The Roaring Twenties Reel History of Britain


The Roaring Twenties

Melvyn Bragg reveals archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. At Cliveden House, he looks back to the 1920s to discover how the other half lived.


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Transcript


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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented

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and changed for ever the way we recall our history.

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For the first time, we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series, we'll bring these rare archive films back to life

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with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board

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and relive moments they thought were gone for ever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,

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come face to face with their younger selves

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and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.

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This is the people's story.

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Our story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967

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to show training films to workers.

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Today, it's been lovingly restored

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and loaded up with remarkable film footage,

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preserved for us by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series, we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country

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and showing films from the 20th century that give us the Reel History of Britain.

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Today, we're pulling up in the glamorous Roaring '20s

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to discover how the other half lived and find out about a group

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of Bright Young People who created Britain's first cult of celebrity.

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This is Cliveden in Berkshire,

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the house in the 1920s of the second Viscount Waldorf Astor

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and his American wife, Nancy.

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The Astors were one of the grandest and wealthiest families in the world

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and it was here, in this house, that many of the parties and events took place

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that mark out the rich Roaring '20s.

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'Coming up, the tragic story of Britain's original It girl...'

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My grandfather got a telegram from London

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saying "regret to inform you, Elizabeth had died".

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It was alcoholic poisoning. She had drunk herself to death.

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'..Lord Astor returns to his ancestral home to give us a guided tour...'

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And you can see up there is Amy Johnson, Charlie Chaplin,

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my grandmother and George Bernard Shaw.

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'..and a glimpse of what life was like for Cliveden's formidable head butler, Edwin Lee.'

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Lady Astor called him "Lord Lee of Cliveden".

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They couldn't operate without him. He was essential.

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'We're at the stately home of Cliveden today,

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'to catch a glimpse of life as it was lived by a small group of privileged, rich people

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'who defined what became known as the Roaring '20s.'

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The traumas of the First World War convinced a new generation

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to live for the moment and, by the 1920s, the decadence and the Jazz Age were in full swing.

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Indulgent fads and madcap antics were all the rage.

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Women, who now had the vote, shockingly cropped their hair AND their hemlines.

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But the '20s was a decade of huge contrast.

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While workers faced extreme poverty and crippling unemployment,

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a small group of young, rich socialites in London were living it up

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like there was no tomorrow.

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The tabloid press dubbed them the "Bright Young People",

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creating possibly the first celebrities to be famous for being famous.

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My guests here today have come from all over the country

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to share their family history stories of the Roaring '20s.

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They will be showing us photo albums,

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scrapbooks and treasured mementos.

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Many of them will be seeing the films we are about to screen for the first time.

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'Joining us today is Laura Ponsonby, from Surrey.

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'She has some vivid stories to share about her aunt, Elizabeth Ponsonby,

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'one of the most famous It girls of that decade.'

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She was she really was like the leader of the Bright Young People,

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but, like many of the Bright Young People, she was not rich.

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My grandmother writes a very good and critical diary.

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She said about Elizabeth, "She lives as though she's got 3,000 a year

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"and will spend 800 on a dress."

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But, really, Elizabeth's family

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were what sometimes people call the aristocratic poor. They had no money.

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-I do have a photograph, if you'd like to look at it.

-I would.

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-It's a little tender.

-I'll hold it and you can open it.

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I'll open up.

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This is Elizabeth's scrapbook and she's put in various photographs of these many parties she had.

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"Heather Pilkington party, summer 1927."

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-There is Elizabeth in the middle.

-And next to her is?

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That is Brian Howard.

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Somebody wrote a book about him - he was a poet and writer - Portrait Of A Failure.

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He always seemed to be around.

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I think this is probably Cecil Beaton, dressed up.

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-Cecil Beaton, so that's an impersonation party?

-Yes.

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-Thank you very much indeed.

-Not at all. Wonderful to meet you.

-And you.

