It feels like a million years ago that we were all wrapped up in the murders and mysteries being solved by Victorian lady detective Eliza Scarlet (Kate Phillips) in the PBS series “Miss Scarlet and the Duke.” Maybe that’s because the series dropped in January 2021, right as the world was turning upside down because of the political upheaval amid the coronavirus.
“It’s difficult sometimes to remember where your head was at,” Phillips tells IndieWire, but the British actress finds it fascinating that the themes Eliza and crew were talking about on the show — racism, misogyny, and the problems of the oppressed — only became more relevant as time went on. As the world outside took on a darker sheen, what audiences connected to so intensely was the series’ old-fashioned, nostalgic sensibilities.
Series creator Rachael New said she isn’t big on social media, but when Season 1 was running she’d often look in on what fans were saying, and she was struck by how audiences seeking warmth and comfort were finding it within the show. And with that community acclaim comes discussion of awards and recognition.
Many look at the shows under the umbrella of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” as representing the cream of the crop in the British period drama landscape, best exemplified by “Downton Abbey.” For New, there’s a certain good pressure to realizing that they, as a series, have a certain pedigree with an association with Masterpiece. “It just makes you up your game,” she said. “It’s about quality and as the writer-creator that’s exactly what I would want anyway. It’s a little reminder that you are making a show and it has to be up to standard.”
That being said, both New and Phillips said they’re surprised and honored to even be discussed with regards to the Emmy awards. “It’s exciting and thrilling,” Phillips said. “I’m sure lots of actors say this when you’re making a show, [but] it’s not something in your mind as an end goal.” New, however, joked that she certainly loves awards and would be willing to take any award that the show receives. For her, it was a “lovely surprise” to hear that the show was being seen in the Emmy conversation at all.
It may seem like a surprise to New, but it’s not to the fans who have taken the series to heart. Yes, the series’ mix of high suspense and screwball banter creates entertainment, but it’s also a cathartic story about the underestimation of Eliza and the other minority characters around her. Really, Eliza Scarlet has come to represent women fed up with men continuing to see them as less.
“She’s [Eliza’s] constantly making mistakes and trying to improve on herself,” Phillips said. It’s a delicate balance for a character who, outside of being headstrong and finding her own identity, is also engaged in a back-and-forth, will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with Stuart Martin’s Duke. New said there’s always a desire to create conflict when making a series, but when it comes to Eliza and the Duke much of their rapport is baked into gender dynamics; why can’t Eliza be seen as skillful and competent as a man doing the same thing?
“She’s never ever going to get that kind of respect, but she will never stop trying,” New said. As a creator, according to New, the goal is to always give Eliza a triumph even if it’s not exactly what she had planned. New easily sees the character as someone who, in her time, would be a trailblazing employer of women. (Is this a possible hope for future seasons?)
Speaking of future seasons, many wondered how “Miss Scarlet and the Duke” would fare considering the pandemic. Season 1 was shot in 2019 right before COVID happened, but PBS’ quick announcement of a second season meant the show couldn’t resume production quickly. Phillips said things are back on track with plans to shoot Season 2 in August and she’s constantly talking to New about where Eliza is bound after the events of Season 1.
Because the first season was wrapped up in grief, with Eliza mourning her father’s death and needing to establish her business out of necessity, Season 2 is set to have more fun in the fictional world. Not much can be revealed by either Phillips or New, but there’s an opportunity to wonder how they both see the relationship between Eliza and Duke progressing. “I’m a romantic at heart,” New said. “I’d like to think they’re in love with each other…but she [Eliza] is not ready to settle down. She’d make a terrible wife!”
It’s part of the fun that is “Miss Scarlet and the Duke,” a show that can comprise mystery, murder, romance, and the fun of discussing relationships. If there was any silver lining to the pandemic, it was being able to enjoy not just watching “Miss Scarlet,” but seeing how much joy it brings to those working on it.