The Abuses of Proper Etiquette in TV and Films

"It's 'Your Majesty' the first time.  After that, it's 'ma'am', as in 'ham'. Not 'ma'am', as in 'palm'."  Helena Bonham Carter, as quoted in "The King's Speech"

Guest Blogger Corey Peterson of New Zealand returns with this post on etiquette in period films and television;

When watching a film or television show, I have developed a habit of picking out all the faults and inaccuracies played out on screen. One of the most annoying for me, normally regarding Queen Victoria, is when they do not follow the "it's ‘ma’am as in ham, not ma’am as in palm’" rule or they address her as ma’am as soon as they meet.  The Queen would be, and should be, addressed as ‘Your Majesty’ when first addressing her, and from then on it is either Madame or ma’am, which either fits best at the time.
1975's "Edward the Eleventh" was renamed "Edward the King"
She is addressed as ‘Her Majesty, the Queen’ in communications via the post and then any subsequent references should be ‘The Queen’.  I have recently been watching the 1975 hit show, 'Edward the Seventh,' and the poor use of the rule,"ma’am as in ham, not ma’am as in palm" annoys me.  I often comment on how poorly they address Her Majesty as well as the abuses of simple etiquette rules and guidelines, such as posture and the incorrect usage of flatware.

Dame Judi Dench as "Mrs. Brown"
Another film that I found aggravatingly annoying was the dinner scene on "Mrs. Brown" starring Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.  When the young Prince of Wales tapped his mother’s fine crystal with the back of his knife to draw attention to himself.  This in itself was vulgar but the manner of his conversation was even more so.  It is to me, a letdown when I am watching a period drama or film and the actors have not studied or listened to the etiquette rules and guidelines set at the time.
 Ladies of Cranford
But not all shows have neglected etiquette. One of my favourite and most loved period pieces is "Cranford."  The show is based on the works of Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s most loved novellas, namely "Cranford", "My Lady Ludlow" and "Mr. Harrison’s Confessions." The characters, Miss Deborah (played by Eileen Atkins) and "Miss Matilda "Matty" Jenkyns" (played by Dame Judi Dench) are the two main characters and are sisters.  The pair are both spinsters and they own a house together.  Miss Deborah is the older, more proper sister; often corrects their maid, Martha, when she abuses proper code of etiquette Miss Matilda is the younger, more sheltered sister, who follows her elder sister’s proper use of etiquette.
"Miss Deborah is the older, more proper sister; often corrects their maid, Martha, when she abuses proper code of etiquette."
Almost all landowners over a certain age in "Cranford" are women and the etiquette used is still rigidly reinforced.  When we first meet the Jenkyns sisters, it is 1842.  The town is still a rather stiff and traditional one. With the arrival of many new characters, the etiquette rules are placed in jeopardy, which distresses and disturbs Miss Deborah.

Ladies from "Return to Cranford"
Without being too plot heavy, upon the death of a character, a sister is the only member remaining in the family.  When she wishes to walk her sister to the grave in her funeral procession, it was perceived as extremely ill-mannered at the time.  However, Miss Deborah surprises her sister and friends by not only condoning the gesture, but even following along with her as a show of support and an understanding her grief.

I highly recommend 'Cranford' to anyone who wishes to see a series with proper etiquette and an extremely touching storyline.


  1. Thank you Maura for mentioning one of my favorite movies, "Cranford". It seems I'm always telling people about it; I'm happy to see someone else sharing this delightful period movie. In fact, one of my favorite scenes ties in with your blog topic: a friend of the sisters is running down the main road of Cranford (very unacceptable if not considered vulgar for the time) but it's all for a most urgent and important cause: it is a matter concerning lace!! and therefore any breech of etiquette was to be ignored or at least forgiven. It's a great scene.

  2. I am also a fan of period films and shows. You are not the only one who picks out mistakes in etiquette and protocol. I do it as well. Those making them should pay more attention to what they're putting on the screen. The best movies, are when the ones that are done correctly. Gosford Park, Remains of the Day, are 2 films that got everything right. Either that, or they were so entertaining, I didn't notice mistakes!

  3. Well written post. It is great to know there is yet another who addresses the inconsistencies in period pieces. I am not sure if the movie makers don't have the resources to ensure accuracy or if they just trust the fact that most of their audience does not "fact" check and are enamoured with the appearance of correct behavior from that era. Either way good job, I enjoyed reading it.


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