Guess who’s coming to dinner? Only the King of England, Edward VII ….
There’s a neat switch around halfway into this episode. Up until that point the focus – not surprisingly – has been on the Royal visit (first the preparations and then the arrival of his august Majesty).
Hudson is the first to learn the news and he immediately makes haste for the kitchen where he (eventually) tells Mrs Hudson. To begin with he amuses himself by discounting her many suggestions as to who the honoured guest might be (Mr Asquish and Mr Balfour are just two of the names she suggests) before he finally puts her out of her misery.
Hudson then displays a slightly surprising cynical edge to his character. No doubt if the younger servants were present he would have held his tongue, but with only Mrs Bridges there he’s quite comfortable in admitting that whilst he respects the institution of monarchy he has certain reservations about the person of the sovereign. He then comments that he’d sooner have a Stuart on throne, before shrugging and stating that “we’ll just have to make do with what we’ve got”!
The King himself (played by Lockwood West) turns out to be a rather uninteresting fellow and his fellow dinner guests aren’t a great deal better. This has to be a deliberate touch – but just as the first pangs of disappointment for the viewer might be kicking in, the unexpected arrival of Sarah gives the episode new impetus as it sharply changes direction.
Sarah, pregnant with James’ child, has run away from the bucolic seclusion of Southwold and – by a feat of remarkable timing – goes into labour just minutes after she steps through the back door of 165 Eaton Place. There then follows some strange pantomimic scenes as the staff – aided by Lady Marjorie – attempt to spirit Sarah upstairs (all the while hoping that their guests don’t spot that anything is amiss).
The obvious question to ask is why they take her up the main stairs rather than the servants’ back stairs? The obvious answers would be that had they done so the episode would have fallen a little flat not to mention running about five minutes shorter.
When it’s all over, Rose returns downstairs to tell the others that Sarah’s all right and the child was a little boy. The use of the past tense makes it plain what’s occurred and Hudson – after a beat – comments that it might have been for the best (in series terms I’d agree, as Sarah is now freed from any familial obligations).
It’s quite striking that both Hudson and Mrs Bridges (neither of whom have been that sympathetically inclined towards Sarah in the past) now seem to have rather more consideration for her. Although Hudson can’t resist opining a homily about how Sarah is a good example of the dangers which occur when you attempt to exceed your station in life.
It’s left to the ever mournful Roberts to cast a late discordant note. The other members of staff are happy for Sarah to take her meals with them, but Roberts most certainly isn’t. She begins by labelling her a “slut” before launching a fuller tirade.
She’s a stuck-up, lying minx! Huh! Thinks she’s better than all of us… puts on airs! Gets Captain James into such trouble that he has to be sent to India. Then she thinks she can walk in here as though nothing has happened!
But eventually, seeing that hers is the minority opinion, Roberts relents and a delighted Rose is able to tell Sarah that she’s been welcomed back into the “family”. It’ll be just like old times, Rose says, although this time Sarah will need to behave. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that score though ….
Guest of Honour is an interesting episode. One of the best remembered from the entire run of Upstairs Downstairs, as touched upon before it’s very much a game of two halves. The upstairs portion seems to be the bit that most people remember, which is surprising as nothing really happens. Once again downstairs is where all the action is.