Nannies, Servants & Such

Recently, through the wonder of Netflix, we discovered a captivating program that first aired on BBC in 1998. berkeley-square Set during the time of King Edward VII’s coronation, London 1902, Berkeley Square tells of three nannies and the wealthy families they served.  As we watched the first few episodes, we were reminded of the Masterpiece Theater classic Upstairs, Downstairs and its revelations of the British upper class and their servants’ lifestyles.

Although nannies were among the more privileged of servants, their lives were wholly dependent on their employers. Berkeley Square touches on some social issues not often seen in popular film – child neglect, the use of laudanum and baby-farming.  The depiction of children and their caretakers was both thought-provoking and sad.  The movie shows strong visual images in the costumes and settings.

As a writer of historical romance, I’ve long been fascinated with newport-ri-0171servants during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Two years ago, my husband and I toured a few of the summer mansions in Newport, Rhode Island.  We especially enjoyed seeing The ElmsThe tours – both of the main house and the special behind-the-scenes servants tour – revealed two different worlds.  The contrasting tours were like entering the kitchen of an exclusive restaurant; we saw both the glamorous facade and where the potatoes were peeled.

Studying how people lived – cultural history – helps to better rwa-national-2008-sf-0114 create and shape our characters.   That’s what I find most valuable in my writing research, discovering what folks wore (both day and night), what they ate, how they dressed, and what they valued.  Last year’s History Conference at RWA National included workshops on dressing our characters, a Regency period Soiree, and samplings of foods from different time periods.

Movies.  Books.  Websites. Conferences.  Old house tours.  Civil War re-enactments.  They all reveal needed details that breathe life into our characters.

→ Have you seen Berkeley Square?   What movies, books, or other events have helped you to enrich your knowledge of cultural history?

Good Movies

As a writer, I love a good movie. Appealing characters bounce from the screen.  Relationships develop and conflicts ensue.  Setting can become a character.  Music transports us through scenes.  Filming enchants while edits provides pacing.  Later I sometimes wonder, using only words how would I write those scenes or that character into a novel?

Since the holidays I’ve seen three movies at the theater.  All have sparked my thoughts into a bright blaze.

Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Nick Schenk and storygran_torino-poster2 by Dave Johannson, is about Walt Kowalski, a curmudgeony Korean War Veteran who can’t get along with his children, his grandchildren, or the Hmong immigrants who have taken over his middle class Michigan neighborhood.  Kowalski responds to the changes in an intriguing way, yet remains true to the man he is.  This strong story touches our beliefs, our brains, and our hearts.  Side note–while the ad poster is technically accurate, Gran Torino is not a shoot ’em up action flick.  I guess even Hollywood legends can get bad covers. 😉   The Rotten Tomatometer for Gran Torino reads 77%.  I’d rate it higher.

Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan, tells of the frostnixon32511977 televised interviews between British talk show host David Frost, and former U.S. President Richard Nixon.  The beginning focuses on Frost, apparently in exile in Australia.  Watching Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency on TV, Frost becomes intrigued by the “numbers.”   So begins his three year quest to interview Nixon.   The movie is the story of two very different men, each wanting something from the interviews.  Only one can win.  It’s a classic plotline.  Watching it unfold on the screen is captivating.  The Rotten Tomatometer for Frost/Nixon reads 91%.  An appropriately high rating.

Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black, tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California.  The film begins with Milk milk_movie_poster1recording a tape in his kitchen, “to be listened to in the event of my assassination.”  It is 1977 and he is 48.  In a brilliant blend of flashbacks and real news clips, we see Milk and his partner move from New York  to San Francisco where they open a camera shop in The Castro.  With persecution all around, Milk is pulled into politics and becomes a fiery voice for gay rights.  He forges alliances and urges gays and lesbians to come out to their families and friends so the straight community will see them as real and, as Roger Ebert writes, will “stop demonizing an abstract idea.”   On so many levels, Milk works.  It is warm and thought-provoking.  I left the theater with a sad smile.  And, as a writer, I wondered.  Using only words, how would I write such a remarkable man’s journey?   The Rotten Tomatometer for Milk reads 93%, calling it “Triumphant.”  I agree, and hope you see it.

→Have you seen any of the above movies, or any other really good movie recently?  Please share your experience and thoughts.