiting for M. Alex to return and give her an assignment, as Ivy and Jean eye her and prep for the next meal. M. Alex finally comes in and calls Louisa into his office. Once there, he tells her he doesn’t want her to stay, but apparently he has to. Louisa reminds M. Alex that she was promised a month’s trial, which is why she isn’t currently being shown the door. M. Alex rolls his eyes and finally starts teaching by telling her that a cook’s most important tool is his or her nose, followed by the tongue and then the eyes. He doesn’t think Louisa understands this, but she argues that she loves cooking and all she wants to do is learn. He tells her that cooking is an art and requires hard work and talent. He tells her to forget everything she knows, and to make sure to always use the best ingredients, chosen only by herself. They head back into the kitchen, where he scolds Ivy and Jean for just standing around, then he starts showing Louisa the fine art of mise en place. As he does so, Mary enters with a coal scuttle and smiles happily at the sight of Louisa still working.
The following day, Lousia’s setting out M. Alex’s mise when the butler comes in to consult with Monsieur about the wines for that night’s dinner. As she fetches herbs, Louisa listens in on the suggestions, and when she catches the butler’s eye through the office window that overlooks the kitchen, she gives him a BIG smile.
M. Alex and the butler emerge from Alex’s office; the butler takes off, but M. Alex informs Louisa they’ll be spending the next few weeks learning pastry. He pulls out a marble slab and the lesson commences.
Later (or another day, it’s not clear), Louisa pulls some cheese straws out of the oven and asks Jean, who’s peeling potatoes nearby, if she would mind fetching a cooling tray for them, since Louisa’s hands are full with the baking sheet. Jean, never missing an opportunity to be heinous, refuses to help, which provokes a sharpish (and deserved, in my opinion) response from Louisa. She nastily tells Louisa that she’s M. Alex’s kitchen maid, not Louisa’s, and if she wants someone to fetch and carry for her, she’ll have to ask someone else.
While Louisa angrily fetches a cooling tray, a young gentleman with blonde hair comes down the stairs, and is soon greeted by Jean as Mr. Charles. He greets her right back as “the Fair Maid of Calais” which cracks me up but of course she laps that one up like a starving cat in front of a bowl of cream. He eyes Louisa appreciatively and says he just came down to compliment M. Alex on the sorbet they had at dinner the night before. Louisa busts in and tells him she’s the one who made the sorbet. He gets all flirty as he strolls over, takes one of the cheese straws off the tray, passes along his compliments, and strolls back upstairs. This puts Jean in a right snit, and she stomps over to the oven to childishly plonk down a pan. Louisa asks who the young man is and Jean says he’s The Honorable Charles Tirrell, son and heir of Lord Halzelmere and favorite nephew of Lord Henry. Jean snippily tells Louisa not to try “any of [her] tricks on Mr, Charlie.” She stomps off and Louisa sticks her tongue out at her back.
Upstairs, Charlie wanders around, smiling to himself.
Late at night, Mary hauls a giant kettle to the stove and sets it down before dragging another one off, sounding like she’s crying. My guess is she’s suffering from sheer exhaustion—being a scullery maid was one of the worst service jobs you could get. All you did was the crap work nobody else wanted, and you got crapped on by everybody because you were the lowest man on the totem pole.
The butler, Mr. Trotter, comes down and heads into M. Alex’s office, where he finds Louisa at work on the next day’s menus. She asks for Trotter’s help deciphering M. Alex’s handwriting and then asks him about wines, which are apparently something of a specialty of his. One that’s been serviced by his many trips abroad with Lord Henry, who takes him along as a valet and loader for hunting trips. Louisa’s impressed to hear about all the places he’s visited, and also that he’s a pretty good shot himself. She asks about his family and Trotter spins quite a yarn about how his parentage is murky, but it’s fairly certain that his mother was of noble birth. Judging by how easily Louisa falls for that line (and she doesn’t seem like the type to fall for a line easily), I’m willing to bet this story gets ‘em every time. The best Louisa can boast is that her grandfather helped make the crown jewels.
Louisa hears Mary sobbing and goes to see what’s up. Trotter admits that, when he was starting out in service, he used to cry all the time from, as I guessed, exhaustion. Louisa takes the lamp and goes into the scullery to comfort Mary. Mary’s only there because she’s being punished by Ivy for breaking something. She was supposed to have the evening off and was planning on visiting her aunt in the hospital. Louisa kindly sends her off and offers to finish up the scrubbing for her. She even gives her cab fare and scares up a chunk of meat pie to send along to the sick woman. Mary thanks her and goes on her way, while Louisa takes over the washing up in the scullery. That’s how M. Alex finds her, and he asks what the deal is, because there are two kitchen maids to do the washing up. Louisa explains that it’s Mary’s night off and Ivy wasn’t feeling well (interestingly not throwing Ivy under the bus, although you know Ivy would never return the favor). M. Alex says it still won’t do for her to be washing up, because she’s a cook, and the cook doesn’t do the lowly work. He’s not being mean about it, it’s just that there’s a pecking order that needs to be maintained. Louisa promises it won’t happen again. As he goes to leave, however, M. Alex notices the cut pie that’s still sitting out and demands an explanation. Louisa tells him about sending it to Mary’s aunt and he indignantly says this is essentially stealing from her employer, like a rich man like Lord Henry’s going to feel that pinch. Come on, M. Alex, chill out. It feels like he’s just looking for a reason to be pissed. He tells Louisa they’ll discuss this in the morning, then turns and goes upstairs while Louisa returns to the washing.