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We're about to show Laura some films that will take her back

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to a time when her Aunt Elizabeth was a 1920s reveller.

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What family stories will they bring to mind?

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She was absolutely mad for partying.

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I mean, she was in and out of the nightclubs always.

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She loved dancing. She loved music.

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You know, she really enjoyed that sort of thing and was up all hours of the night.

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The daughter of a prominent Labour politician,

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Elizabeth became known for her high jinks.

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Stealing policemen's helmets and breaking into stately homes.

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For Elizabeth and her chums, life was one long party.

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These Bright Young People all got together

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and had all these different themed parties.

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So they had the bath and bottle party, which was in a swimming pool.

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They had the impersonation party, where everybody went as something else.

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They had the white party, when everybody was dressed in white.

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They had the red-and-white party. They had the Mozart party.

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They had the American party. They were always dressing up.

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Sometimes, they weren't in their ordinary clothes for days, and they were drinking.

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Laura reveals how Elizabeth's parents were shocked by her numerous affairs.

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She was mad about men, frankly.

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And her mother does write, in one of her diaries,

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or reflections about Elizabeth.

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she says, "What a pity that Elizabeth knew about contraception,

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"because she wouldn't have risked herself with so many men."

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Pleasure-seeking parties were a feature of the time,

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but they had their dark side, too.

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According to Diana Mosley, who was also a Bright Young Person

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at that particular time, she felt that Elizabeth was a person who introduced cocaine

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into the into the scene of the Bright Young People.

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And there was one daughter of a baronet, called Brenda Dean Paul,

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who was rather striking, I think, and went to these parties

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and she was really addicted to cocaine and I think she was in prison.

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To the dismay of her parents, Elizabeth refused to settle down

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and continued to party into the 1930s.

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Laura tells the sad story of her death at the age of 39.

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She died in 1940 and my grandfather got a telegram from London

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saying, "Regret to inform you, Elizabeth had died."

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He'd seen her, I think, about a month before

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but they'd been seeing much less of her, in fact.

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And it was alcoholic poisoning.

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She had drunk herself to death, which was a desperate, desperate thing

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and, of course, the grandparents were shattered.

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Laura's family have kept many mementos of Elizabeth's short life,

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like this poignant letter written after an unknown scandal.

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"Dearest mother, I am writing to tell you how frightfully sorry I am

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"for hurting you and father.

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"From nobody's fault, I have had to make my own life.

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"And I may not have made it very well.

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"But there it is.

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"But whatever I may think or do,

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"the last thing in the world that I ever wished to do

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"was to hurt you so much.

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"I may be treading a road that leads nowhere

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"but perhaps it is better than scrambling about in the desert.

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"Try and forgive me. Ever, your loving Elizabeth."

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To find out more about the Bright Young People of the 1920s,

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I'm meeting the writer and historian Lucy Moore inside Cliveden House.

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-Hello, Lucy.

-Hello.

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-How are you?

-Melvyn Bragg, nice to see you.

-Nice to see you.

-Have a seat.

-Thank you.

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People talked about the Bright Young Things, who were the Bright Young Things?

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The Bright Young Things were the socialites of the 1920s.

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They were a group of people who embraced quite a broad section of society for the first time,

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so you had impoverished artists,

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you had daughters of peers, you had daughters of Labour politicians.

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You had all sorts of people mixed up together

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and what they had in common was they were young, they hadn't been involved in the war.

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What about the attention to... Well, young people always pay attention to their appearance,

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but it seemed to be, not excessive, but they had fun with it, didn't they?

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Absolutely. There was a sense of girls were dressing as boys, boys were dressing as girls.

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There was a massive influence of Hollywood,

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so everyone slicks their hair down like Rudolph Valentino

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and tries to dance the tango with a rose in their mouth and that's because the media had changed.

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For the first time, you could see a movie that everyone else was seeing.

