In keeping with the apparently unending fascination of Americans with what people who live in the White House are really like, "Backstairs at the White House" gives us over the next four Mondays a People magazine view of history and quite a few professionally jerked tears.
The production, which is called a "mini-series" and starts tonight on Channel 4, is based on the memoirs of Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as a maid at the White House, following in her mother's footsteps. Whether the facts in this "based-on-fact" epic are true facts or quasi-facts, we don't know, but clearly one of the intentions was to humanize the elected inhabitants of the White House through the eyes of their servants.
Tonight's opening three-hour segment takes us from President William Howard Taft to President Warren G. Harding, with actress Olivia Cole dominating all in the role of Parks' mother, Maggie, a deserted mother of two who took the job to support her young family. For her performance, Cole will surely be nominated for some award, possibly for Long Suffering Noble Martyr of The Year. Although, like the entire production, it is entirely lacking in subtlety, Cole's performance is somehow more convincing than Leslie Uggams' or Robert Hooks.' Cole can make you cry, at least, thus doing her job.
Cole and the other play the kind of servants You Can't Get Anymore. Such servants were not uncommon in the class structure of that time. Anyone who would demand that kind of loyalty, long hours, and humiliation for such rotten wages, however, should be locked up. "You will be the first colored maid to work on the presidential family floor," Maggie is told when she is hired by the house-keeper, keeper, Mrs. Jaffrey, a villainous sourpuss played by Cloris Leachman. Swell. In return for that honor, Maggie doesn't get a raise for eight years. Lillian reluctantly follows her mother into the White House when the Depression hits.
There is a clear pattern in the unflding of the story. Almost every president and his wife are seen initially as creepy, but by the end of their term in office they have been redeemed, and each instance of hypocrisy, discrimination, or tyranny toward the servants is dispelled by a gesture of benevolence.
Wilson's first wife (Kim Stanley) is an "angel" who captures Maggie's loyalty forever by coming to tea at their humble home, (a townhouse five blocks from the White House that would probably sell for $100,000 today) and promising to "fight for better conditions for the Negro people"...) But she dies, and in her memory, the dour Wilson decrees that Maggie shall no longer have to scrub floors -- "Maggie is never to be on her knees again!" Aha!
World War I does terrible things to Wilson's appetite, just puts him off his feed completely, poor man. Then he has a stroke. Calvin Coolidge wants the soup thinned with water, and keeps chickens on the lawn. His wife Grace keeps dolls on her bed. She calls him "Papa" and he calls her "Mammy," but they're off the hook because their son dies and Coolidge fires the hated Mrs. Jaffrey.
The production is painted in broad strokes, using all the familiar tricks (telegrams are always bad news, serious illnesses are signaled by a sharp intake of breath), out these formulas can produce the desired effect if you're in the mood. Why the director chose to have all the black servants talk like Stepinfetchits, full of "dese" and "dose" and "I'se a gonnas," is a mystery. It hardly seems necessary for historical accuracy -- which is not the production's strong point in any case -- and at times it seems that Hooks, Louis Gossett Jr. and Uggams are secretly making fun of the script with their "Yes Massah" routines.
It must be noted that this reviewer only made it up to the beginning of Hoover's administration, with Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower yet to go. But already you could tell Mrs. Hoover was mean (she tells servants when to talk or leave with abrupt hand signals) and Mrs. Roosevelt seems friendly, and President Roosevelt is nice to Lillian because they both have polio and...