Washing done, Louisa heads upstairs to bed at last, but when she reaches her room there’s a surprise waiting for her: Charlie, creepily sitting in the shadows, waiting to scare her half to death. He smarmily says he’s just there to compliment her on her cheese straws, but Louisa’s not an idiot and knows what he’s really there for. He pulls a necklace out of his pocket to give her, but she refuses the gift and tells him to piss off, because she’s not there to be some obnoxious playboy’s latest conquest, she’s there to work, thank you very much. She says if he touches her she’ll scream until the whole house wakes. He finally realizes she means business and make himself scarce, leaving the necklace behind on the bed. After he’s gone, Louisa finally allows herself to try it on and admire herself in the mirror. And, of course, as she does so, Charlie lets himself back in and offers his approval of the scene. She freaks out, but he promises he won’t touch her. He takes a seat and has the nerve to say he’s disappointed in her and she flings back that she’s disappointed in him, since he’s just another rich jerk who thinks the servants are his playthings and doesn’t give a second thought to what happens to those servants if they get into trouble of the family kind. Charlie acts like a complete dick, refusing to take her seriously, but Louisa’s on a roll and keeps right on lecturing him (I’m willing to bet nobody ever has).
Charlie finally manages to get a word in and says he just wants to talk to her. He admits he’s at a bit of a loss as to what to do. He’s considered the Boer War (Louisa’s all for that plan), but they don’t want any more amateur soldiers, so he’s thinking of moving down to London and getting his own house. He’ll need someone to look after the house (and him) and he wonders if Louisa might do it? Lest you think he’s offering her a job, he quickly makes things plain: he’s offering to set her up as his mistress, with pretty clothes and a carriage at her disposal. Louisa’s getting flustered and babbles a bit, which doesn’t seem like her at all, but she finally pulls herself together and tells him that she wants to be the best cook in England, not some rich man’s kept woman. He seems to admire her for that, and tells her it’s a good idea. He offers her the necklace as a gift, from one friend to another, and she accepts it. He finally goes, for real this time, but he’s observed by Jean. Oh, crap.
The following day, Louisa’s waiting outside the housekeeper’s sitting room. Jean comes sweeping out without sparing Louisa a glance, and then the footman shows Louisa in. Claypole’s there with M. Alex and tells her they’ve got a serious problem to discuss. Louisa thinks this is still about the stupid pie, and she apologizes for it, but Claypole says this is about the man who was in her room the night before. Louisa admits right away that Charlie was there, and says she threw him out on his ass as soon as she could. Jean, of course, has embroidered things considerably and told the cook and housekeeper that Louisa made an assignation with Charlie in the kitchen and that he was in her room by her invitation. Bitch. Louisa indignantly says that Claypole’s been lied to. Alex is more willing to take Jean’s word for it, since she’s been with them for some years, so Louisa offers her notice on the spot, or better yet, offers to go up to Lord Henry with Jean and Charlie and have him sort the whole matter out. Claypole tries to smooth the waters, perhaps realizing that Louisa wouldn’t be putting up such a spirited defense (and be willing to do it in front of the master of the house) if she were lying. She reassures Louisa that misunderstandings happen in even the best-run households, and they’d really rather not lose her, since she’s come along well enough for M. Alex to trust her to run the kitchen when Lord Henry’s away and M. Alex is on his holiday. Claypole offers to forget the whole matter. Louisa’s fine with that, as long as Jean apologizes to her in front of M. Alex.
In the kitchen, Louisa’s mixing up some pastry while M. Alex lectures Jean in his office. When they come out. Mary and Ivy gather at the door of the scullery to watch Jean apologize for making a mistake. Louisa accepts, acting like she didn’t demand the apology in the first place, and they shake hands, amazing Ivy.
The house is being shut up for the summer months, and down in the kitchen, M. Alex is giving Louisa last-minute instructions. She’ll be in charge of the kitchen, and cooking for the household staff while M. Alex is on vacation. She assures him she’ll be fine and he gets in a dig, saying he wishes he had as much confidence in her as she has in herself. She lets that one roll off her back, and he gives her one last bit of advice: use your brain, not your tongue with Ivy and the others. Be more sympathetic.
