I watched Gosford Park on DVD last night. As I think Robert Altman intended, the effect of showing both upstairs and downstairs, and making the people matter, is astonishment at the amount of work that went into maintaining that between-the-wars relaxed country house lifestyle that so many great books used as a setting (Dorothy L Sayers, to name a personal favourite).
So you’re meant to feel a bit of smugness at the complete disdain and lack of understanding the “above stairs” aristocrats felt and showed for the servants “below stairs”.
It uncomfortably reminded me, though, of some corporate conferences I’ve been to and heard about. I’ve never seen anyone with a lady’s maid or valet, but most of the other roles can be found in a major five star hotel. And at corporate conferences, you generally have the equivalent of Ivor Novello, the minor film star invited along for entertainment. When I used to work in a consulting firm (and hence was effectively part of the sales force), I went to a conference where our after dinner speaker was a minor rugby union celebrity. And considerable effort always goes into the dinners at this kind of conference – making them themed (e.g. Brazilian dancers with appropriate centerpieces at the table), providing entertainment, and making the service effortless.
The people involved aren’t quite as indentured as a servant would have been in the 1930s. They have more options in their lives (and you can’t imagine them being turned out on the streets with one days notice and nowhere to live as happened in the film). But the way in which the main audience tends to exhibit jaded disregard for the latest celebrity served up to them, and the way in which the service staff are often not noticed as people seemed sadly familiar.