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Upstairs and Downstairs

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Pan, London, 1959
(first published by Neville Spearman, 1957)
192 pages; price: 2/6

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.

opening lines:
Domestic service is a dying profession. In a few years time the last decaying handful of cooks, maids and nannies will have crumbled away with the dust of attics, or been washed down the drains of derelict basement areas.

Claudia Cardinale

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:

One of the big disadvantages of sleeping together in married life is the invariable way an argumentative conversation always starts the moment the light is switched off. Both parties are usually tired and yearning for sleep. The brain is slow on the uptake, and thought is sluggish and inaccurate. Hearing is impaired because one ear is blocked on the pillow and perhaps a sheet or blanket or both rests over and irritates the other. The result is a desultory, repetitive, senseless and inconclusive roundabout of question, repeated question and repeated answer which gets nowhere and can hiccough along into the small hours. The whole is punctuated by turning, tossing, pillow frisking, throwing off, tucking in or even complete bed-making. (p.91)

Marvellous writing.

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.

from the maker of
click to enlarge
The Full Treatment
my thanks to Ms Michelle Coomber
for donating this book