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Tea in the Movies: “Gosford Park”

The portrayal of tea consumption in the movies varies widely. It ranges from a mere afterthought stuck in by a script writer to get the actors through a scene that isn’t working to a commentary on society or morality or some other supposedly lofty idea. The big tea scene in Gosford Park, a Robert Altman film from 2001, with an all-star cast, is a good example of the latter.

Inspector Thomson before that fateful tea scene. (Screen capture from site)
Inspector Thomson before that fateful tea scene. (Screen capture from site)

A quick rundown of the movie’s plot: various friends and family members are gathering at Gosford Park for a traditional English country sport called a shooting party where beaters scare pheasants out of the tall grass up into the air so they can be shot down again; some of the guests bring along their own servants (chauffeurs, maids, valets); you get to see about as much of the servants as you do of the aristocrats (something that sets this movie apart from others of its genre — the English country estate murder mystery); it turns out that a number of the guests and the servants have good reason to want Sir William McCordle (lord of the manor) dead, so when he is found thusly, there are a number of possible culprits; up pops Inspector Thomson (Stephen Fry) and his sergeant to bumble along and “investigate” the crime.

Here’s where the tea scene comes in.

Thomson questions various household members, including McCordle’s wife Sylvia. The scene ends up being not only comic relief but social commentary. Thomson starts to pour tea for Sylvia, but she stops him, saying that she prefers the milk being added last, not first. He bumbles along pouring her a new cup of tea and begins going on about how his wife likes the milk in first and how people have different tastes and “Well, you know how wives are.”

One reviewer on Amazon.com indicated that whether one puts the milk in first or last was some indication of his/her social status. The former were lowlifes and the latter were the elites, i.e., upper class. I don’t know if I agree with this. What was more telling was how Sylvia silently endures this bumbling detective — a sign of her aristocratic upbringing — while he is obviously of a lower social class, is uncomfortable around her, and chatters on nervously. While chuckle-inducing, it was also a bit painful to watch, all the more so since I like putting my milk in first and consider it the best way (for teas that I know well).

One thing is for sure — the scene can really draw in us tea lovers and make us either happy or wince.

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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