The BBC's lavish drama set in the world of haute couture in the 1920s may have seemed reminiscent of ITV's earlier Edwardian period piece, Upstairs Downstairs - and with good reason. Both series were created by Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh who were joined here with the creative forces behind such programmes as A Very Peculiar Practice and Tenko. What the BBC ended up with was one of their flagship drama series of the early 1990s and a BAFTA Award winner.
In the 1920s sisters Beatrice (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline Eliott (Louise Lombard) are left virtually penniless when their father, a compulsive gambler, dies. With no means of support thirty-year old Bea takes a job with photographer Jack Maddox (Aden Gillett) while Evie becomes an apprentice dressmaker. Jack and his sister Penelope (Francesca Folan) become friends of the sisters and, when their skills as fashion designers are discovered, Jack provides them with the funds to open their own London based dressmaking business "The House of Eliott". Through their relationship with Penelope, the sisters meet the seamstress Tilly Watkins (Cathy Murphy) whom they employ. Their battle to survive in a competitive market is hampered by an unscrupulous banker, Ralph Saroyan (Michael Culver) executor of their father's estate, and Evie's legal guardian, who keeps a rightful inheritance from the girls.
Added to the sisters' financial struggles is the fight to overcome the social prejudices of a decade when things were changing fast for women in the face of male resistance to female emancipation. "Although she's become an emancipated woman of the 20s" said actress Stella Gonet at the time, "Beatrice would have had a strict Edwardian upbringing, so when she bobbed her hair and shortened her skirts, she was making a very definite statement - whereas Evie, being twelve years younger, took all the changes for granted."
The outside scenes for The House of Eliott were shot in Bristol, which was more easily transformed into 1920s London than anywhere in the capital itself could have been. "What you see on screen is as close to 20s London as possible," said producer Jeremy Gwilt. "We go to enormous lengths to achieve that." The exterior of The House of Eliott's design studio was in Bristol's Berkeley Square, where most of the houses are Georgian or Edwardian. The only place in London that would have suited architecturally would have been Chelsea, but it would have proved impossible to find space for the production's huge make-up and catering trailers. It took the BBC three hours to send Berkeley Square back in time, 'antiquing' lamposts, laying 'cobblestone' mats, painting out yellow parking restriction lines and disguising parking meters with fibreglass posts made to look like cast iron. Once done, more period atmosphere was added by bringing in newspaper boys, flower sellers, horse and carriages and vintage cars. The crew were only allowed to film in Berkeley Square on a Sunday.
The first series of The House of Eliott was budgeted at 6 million pounds. Throughout its three-year run audience figures were consistently over 10 million. During and after the second series, the Victoria and Albert museum in London exhibited Joan Wadge's BAFTA Award-winning designs from the first series, alongside its permanent exhibition of 20s couture garments. For the second series James Keast took over as costume designer basing Beatrice's wardrobe on designs by Coco Chanel and explained that Evie's younger and artier look was inspired by the painter Sonia Delauney. French and Saunders lampooned the series in a hilarious sketch called The House of Idiot for their 1993 series. Louise Lombard, Stella Gonet and Cathy Murphy all appeared at the end of the sketch claiming to be the real Bea, Evie and Tilly. The House of Eliott is believed to be the last major BBC drama series to be shot at BBC Television Centre. With the programme still getting respectable audiences there was no indication that series three would be the last, even the writers were not warned of this, and as a consequence fans of the series were left dismayed that it ended without a firm conclusion to the storyline.
Published on December 21st, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.