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The new fashions and fads of the 1920s

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were limited to the few who could afford them.

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Mass unemployment brought thousands of ordinary families to the point of destitution

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and, by 1921, two and half million workers were out of a job.

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In the '20s, there were a lot of people in this country going through very hard times.

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How did they feel about what was going on?

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I suspect that most of the population of England at the time

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was half horrified and half fascinated by them.

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But, there was an emptiness about what they were doing

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and I'm sure the bulk of the population who were on strike,

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or suffering with the desperate economic situation post-war

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would have looked at them and thought, "What are they doing with their lives?

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'I'm now off to meet someone who has a very personal connection

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'to one the Bright Young People of the Roaring '20s.'

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'Simon Blow is the great nephew of Stephen Tennant,

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'the most flamboyant of the 24-hour party people.

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'He would often wear make-up and gold dust in his hair.'

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My Uncle Stephen was a carefree person, really, in the early '20s.

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I mean, he had the world at his feet. He had looks, he had talent.

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You know, background connections and everything.

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He was a glamour figure, really, and he was very beautiful.

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You say "very beautiful", he liked to dress as a woman, didn't he?

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-Well, he didn't go completely into drag.

-No.

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But, conventional society said,

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"It's not surprising, his mother dressed him as a girl until he was 12."

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HE CHUCKLES

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As a young man in the 1970s and '80s,

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Simon enjoyed a close relationship with his then ageing great uncle

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and would spend long periods with him at the Tennant family estate in Wiltshire.

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You've brought a photograph of your Uncle Stephen.

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Yes, this is one of Uncle Stephen, which he gave to me.

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Well, that's him before he put make-up on. He did the later sketching himself.

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He once said to me,

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"Have you noticed, Simon, how beautifully chiselled my nose is?"

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HE CHUCKLES

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So I said, "Yes." He was looking up from his bed

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and he lay back on his pillows and thought,

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then he looked at me and said,

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"And you have a very chiselled nose, too."

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There was more thinking on the pillow and he said,

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"I think most well-bred people have chiselled noses."

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THEY LAUGH Not a bit, not a bit.

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Simon boards our mobile cinema, where we're about to screen

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some rare film footage of life in 1920s Britain.

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Will these films conjure up the atmosphere of the era,

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when his Uncle Stephen was the toast of the smart set in London?

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It made me, in a way, quite nostalgic for a world I'd never known.

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I think that, er...

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Um...

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..there was a feeling of cheerfulness in the films, really.

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I think you do get the sense of jollity that happened after the ending of the First World War.

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Simon's Great Uncle Stephen was the youngest son of Lord and Lady Glenconner.

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Because of his class and privilege, he never had to work.

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I think he always hoped that he would be a famous writer,

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um, but then he wanted to be a famous beauty, too.

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And there's a lovely story about Claire, my grandmother.

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He was staying in a country house in Wales

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and Michael Duff, the host, um...

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..was waiting for Stephen to come down for dinner.

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They waited and Michael went up to Stephen's room and said,

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"We are all waiting for you, Stephen. You must come down."

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He was putting on the last touches of make-up. He turned round from looking in the glass

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and said to Michael, "Michael, tell me I'm as beautiful as Claire."

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So there was this desire to be as beautiful as his sister,

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so that was all part of the thing.

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He loved dressing up. He once said to me,

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"I can't bear trousers, Simon.

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"I only like clothes that drape."

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He was very high-spirited and you know he threw all sorts of parties at Wilsford,

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when he owned the house. He had a following.

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He was a sort of magical name - Stephen Tennant.

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And, um...and the world lay at his feet.

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Stephen Tennant outlived most of his contemporaries and passed away in 1987.

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He'd been a recluse

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and chose to spend much of the last 17 years of his life in bed.

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Often when I stayed with Uncle Stephen, I used to look through the old photographs

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and sort of romance about those times in my head.

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Er, I think they would have been great times to have experienced.