Some time later, Trotter and Catchpole have received a message from Lord Henry, informing them he’ll be coming back to London the following day, even though it’s August and he never comes to London in August. Trotter follows Catchpole into her parlor and continues his panic, saying there are a dozen things around the house that need mending, and there’s no chef for the dinner his lordship’s demanding. And none available to borrow, either. Catchpole calls in Louisa, in whom Trotter has no faith. Catchpole ignores him and tells Louisa she’ll have to prepare a special dinner party for 10 people that Thursday. Louisa totally begins to freak out and asks if they can’t get M. Alex back? Nope, he’s in Spain. She pulls herself together, as she does, and says she’ll just have to manage, won’t she?
She immediately repairs to M. Alex’s office, where she has half a dozen cookbooks open and is trying to decide what to make. Mary picks this very bad time to bug her and hand over some money she’s been saving up to pay Louisa back for the cab fare she lent. Louisa takes a moment to thank her, but when Mary starts to talk about how her aunt’s doing much better, Louisa sends her away, not unkindly.
Trotter comes down and Louisa hands over the menu she’s been working on for inspection. He approves and makes some wine suggestions, like he does. She proves she’s been learning M. Alex’s lessons by mentioning she’ll be up with the sun the next day to go to the market herself to buy ingredients.
The next day, it’s all hands on deck as the meal is prepped. Produce is unpacked, Ivy plucks a bird, Mary wearily turns the crank on an old-fashioned ice cream machine, Jean strains something and glares at Ivy when she bumps her arm, and Louisa settles a whole flat fish in a giant steamer. Trotter decants, Ivy polishes, Jean strains lemons, and Mary churns.
Louisa makes her way upstairs with the menus and gets a good look at the dining room, which has been done up with these MASSIVE rose centerpieces. They’re almost comically large. She looks around in wonder for a minute, then spots Trotter and asks him who’s coming to dinner. Just a few of his lordship’s more intimate friends, says Trotter, who then offers her a sip of one of the wines he plans to serve. She thanks him (and he corrects her grip on the glass) before handing over the menus and taking a sip. She’s surprised by how sweet it is (it’s a dessert wine) but seems to like it. As she goes to leave, Trotter asks her how she wants the boiled truffles served. She tells him a clean white napkin will be fine, and he seems to approve of the answer.
Back belowstairs, Louisa puts the finishing touches on a few dishes. When a footman comes down to tell them dinner’s been announced, the scurry begins as they pour soups into silver servers and send them up for the diners. Once they’re gone, Louisa fancily decorates the fish, which is then expertly filleted tableside. Something sprouting feathers (a pheasant, maybe?) gets its decorations next while the well-heeled guests gossip (Charlie’s there, of course).
Back in the kitchen, Jean picks up one of the feathered platters, but Ivy comes into the room, crashes into her, and sends the whole thing flying to the floor. Jean calls her stupid and they start fighting, but Louisa breaks it up and takes charge, sending Mary to clean up the mess and Jean to send up the other platter. Luckily, she got more food than they needed. Up goes the pheasant, while Louisa puts the final touches on the poached pears.
Dinner’s over, and Louisa looks exhausted, wiping her hands on her rumpled apron while Mary energetically wipes down the worktable and compliments her on a job well done. Trotter comes down and tells Louisa that she’s wanted in the dining room, which sends her, quite reasonably, into a panic as she wonders if they’ve been poisoned. Trotter gives her no answers, just says the guests want to meet the cook. Louisa tries to make herself presentable as Trotter hustles her up the stairs and Ivy predicts she’ll have her head chopped off. Like she wasn’t the one who screwed up the worst today. Bitch.
Louisa takes a minute to pat her hair into place and fasten her cuffs before following Trotter into the dining room. Only the gentlemen are there, enjoying their cigars and brandy, and one gentleman in particular stops Louisa short: It’s Edward, Prince of Wales (future Edward VII), sitting at the head of the table, smiling and puffing away on a cigar. She stared, practically bug-eyed. He waves her over and congratulates her on a wonderful dinner, extending his hand to shake. She remembers to bob a curtsey before taking it. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a sovereign, telling her it’s “a present sovereign from a future one.” Heh, cute. Edward was well known to be quite the charmer. He was basically his mother’s opposite in every way. Louisa accepts the gift and leaves the room. Once out in the hall, she faints dead away. Thank GOD nobody told her who the guest of honor was before she made the dinner, she’d never have made it through.
Louisa comes to down in the kitchen, with Ivy waving smelling salts under her nose and Mary hovering with a glass of sherry or something. The two girls immediately start in with the questions, of course, and Louisa passes on the prince’s thanks for the dinner. Trotter kindly sets down some glasses of champagne for everyone (except the mysteriously missing Jean) and they have a nice little congratulatory party.
Later that night, Louisa climbs into bed, admires her sovereign for a moment, then puts it under her pillow and goes to sleep, smiling.