Saturday, January 04, 2014

To Serve Man: Our Fascination With Servants

Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's 'Rebecca' 1940
It's an eye-opening seven degrees outside on this frigid Friday night and I've got to be at work at 10am, but my heart is warmed by the knowledge that the "Downton Abbey" season four premiere is on at 9pm this Sunday night on PBS.

For history buffs such as myself "Downton Abbey" is not just must-see television, it's a fascinating fictional look into the everyday lives of a sometimes politely dysfunctional early 20th century British upper class family and the numerous servants who's lives revolve around serving their every need. 

The real lives of servants and the families they sereved were far more complex than can be portrayed on a one hour television show. If you want a much more scholarly perspective, earlier today on NPR's 'Fresh Air' British author Lucy Lethbridge was interviewed about her book, 'Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain From the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times'.

You can listen to the interview online, and she offers some fascinating insights about the lives of British domestic servants based on extensive research of interviews, diaries, letters and actual memoirs written by former servants about their lives 'in service'.

If you're a 'Downton Abbey' fan you'll find the interview interesting, I'm going to keep an eye out for a used copy on Amazon or

While there are those who might dismiss the show, 'Downton Abbey' is sort of like British humor, either you get it or you don't. It's essentially a very well written period soap opera with outstanding production value and an amazing cast that delivers excellent on-screen performances.

For three years this show has been a massive global hit, pulling in huge ratings here in the US. Part of the appeal of the show is simply the opportunity for many of us to peek inside a world we don't get to see very often; and it manages to be one of those television shows that successfully transports the audience to a different time and place.

I think we as Americans also tend to connect with servants as fictional television characters to a degree for both their wit and wisdom. Servants have been central characters in any number of popular television shows. From 'Benson', the character Alice in 'The Brady Bunch', Higgins in 'Magnum PI', or Alfred in the 'Batman' TV show (and later the movies) to 'Lurch' in the 'Addams Family'.

In film, servants like Hobson in the original 'Arthur' (played by Sir John Gielgud) made us cry, while servants like Mammy in 'Gone With the Wind' (played by Hattie McDaniel) or Agador Spartacus in 'The Birdcage' (played by Hank Azaria) made us laugh.

There are servants we love to hate like Franz, the Nazi sympathizing butler in 'The Sound of Music'.

My personal all-time favorite servant is the creepy unsmiling Mrs. Danvers (pictured above) in Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant psychological thriller 'Rebecca' (1940) played brilliantly by Dame Judith Anderson - literally one of the scariest on-screen characters ever and to Anderson's credit, played without the aid of monster make-up or special effects.

Star Trek fans will remember her in 'Star Trek III: The Search for Spock' as the Vulcan High Priestess who transfers Spock's consciousness back into his own regenerated body from Dr. McCoy's mind at the end of the film.

Anyway stay warm - you know where I'll be this Sunday night at 9.

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