Beryl's Lot

1973 | United Kingdom

Milkman's wife Beryl Humphries (Carmel McSharry) works as a charlady and until now has been content with her lot. But as she approaches her fortieth birthday, she realises that there must be more to life than being a wife to her milkman husband, a mother to her three grown up children, and a cleaner to all and sundry.

Enrolling in evening classes in philosophy, Beryl hopes to broaden her mind and break her conventional outlook on life. But not everyone is so understanding, especially her gossipy cockney next door neighbour Vi Tonks (Barbara Mitchell) who at first thinks Beryl is getting above herself but then becomes quite affected by her neighbour's efforts to better herself and, following Beryl's lead, begins to read books. This has unfortunate circumstances for Vi as she ends up having a near nervous breakdown!

There were 52 episodes of ‘Beryl’s Lot’ spread over three seasons. The first two series (1973 – 74 and 1975) were 60 minutes in length and the last (1976 – 1977) ran continuously for 26 episodes. Mark Kingston played Beryl’s husband Tom in the first two series but was replaced by George Selway for the final run. Over the course of the three series a number of well-known faces appeared either as regular characters or guest star. These included Queenie Watts, Lynda Marchal (aka Lynda La Plante), Geoffrey Bayldon and Jill Gascoine.  Also sharing the Humphries' family home with Beryl and Tom was their lodger and soon to be son-in-law Fred Pickering played by Robin Askwith.

The series was inspired by Margaret Powell, the cook and cleaner who married a milkman and went to evening classes to keep up with her educated sons. Born with nothing but a hunger to better herself, Powell, who became a television celebrity in her sixties, was known for her explosive laugh and racy accounts of her life below stairs. She took history when she was 58, passed her exam and went on to study English Literature and Language. Hands that once cleaned dishes and mopped floors soon turned to writing and by the time 'Beryl's Lot' came to the screen she had penned eight books.

'Beryl's Lot' was based by part of her book The Treasure Upstairs, when she became a "daily" to eke out a living. Powell was not unfamiliar with this type of work. Her mother had been a cleaner, or char lady as it was known, working for "two bob a day" (10p in today's money), and reportedly had to burn the bannisters in their home on one occasion in order to keep her children warm. According to Margaret, her mother showed a lot of promise at school and had at one time wanted to be a teacher. "I think," she said, "the more intelligent you are, but without opportunity, the bigger inferiority complex you grow up with." It was something that both her mother and Margaret suffered with for most of their life. Like her mother, she wanted to be a teacher. But like her mother her poverty-stricken background prevented her from following her dream. At 13 years of age she won a scholarship to grammar school, but by that time she had started work and the family simply could not afford to be without her wages.

She published her memoir, Below Stairs, in 1968, the first of her 18 books. It sold well, 14,000 copies in its first year. Powell was "discovered" by television when Leigh Crutchley from the BBC took her from a discussion group and invited her to talk about her life. Below Stairs was the inspiration for the television series Upstairs, Downstairs and, or so it is claimed, was one of the inspirations of the series Downton Abbey, which began in 2011. It was reissued that year in the UK as Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid and in 2012 published for the first time in the US.

Blending comedy with drama, the series from Yorkshire Television was largely written by Kevin Laffan who a year earlier had created the rural soap Emmerdale Farm. Margaret Powell served as script consultant during the first series. 'Beryl's Lot' had three novels to accompany it, by Margaret Powell with Lee McKenzie. It has not, at the time of writing, been released on DVD.

Published on November 5th, 2020. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.