Long before there was a Lady Mary and a Lady Edith of Downton Abbey there was Beatrice and Evangeline Eliott of The House of Eliott - creative and talented sisters down on their luck in 1920s London.
Produced by the BBC and starring Stella Gonet as the older sister Beatrice, and Louise Lombard as the younger sister Evangeline, The House of Eliott ran for three seasons in the early 1990s on A&E (a much different and better network at the time). It was created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins of Upstairs Downstairs fame.
Hooray for us, all three seasons of The House of Eliott have just been rereleased on DVD by Acorn Media.
The drama series opens as the posh but broke Eliott sisters find themselves adrift after their overbearing father’s sudden death. Now free in the heady days of post WWI, the two set out to create a new life for themselves. As self-taught seamstresses they dream of opening a fashion house. Eventually they do, but not without a lot of complications and roadblocks, many of which stem from the fact that they are women trying to start a business. (Now, what bank is going to give a loan to a woman? Sheesh!) Along the way there are romances, quarrels, and fashions: beautiful gowns, formal wear, and daytime ensembles of the era designed by costumer Joan Wadge, who won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for her work on the series.
Ms. Marsh says in a recent interview that when developing the show’s concept she and Ms. Atkins were intrigued by the idea of working women and fashion. “That was sort of our first inspiration,” says Ms. Marsh, “working middle-class, no real education, bright, but would have to find something to do. Both Eileen and I loved clothes, so we stuck with the idea of The House of Eliott.”
It’s no surprise that I am a big fan of this series. Having seen it again and again, it has become for me a place I visit, like a weekend getaway. I really enjoy reviewing and catching details that I missed before and I’m impressed there’s still something new to find every time I watch it. Of course I love the fashions and some I even have had copied to add to my own wardrobe. But I also find the character development and relationships well-done and satisfying. The storylines are a tad dramatic but somehow it’s comforting to see the sisters struggle and yet overcome. The acting and production values are top-notch, which is nothing to take for granted. The House of Eliott was one of the last productions to use video, which allows for an immediate feel, as if you were there right along side the sisters.
The series ran for three seasons and then suddenly died. Right in the midst of a serious cliff-hanger the BBC canceled it and all sorts of rumors have circulated as to why – a studio fire ruined all the costumes; the series was just too expensive. Apparently even Ms. Marsh had no idea. “It was so startling,” she exclaims. “I was working in America and thought what happened? It just stopped for no good reason.”
Well, that abrupt ending to the series is frustrating but I have heard that Ms. Marsh is considering revisiting the Eliott sisters and picking up their story in the 1940s. Wow! It would be perfect if they could cast the same actors, as they’ve aged just right for the characters. Plus, it’s a good time to cash in on the success of Downton Abbey. Everyone is crazy now for period dramas.
In the meantime we’ve got the rerelease, which includes an interview with Louise Lombard, a photo gallery, 1920s fashion background, and a booklet featuring an interview with Jean Marsh.
Really, this is the BEST gift for anyone interested in fashion history and/or design, fans of the Art Deco period, costume dramas, you name it. I cannot recommend The House of Eliott enough. It’s just the right series to settle into for the winter.