Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007
House of British Television
House of British Television November 20, 2007 | 08:52 AM A strange thought has become widespread, striking many people in the last decade: television has gotten better than the movies! Well, not all television or all movies, but between "The Sopranos," "House" and "Law and Order," it seems that intelligent writing and character development had begun to migrate from big screen to small—especially to premium cable channels such as HBO or Showtime. Of course, there has always been good TV and bad film. It may be that movies were sinking in the '90s as some sectors of television were ascending. But let's not forget that in the 1970s and '80s, before cable, there was a premium channel in most markets called PBS. In the drama department most of its intelligent writing and character development had a distinct accent, the product of BBC and other British producers. In the '70s "Upstairs Downstairs" maintained the gold standard for British TV drama, which leisurely and episodically unfolded across the years like a literate soap opera. The creators of that series returned in the '90s with "The House of Eliott," a costume piece set in 1920s London. The Emmy winner has recently been released as a 12-disc DVD set. "The House of Eliott" concerns a pair of sisters (Louise Lombard, Stella Gonet), who find themselves bereft after the death of their socially prominent father, who left them with little more than a pile of unpaid bills, not to mention an unsuspected mistress and half brother. Laughing about the frumpy but wealthy women they observe at the teashop, the sisters begin sketching out stylish Jazz Age fashion designs—beautiful costumes that would still be striking today. Step by step they become the Coco Chanels of London against a backdrop of male condescension, class divisions and the dire poverty of the masses. It was startling whenever the stage-bound cast of "Upstairs Downstairs" emerged from their townhouse into the open air. "The House of Eliott" is more mobile, its characters are out and about amid accurate period detailing. Rambling and episodic, it lacks the compelling, concentrated artistry of a Merchant Ivory film, but includes a more-than-decent measure of British wit and a cast of believable characters whose lives one begins to care about.