‘You Rang, M’Lord?’ was a BBC comedy that ran from 1990 to 1993 after a pilot episode was shown in 1988. The series was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft and featured many of the cast of their previous comedy ‘Hi-de-Hi’ most notably Paul Shane, Su Pollard and Jeffery Holland. It also featured actors who had appeared in other David Croft projects ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ and ‘`Allo Allo’.
The series followed the lives of the Meldrum family and their servants from the late 1920s to the early years of the depression. It pokes holes in the British class system and shows that those Downstairs were just as snobbish and hierarchal, if not more so, than their employers Upstairs.
‘You Rang, M’Lord?’ was also presented as more of a Comedy Drama than a straight Sit-Com. There was a feel of it being episodic and it followed the historical timeline accurately, using it and the viewers knowledge of it, to heighten both the comedy and the drama.
Because of this episodes were 50 minuets long rather than 30 and it was shown in a Sunday night slot that would normally be reserved for drama serials. Being shown after the watershed also meant that the series could push things a little more.
This was most evident in the pilot, and especially with the character of Alf Stokes played by Paul Shane. Previously Shane had played holiday camp host Ted Bovis in ‘Hi-de-Hi’ Ted was a loveable rouge who while he was constantly running scams to get money out of the campers, rarely if ever profited from them. He was crooked but not a criminal.
As the butler Alf Stokes on the other hand he was darker, Stokes was a thief and a con man. He was also menacing and while manipulative you were left with the impression that if all else failed he would calmly use violence to get his way.
Negative critical reaction to the pilot saw Stokes character softened a little, but he was never completely lovable.
Perhaps the breakout character was Cissie Meldrum played by Catherine Rabett. Cissy was Lord Meldrum’s eldest daughter, she was bright, intelligent and showed real compassion and interest for the servants and staff. Cissie also wore her hair short and dressed in masculine clothes and used a monocle, a full decade before ‘Tipping the Velvet.’
Cissie’s sexuality was never actually stated in the series, it was sort of an open secret. Only her father and the painfully naïve maid Ivy, played by Su Pollard, seemed oblivious. In one series two episode Ivy is confused the morning after a house party because Cissie’s chum Penelope’s bed had not been slept in in spite of her still being there for breakfast.
Opinions differ as to how positive the character of Cissie was in a LGBT sense, but for the early 1990s it was truly groundbreaking.
Some of the themes of the series are quite dark. During the first series Ivy the maid is pursued by Lord Meldrum’s younger brother The Hon. Teddy, Michael Knowles, who had a thing for serving girls. Teddy would chase her round the house and late at night attempt to sneak into her, firmly locked, room. It is mentioned that Ivy’s predecessor wasn’t so lucky and that “Mr Teddy caught her and she had to go away.”
For series two this was toned down completely, Teddy apologises to Ivy for his actions and starts a secret relationship with a maid from another house called Rose, their relationship is portrayed as both loving and tender, another example of the strict class system gradually eroding.
Lord Meldrum played by David Hewlett was himself in no position to moralise. A widower he was engaged in a long standing affair with Lady Agatha while keeping it from her violent husband Sir Ralph, the love triangle is played for laughs yet at the end of the series when Lady Agatha breaks off their affair with Lord Meldrum he is heartbroken.
Perhaps because of its darker, more challenging themes and it’s longer run time, ‘You Rang M’Lord?’ is rarely broadcast in the UK. This seems somewhat odd given that it’s themes of class division set against a backdrop of economic uncertainty is very relevant today. It’s satire of those for whom snobbery is a way of life pitches perfectly against some recent shows, not least ‘Downton Abby’.
‘You Rang M’Lord?’ is available on DVD as a box set and to download from the iTunes Store.