I write this as I do most things, perched atop a mug of Earl Grey and in the company of a highly-strung black cat. If tea is a vice, I am in its grip and I’m fairly certain my tiny cat thinks it’s a very large dog. Life is confusing, you know?
Anyway, in the mid-20th century, tea flowed like cultural penicillin here in Blighty as we kept calm and carried on – defined as a nation by our love of a nice cuppa. In Ambridge, this is made clear in the way that its not Fallon’s cafe or coffee shop, it’s her tea room and the episode on the 29th March made tea a central musical feature. First was Doris Day’s version of ‘Two for tea’ (1950) from her eponymous film and later was Mario ‘harp’ Lorenzi’s arrangement of ‘Everything stops for tea’ (1936).
In this episode the lyrics of ‘Two for tea’ clearly speak on behalf of Emma Grundy who is battling with her loyalty to the Grundy brood with growing dissatisfaction of the constant need for positive thinking that everything to be ok. In his latest scheme, Ed Grudy had bought Texel sheep for breeding and Emma tells Fallon they are ‘unremarkable’ — another almost-but-not-quite moment for the Grundy clan. Emma admits frustration, loneliness and confesses a wavering in her familial requirement infinite faith.
Vocally, Day’s silky, mezzo-soprano can be heard to represent Emma’s sense of obligation too. The song’s forever-unravelling and always-twisting melody dreamily imagines a quieter time as the supporting harmony subtly changes key but always repeats that same, simple, apparently endless little melody.
In this way, ‘Two for tea’ certainly fits with the idea I keep coming back to about The Ambridge Tea Room operating a space for the members of the village to express their existential angst. But a pause in the dialogue at 6mins 10secs is echoed in the songs’ arrangement (at 1min 42secs here) and points toward something slightly different here.
Until now, Day’s soft yearning had been covered by a rich blanket of vocal harmonies from the Ken Lane Singers, an ensemble that made that warm (if not sonically rather overbearing), texture such an iconic sound in Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s late-40s/early-50s recordings.
Day takes a moment of rest from her singing duties and the vocal group sings staccato and in unison which breaks up the previous powerful surges of harmony. Earlier in the song there had been a swooning violin countermelody, playing second fiddle to Day’s tune, but this moment of the song is harmonically framed by a flute which rhythmically skips around the like a tap dance solo. The desired effect is that kind of ‘knowing wink’ comedy, where we know it’s a ridiculous musical trope. In the same way, you don’t have to listen to The Archers for long to understand that the humour is encoded into the way that endless Grundy plans are eternally doomed.
At 6mins 23secs in the episode there is a final flurry of notes, and as the flute ascends Emma sighs and remains firmly back in the family fold, hopeful that perhaps when the lambs grow a little they’ll be able to spot a prize-winning one. This regained positivity is mirrored both in the dialogue with Fallon, and some tinkling stride piano which replaces the flute’s arpeggio. The Ken Lane Singers return to their thick harmonies again too as Emma explains the complexities of rearing these kinds of animals. At 6mins 44 secs, a chromatic shimmy on the piano underlines Emma’s returning doubts and these are reiterated by the return of Day’s smooth voice. Where we might have sensed resolution, it is certainly back to square one again here as Emma concedes:
‘This is the way life is and you’ve just got to learn to put up with it’.
But, it’s been hard to ignore the waft of feminism around the village in the past few weeks. And so, at 8mins 45secs when Robert Snell and Emma discuss both the controversy around ageism and sexism in the cricket team; how he loves getting involved in the running of the B&B and how she feels lumbered with it because of the domestic setting, the scent of a longing for gender equality is strong.
Hearing about Robert’s passion for cooking and working with his darling Lyndie operates as a wake-up call to Emma who recognises an imbalance Chez Grundy. There’s certainly a blog post brewing here about the problematic ridicule of the Grundy’s working-class sexism in contrast with Robert Snell being coded as a middle-class (apparently) modern man, but that’s for another day (or, dear reader, if you’d care to write it?!).
However, at this moment the choice of recording is certainly fascinating, a swinging, ragtime-infused, light-music styled, harp centred interpretation of ‘Everything stops for tea’. A song originally written by three Americans and originally sung by a Scotsman, it seeks to concretise the Englishness of tea drinking. Brilliant.
What interests me here, and is certainly at the centre of the PhD I’m trying to write, is how rules about identity are seemingly made solid through musical performances but that certain qualities or elements can be heard to (either accidentally or deliberately) transgress musically inscribed socio-cultural norms. ‘Everything stops for tea’ is precisely this kind of text, especially in Lorenzi’s rendition of the song as we hear it in the tea room. The harp’s unusual instrumental context is proudly coded as Other by Lorenzi, much in the same way that Robert is delighted by, while Emma is shocked with, being part of domestic life in the Snell household.
And so, as Robert leaves the tea room, Emma is jolted from her Doris Day reverie – exasperated by her inability to offer her kids ‘the simplest of things’. Might Robert, with a helping hand from Lorenzi’s harp solo, have encouraged her to start hatching plans that demonstrate her emancipation by breaking the conventions of the House of Grundy?