October 11, 2011

The stately homes of ‘Masterpiece Interiors’

Not suitable for people with irony deficiency.

I’ve pretty much decided that the real point of Masterpiece Theater, or, to be more precise, of British television drama, are the locations and interiors. They give British TV its appeal and period punch. The sets that define time and place with exactly the right drawing room or dressing room, boudoir or ballroom, or the aspidistra by the door. We gorge on it. We wallow in it.

The sets! The frocks! Poirot’s Art Deco flat, Lady Marjorie's morning room, the exquisitely detailed sense of class induced a wave of nostalgia for the glories that have held the vid-lit set glued to its tellys for over forty years: The Forsyte Saga, The Jewel in the Crown, and, above all,

Brideshead Revisited, that well furnished tale of Baroque palaces and Venetian palazzi in which even the revelation of character is connected to the architecture. 

"Is the dome by Inigo Jones, too?" inquires the earnest Charles Ryder.  To which Sebastian Flyte, the insouciant aristocrat, replies, "Oh, Charles, don't be such a tourist. What does it matter when it was built, if it's pretty."

But tourists we are, in an England that's a giant video theme park filled with stately homes complete with an affable tour guide.
"Good evening," intoned Alistair Cooke, every man's Englishman (even if he was an American citizen for decades), from his easy chair, welcoming us into his electronic parlor, himself an inescapable part of the decor.  After his departure a plethora of other distinguished hosts followed. 
Britain, on the other hand, had to make do without Mr.Cooke or any host. There is a general feeling that the audience can manage on its own, although it seems to me that we ought to return the favor by sending one of ours to host American television programs, explaining us to them.

The Brits, let it be said, produce plenty of teletrash: dreary suburban sitcoms, tacky variety shows, worthy, mind-numbing docudramas concerning oppression with not a decent sofa in sight.  Still, Charles said; "British TV is the least worst in the world."
In choosing materials for drama on the box, the Brits do have a certain feel for what works in a medium where small is better and a pair of talking heads in a well appointed drawing room holds you in a way that scenic vistas never can. On a television screen, squashed spear carriers on a large battlefield usually resemble nothing so much as termites in a commercial for pest control.
But give us a prettily dressed Edwardian boudoir, give us a Queen Anne table laden with family photographs in silver frames,

Production Designer Eve Stewart's sketches for 165 Eaton Place

or Sherlock’s flat with a head in the fridge, a skull on the mantel, a violin to set your teeth on edge, and wallpaper that will induce insomnia, dish it up with lashings of good writing - in British television, good writers are everywhere - and we are theirs.
Dickens, it is often said, would be working at the BBC if he were alive. Written for serialization, Dickens's novels make great mini-series and Hard Times (produced by Granada Television), Bleak House (produced by BBC), and Nicholas Nickleby (Mobil Showcase Network) have all been successfully adapted.  
In Britain, Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy are standard fare, as are Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and P.D.James. There is, in fact, nothing like a classic English murder, with plenty of gore on the chintz and a corpse on the Chippendale chair, to stir an Anglophile's blood.
For a more contemporary fare the BBC turned to John Ie Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People.
"But can't we have more period drama? Can't we have more smashing interiors?"
And period drama and smashing interiors we got.  Vintage trains, trams and cars. Grand hotels and pukka drinking clubs littered the landscape.  BBC and Granada have vast studio facilities: costume designers, camera crews, art directors, prop shops, sound stages.  

Schoolboys in boaters, punts on the river, and the "dreaming spires" of British academe have always been prime fodder for the flocks.

Nineteen twenty-four, the year in which Brideshead Revisited is set, was prime.
The end of the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria was on her throne, has lent us all those overstuffed chaises, the fringed lamp shades, the swagged drapes, and pink silk sofas.

Nineteen-thirteen, just before the Edwardian daydream ended, was a good vintage, and the twenties and thirties provided the stylized Art Deco ambiance for many a series.

As with wine, I guess, the passage of time alters the perception of good years in television and film…
There are, naturally, those who think there's far too much interior decorating on British TV, that you can't see the story for the bric-a-brac, that, fixated by the detail, we miss the big picture. "This is so bloody British," says a character in Fortunes of War. "The Balkans are going up in flames and someone is coming out to lecture the wogs about poetry."
British film and television producer Verity Lambert once recalled a really obsessed designer at London Weekend Television.
"Whatever show he was doing," recalled Lambert, "he used the same piece of furniture over and over. It was a very old, button-backed, leather chesterfield sofa."
I’ll take it.