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On Reel History today, we're in the grounds of the magnificent Cliveden House in Berkshire.

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During the Roaring '20s, it was home to the wealthy Astor family,

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who famously entertained on a lavish scale.

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'43 years ago, the Astor family leased Cliveden to the National Trust

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'and the house became a luxury hotel, with the gardens open to the public.

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'But the current Lord Astor has returned today to show us around.'

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'We're heading through the great hall to the French dining room.'

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This is the French dining room. My great-grandfather bought the interior of the room

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from one of the houses in Versailles.

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And, according to his notes, when he got it here,

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it still had bullet holes in the panelling left over from the French Revolution.

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-That really makes it authentic!

-Yeah.

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Lord Astor's grandfather, Waldorf, inherited Cliveden

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and an immense fortune from his American father,

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who built the luxurious Waldorf Hotel in New York.

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Waldorf married Nancy, a very rich American heiress, in 1906

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and together they had four sons and a daughter.

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That picture over there is probably one of the most famous of the 20th century of my grandmother.

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It was painted by Sargent.

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She was originally drawn out...

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She had... My uncle was being carried piggyback.

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When they decided to do the picture, they said not to do that.

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You wouldn't normally have someone looking over their left shoulder.

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'Cliveden soon became a centre of social and political influence.

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'In 1919, Nancy Astor made history when she became the first woman to take her seat in Parliament.'

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You can see up there is Amy Johnson, Charlie Chaplin,

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my grandmother, George Bernard Shaw.

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Why was he such a regular visitor?

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He was a great friend of my grandmother

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and they did various trips together in Europe. They went to both Berlin and Moscow.

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That's grandmother with the Duke of Windsor, playing golf.

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What did they say to you about the '20s?

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Cliveden in the '20s and '30s was a political salon, as it were.

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She had lots of friends, whether it was the arts and George Bernard Shaw.

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Lawrence of Arabia was a great friend.

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She had an extraordinary range of people that came here

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and they had this extraordinary house, in which they entertained.

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'During the 1920s, many of the stately homes of Britain were a continuous social whirl

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'of parties and entertaining, which required battalions of servants.

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'We're now going to find out what life was like downstairs,

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'from the relatives of those who worked at Cliveden at that time.'

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'Martin Blaber has joined us today from Hampshire.

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'He is here to tell us about his uncle, Edwin Lee,

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'who was head butler to the Astors at Cliveden for 44 years.'

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My uncle was here from 1919 to 1963, I think it was,

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when he finally packed up.

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What did he say about working for the Astors?

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Well, he... It was his whole life.

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I realised that the reason he stuck it here and did so well

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was that he was strong man, he had a strong personality

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he stood up to Lady Astor, he wouldn't take any stick.

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What about the working hours? I've read notes about it. Can you tell us?

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He told me that it was sometimes 18-hour days, seven days a week.

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He had to run this place and St James's in London.

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Also, Christmas, Easter, that was permanent work.

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But, he enjoyed it, it was his whole life.

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Martin's about to watch some rarely-seen film footage of the Astor family

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that'll take him back to the time when his Uncle Edwin served as their butler.

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When Kodak introduced a portable cine camera in 1923,

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amateur film-making took off.

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But it was a novelty pastime for wealthy enthusiasts like the Astors,

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who recorded many home movies during the inter-war years.

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These films paint an intimate picture of their lifestyle.

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Until today, Martin had no idea these films existed.

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Will he spot his Uncle Edwin?

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I did actually catch a glimpse of my uncle.

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He looked so much younger,

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cos my main meetings with him were after he'd retired.

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I didn't see him very much when he worked here,

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because he was just busy seven days a week,

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so it was good to see him looking... He looked very jovial.

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He was laughing. That was really good.

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During the 1920s, the butler in stately home

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would be the highest-ranking servant, in charge of all the domestic staff.

