Upstairs and Downstairs
Pan, London, 1959
To my wife and daughters
Pan, London, 1959
dedication: To my wife and daughters
The blurb on the back:
The riotously funny story of two young newly-weds and their more bizarre experiences among the stream of domestics and mother's helps who, in seven years, stood between them and the sink. This racy chronicle of domestic un-bliss, upstairs and downstairs, will leave you helpless with laughter.
Admittedly I’m a big fan of British humour in the 1950s, but even so this is by any objective measure tremendous fun. Essentially it’s a series of vignettes as Mr and Mrs Thorn attempt to find some domestic help, first for themselves, and then to look after their first child. And, er, that’s it. Doesn’t sound too gripping, but the succession of characters who descend upon the Thorns’ household for varying lengths of time are fabulously well observed, from the middle-aged prostitute posing as a cook to the opium-smoking Chinese nurse. Best of all is the German who comes from Belsen and has what one might call ‘issues’ to resolve. In fact most of those employed are foreign, presumably because of the now-commonplace observation that the British have lost the ethos of service. This is a world in which the grand days of duty-bound servants have long gone, and all that’s left are agencies ‘where the well-to-do engage ne’er-do-wells and the agency does very well out of both of them’ (p.52), and the subtle shift of power is delicately portrayed.
In addition to the genuinely warm comedy - which won’t actually ‘leave you helpless with laughter,’ but will keep you gently amused - there’s also a joy in the depiction of middle-class culture, particularly in their diet (mostly French) and in such details as the ready consideration of whether to obtain an abortion (strictly illegal at this stage, of course). I assume that it’s all derived from real experience, mostly because it rings so true in its detail:
As the cover proudly proclaims, this was filmed by Gerald Thomas (later to give us Percy’s Progress) in a movie that featured a fabulous cast – Sid James, Joan Hickson and Joan Sims amongst others – but I haven’t seen it. Doubt if it’s as good as the book, though.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5
from the maker of
The Full Treatment