Mentioning to my better half this morning that actress Elaine Stritch had just died, she asked, as people do in these situations, how old she had been. (The day before someone dies, no one cares how old they are, but, once they kick the bucket, it’s an important fact for us to obtain.) I said that the paper reported she was eighty-nine years-old, but that this had surprised me: I would’ve thought she must be at least one hundred and twenty, because when I watched her on TV many decades ago she already seemed older than the Devil, at least to my eight-year-old eyes. But my wife hadn’t seen her on TV back then. I, unlike she, was residing in Ireland when Elaine Stritch starred in a sitcom called “Two’s Company” on a British television network, which we picked up over the airwaves. The series was likely rebroadcast in the U.S. somewhere at some point but apparently had not become terribly well known.
The media is full of those paying articulate tribute to Stritch as a legend of Broadway and the stage, but I can’t do that, having never seen her perform live. I do have a lot of respect for those who pour their chief energies and talent into live performances that exist in the moment and live on only in the memories (and reviews) of those who saw them. Elaine Stritch did some other screen work (recently a role on a show I’ve never seen named “30 Rock”) but all I really know her from is this English sitcom, and, while I was not writing reviews back then, I guess her presence and performance was sufficient so that I always remembered her name and her face.
So her passing could only remind me of that show, and also of the curiously appropriate juncture in my family’s history when it came along (although this was very likely unknown to the show’s producers). The family had just moved to Ireland in 1975, from New York, a curious act in itself but not wholly unprecedented, as readers of Angela’s Ashes would know. We were objects of some wonder to the natives, as they pretty much were raised believing America was the be-all and end-all and the place you wanted to emigrate to, and here we had done the reverse and had come to live among them, for reasons they could not understand (and frankly are still poorly understood in the family). It’s not the easiest thing being a small child suffering the culture shock of such a move, and dealing with being instantly and automatically the strange one in town, the conspicuous outsider. Of-course there are tougher things in life: there is malaria, starvation, torture … but this thing of being an out-of-place “Yank” in Ireland in the 1970s was significantly troubling to my younger self, and also difficult, I think, for my older siblings.
Enter Elaine Stritch. The premise of “Two’s Company” is that an American author (Stritch) has come to live in London. For reasons I can’t quite remember, she feels obliged to hire an English butler (played by Donald Sinden) to run her household affairs. The key comedy of the show, as I can recall it, springs from the fish-out-of-water potential of a very American and quite brash lady colliding with English culture and customs as sternly and forcefully represented by the very proper butler.
To my family, this theme was—and especially with hindsight—almost painfully on point. And we watched it as a family (as far as my memory goes), and laughed heartily. (Watching sitcoms in my family back then was kind of like the pause in battle when the rifles get reloaded, and as such a very welcome respite.) But to my particularly youthful brain, the show must also have been a kind of timely education. It would have showed me (as I was also learning more awkwardly in real life) how people who ostensibly speak the same language can use words so differently; how people can misunderstand one another due to differences in habit and custom; and how cultural differences can inspire both curiosity and contempt, but can also be turned into a source of laughter.
How good was the show, in reality? I liked a lot of things when I was eight-years-old that I don’t like anymore, and I can’t review the show on those memories, but research shows that it lasted about four years on British TV. I only found one decent clip on YouTube and, gratifyingly enough, it seems to be evidence that it was indeed a fairly smart and witty sitcom, as these things go and as they went back then. [UPDATE: More available these days.]
So a belated thank you to Elaine Stritch, who played her role well and in so doing gave a confused kid someone to relate to. Which is never to be underrated.
Rest in peace.