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Martin's Uncle Edwin, was renowned in his day

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and to be trained by him was a reference in itself.

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He was like the managing director of a large company.

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He organised all the staff, the functions,

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ordering all the wine.

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He just managed a large household.

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I would relate it today to running a company of 400 people as a managing director.

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Lady Astor called him "Lord Lee of Cliveden",

0:21:570:22:01

because he was, in some ways,

0:22:010:22:04

he was as part of the structure and fixtures and fittings, you might say.

0:22:040:22:09

They couldn't operate without him. He was essential.

0:22:090:22:12

As a society hostess, Lady Nancy Astor earned a reputation for witty repartee.

0:22:130:22:19

But as her butler, Martin's Uncle Edwin was privy to other sides of her character.

0:22:190:22:23

I think he respected her greatly.

0:22:250:22:27

But he realised that she was a tyrant.

0:22:270:22:30

He told me a story of when she came back from parliament late one night,

0:22:300:22:35

probably in a pretty bad mood cos something had gone wrong.

0:22:350:22:39

He'd already organised a massive banqueting table for royalty, who were coming the next day.

0:22:390:22:46

It was all set up with flowers and everything.

0:22:460:22:48

She walked in and took one look at it, kicked her shoes off,

0:22:480:22:51

jumped up on the table and started moving things around, saying,

0:22:510:22:56

"I don't like the look of that," etc, etc.

0:22:560:22:58

Water was getting spilt.

0:22:580:23:00

So he just walked in and said, "Lady Astor, if you don't get off that table, I'm going."

0:23:000:23:06

So she just jumped. She apparently jumped down, put her shoes back on and said,

0:23:060:23:10

"Leave it to you, Lee," and walked out.

0:23:100:23:12

And that was that. That was the sort of relationship.

0:23:120:23:15

Martin's Uncle went into semi-retirement in 1953

0:23:160:23:20

and married Emily, who was a telephonist at Cliveden for many years.

0:23:200:23:25

It was his whole life.

0:23:250:23:27

I would say that he was like a piece of rock with "Cliveden" written through him.

0:23:270:23:32

Whenever I used to visit him after he'd retired, we'd have lunch

0:23:320:23:36

and because my aunt worked here as well for 20-odd years

0:23:360:23:40

the conversations would always, always return to the Astors and Cliveden

0:23:400:23:46

and all the other people that they would know through that. It was his whole life.

0:23:460:23:51

And he had a good life doing it.

0:23:510:23:54

'Martin's Uncle Edwin was responsible for the smooth running of Cliveden.

0:24:000:24:03

'Now we're off to meet someone who can reveal what life at its most intimate was like with Lady Astor.'

0:24:030:24:10

-Hello, Anne.

-Hello.

0:24:100:24:12

'Anne Norris has joined us today from North Yorkshire.'

0:24:120:24:15

Anne's aunt, Rose Harrison had the remarkable experience

0:24:150:24:18

of being lady's maid to the fiery Lady Astor for 35 years.

0:24:180:24:23

She had to look after her completely, run her baths,

0:24:230:24:28

get all her clothes ready, mend anything that needed mending, look after the jewellery.

0:24:280:24:35

More or less take care of her altogether.

0:24:350:24:38

My aunt was very lucky, really, because she went all over the world with her.

0:24:380:24:43

Everywhere Lady Astor went, my aunt went with her

0:24:430:24:47

and she travelled first class, went to some marvellous places.

0:24:470:24:51

She was very fortunate. She loved her job.

0:24:510:24:54

It was hard work, but she really enjoyed it.

0:24:540:24:58

Anne's about to watch the Astors' home movies, which she has never seen before.

0:24:580:25:02

The films will show her a hidden portrait of the life her aunt lived

0:25:140:25:17

as a 1920s lady's maid in one of Britain's wealthiest families.

0:25:170:25:22

I watched the films and they were absolutely fantastic.

