Created in the 1970s by the BBC and the producer of Upstairs, Downstairs, this two-season period drama bases its story of a Cockney cook, caterer, and hotelier on the life of Rosa Lewis, known as the “Duchess of Jermyn Street.” Although I am a sucker for stories about cooking, upstairs-downstairs memoirs, and the Edwardian era, I’d never tried this series, because… well, I remember the ’70s. Many aspects of the ’70s have not aged well. I am pleased to report, though, that Duchess of Duke Street holds up decades later, thanks not only to good storytelling but to detailed costuming and set dressing.
In the last years of Victoria’s reign, if you wanted the Prince of Wales to come to your dinner party, you let him know that Rosa Lewis would be cooking. (Whether it was only Lewis’s cooking that Edward admired was a subject on which she would not comment.) Having begun life in service, Lewis parlayed her skills in the kitchen to a career as caterer to aristocrats and proprietor of the Cavendish hotel, a place where the wealthy could find a discreet rendezvous with, or away from, their loved ones.
While the BBC series changes the names— to Louisa Trotter and the Bentinck Hotel—many details come straight from Lewis’s memoirs, including the doorman who vets customers according to whether Fred, his terrier, approves of them. While Lewis never elaborated on her history with the Prince of Wales, the series spins an engrossing story of how their association might have caused and then destroyed her first marriage. When that marriage implodes, Louisa Trotter drags herself out of debt to build a career and a clientele at the Bentinck,via hard work and high standards for everyone, but especially for herself.
The hotel makes a perfect setting for episodic stories, functioning as a more genteel, old-fashioned Fawlty Towers with both an eccentric cast of regulars and visiting guest actors such as a young Anthony Andrews. Class issues are frequently the centerpiece of a story: a clerk with only a short time left to live decides to spend his savings living like a lord; a wealthy woman leaves her estate not to her gadabout nephew, but to her chauffeur, who needs My-Fair-Lady style lessons to handle his new status in society. Throughout the series, Louisa and her maybe-soul mate, Charlie, Lord Haslemere, circle around one another, separated by issues of both class and trust—and eventually by the fact that he has married a Gothic Heroine, oops. I’m still watching my way through series 2, where the War is on the horizon.
Gemma Jones plays Louisa Trotter with great force of character, square-shouldered physicality, and fantastic dresses. The supporting cast are enjoyable as well, particularly John Welsh as Merriman, the hotel’s scowling, curmudgeonly butler. His deadpan reactions to the behavior of the younger generation—which is everybody else on the show—are some of the show’s best moments.
Check the WRL catalog for The Duchess of Duke Street