The series, originally shown in 1976, was recently released on DVD and it is a welcome addition. Involving stories, great acting, attention to period detail and a story spanning decades helped to create one of the most memorable British television series ever. Watching it again on DVD, I was struck by a number of things. The first is the series is very long. Long for British Television. When the creator of a British television series goes to work, they generally create 6 or 8, maybe 10, infrequently as many as 12 episodes at a time. Each time they go in front of the cameras, they are creating a new "Series"; British shows are measured in terms of series, some add new series every year, some do a couple of series, take some time off and then return a few years later, presumably after some fresh inspiration. Some shows, like "Fawlty Towers" run for 12 episodes and that's it. So watching "The Duchess of Duke Street" again, I was struck that the series includes 31 episodes, more than a traditional "season" on U. S. television. Also, they only did one series. Perhaps Gemma Jones was exhausted.
The series begins with Louisa interviewing with a famous French chef in a large household. The chef is dubious, but Louisa convinces him to give her a try. Soon, he is happy and her place is secure. She begins to soak up information like a sponge. The Head of the House returns from vacation early, while the Chef is still away, and Louisa has to put together a meal quickly. She comes through with flying colors, attracting the attention of one of the guests, the Prince of Wales. They begin an affair, but the Prince can not be seen consorting with a common chef, so an elaborate ruse is created. Louisa will marry the Head Butler. In exchange, they will receive a nice home and "assistance". The Prince will continue to meet Louisa in secret. Along the way, she meets Charlie Tyrrel (Christopher Cazenove), a member of the royal family, and the definition of `playboy.' Their initial meeting doesn't go well. Soon, the prince becomes King Edward and a new era in England begins. Their relationship ends and Louisa decides to open the Bentink Hotel on Duke Street, catering to a very exclusive clientele. During a difficult period, Charlie convinces her to let him lease a suite of rooms, for his use, and helps her keep the hotel open. She will only take in the most exclusive clients, hire the most discerning staff and build a grand reputation. Over the years, Louisa and Charlie develop a relationship which creates a sort of roller coaster ride of its own.
A lot of the power of "Duchess" comes from Gemma Jones performance. Louisa is very strong, able to deal with any of the many problems and situations dealt her throughout her life. A working class girl who recognizes there is more to life than doing laundry or scrubbing floors, she wants to become a cook, despite the scarcity of female chefs in the country, and gets a job with a renowned chef. Working hard, struggling, she learns as much as possible. Soon, she becomes head of her own kitchen, but then the Prince of Wales enters her life and her career ends. Forced into an arranged marriage, for the sake of propriety, she continues to see the Prince of Wales and her husband becomes more and more irritated by the constraints of their marriage. Louisa puts up with very little, but she endures her husband for longer than she should.
After they decide to open the Bentink, against Louisa's better judgment, she begins to see the benefits and puts her all into this project as well. When her husband almost runs it into the ground, she runs him off and struggles to pay off his debts.
The key to Jones performance is she is a very strong woman. She doesn't take a lot of guff and is unwilling to compromise herself or her life for anyone. She doesn't suffer fools gladly. On the rare occasion she does let down her guard, it almost always causes another problem. You might think that she would become even more stoic, even more guarded, and, to a certain extent, she does, but she also still occasionally makes mistakes, adding more problems and drama to her life. In other words, she is human. And Jones does a remarkable job of creating this character, presenting her as a strong-willed woman, capable of making mistakes, but also capable of fixing them.
The two supporting characters who influence her life the most are Charlie and her husband. Both are played well, but Christopher Cazenove has the more romantic, dashing role of becoming Louisa's love.
Another thing that struck me as I watched the series again was that some situations were resolved very quickly, too quickly in some cases. The series runs for 31 episodes, so there is time for the narrative to take its course. It isn't necessary to rush the story. In one episode, Louisa learns she is pregnant. In the next scene, the Hotel staff is making due with her absence while on `vacation'. We learn that her vacation was a ruse to cover her extended stay at a hospital, where she has had a daughter and given her up for adoption. We never meet the daughter, never even see Louisa pregnant, and after this Louisa only mentions the daughter again, very briefly, in a much later episode. Perhaps unwanted pregnancies were taken care of this way in Edwardian England, but the series was shown in the mid-70s, at the height of the Woman's Power movement. It would seem a little more helpful, empowering and more to actually see Louisa deal with this problem in a little more detail.
When the character played by the star takes a "vacation", or is "on assignment", leaving the action to focus on supporting characters, it means one of two things. The star is either directing the episode and can't be in both places at once, or they needed a break. This happens three times over the course of "Duchess". I think the length of the project, and the fact that Jones is in practically every scene of the series, caused her to need an occasional break. So, at one point Louisa is on `vacation', getting a much needed rest. On another, she is off to France to cook a meal for a client. Unfortunately, Louisa is the force of the series, driving everything else. When she isn't around, the supporting characters do an admirable job, but the show is much less captivating and a lot less interesting. These characters are simply not as engaging as Louisa. An episode concerning an affair between a man and women, whom we have just met, proves particularly annoying. Thankfully, these are few and far between.
The series is only slightly dated. The credits and titles are very rudimentary, screaming their origin during the mid 70s. Also, on the few occasions when the story moves outdoors, the footage seems shot with another system completely. If they shot the interior footage on film (which I don't believe to be the case), it looks like the exterior footage was shot on video. The two don't mesh and haven't held up well, so even the interior footage looks slightly glossy, like it was created on early generation video.
These few complaints aside, "The Duchess of Duke Street" is a great series to watch. Gemma Jones gives a forceful, fascinating performance as one of the strongest-willed women you might ever encounter in a series filled with great attention to detail, presenting a fascinating portrait of life in Edwardian England