0:25:220:25:26

And it's so nice to see different parts of the Astor family,

0:25:260:25:31

the places where they played and lived.

0:25:310:25:35

It's been really nice to see that,

0:25:350:25:38

and to see where my aunt might have been.

0:25:380:25:41

Right from the start, Rose had the strength of character to take on the formidable Lady Astor.

0:25:410:25:47

I think my aunt was the only one that really stood up to Lady Astor,

0:25:470:25:51

and she'd had a few lady's maids before that didn't last very long.

0:25:510:25:56

There was one incident where Lady Astor had a box of chocolates,

0:25:560:26:00

and she took a bite into one of them, and didn't like it, so she gave it to my aunt.

0:26:000:26:06

And my aunt looked at it, put it in the waste paper basket and said,

0:26:060:26:11

"I'm not that hard up that I have to have second-hand chocolates."

0:26:110:26:14

So she never did that again.

0:26:140:26:17

As lady's maid to Nancy Astor, Rose enjoyed a higher social status than the other housemaids.

0:26:200:26:26

She also travelled all over the world with the Astors,

0:26:260:26:29

who filmed many of their glamorous holidays abroad.

0:26:290:26:32

I think as my aunt's life and Lady Astor's life matured,

0:26:320:26:38

they seemed to become more, er, compatible

0:26:380:26:42

and more friends rather than maid and mistress.

0:26:420:26:46

I think she was really, really upset when Lady Astor passed away.

0:26:460:26:51

Lady Astor had asked earlier on in her life never to leave her,

0:26:510:26:56

and she promised she'd stay with her for ever.

0:26:560:26:58

And when she did actually pass away,

0:26:580:27:01

I think it really hit home.

0:27:010:27:03

The only thing that she brought away from the house was

0:27:030:27:06

Lady Astor's dog, who was called Madam, and she was a madam, too.

0:27:060:27:14

I think she was a little Pekinese.

0:27:140:27:16

She used to have a little basket at my aunt's house,

0:27:160:27:19

and you would never go near her because she was spoilt rotten and a little bit snappy.

0:27:190:27:26

But it was something to remember her ladyship by.

0:27:260:27:30

'The Astors were generous with their wealth

0:27:300:27:33

'and gave buildings, land and money to the city of Plymouth.

0:27:330:27:36

'But throughout the inter-war years, they famously continued to entertain at Cliveden.

0:27:360:27:42

'However, it was a different story for the racy London set.'

0:27:420:27:45

The Bright Young Things we've been talking about

0:27:450:27:48

had the celebrity then in the 1920s of today's pop stars

0:27:480:27:51

and sport stars, but in the 1920s, there was an enormous depression

0:27:510:27:56

and, eventually, the press was to turn against them.

0:27:560:27:59

By the 1930s, a war was brewing in Europe and the beautiful people began to disperse,

0:27:590:28:06

leaving behind their legacy of modern celebrity.

0:28:060:28:11

Whether or not we should thank them for that, the jury is out!

0:28:110:28:14

Next time on Reel History, we're at Osterley Park in Middlesex

0:28:160:28:20

to honour the brave Home Guard soldiers of World War Two.

0:28:200:28:25

I joined the Home Guard because I wanted to do my bit.

0:28:250:28:29

I wanted a future and I knew that future wouldn't exist if the invasion took place.

0:28:290:28:35

Subtitling by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:570:29:00

E-mail [email protected]

0:29:000:29:03

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.

At Cliveden House in Berkshire, Melvyn looks back to the Roaring Twenties to discover how the other half lived, when a group of bright young people created Britain's first modern cult of celebrity.

The tragic story of Britain's original 'it girl', Elizabeth Ponsonby, is told by her niece Elizabeth. The current Lord Astor returns to his ancestral home to give a guided tour. And Martin Blaber explains what life was like below stairs for Cliveden's renowned head butler, his uncle, Edwin Lee.


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