It's 1936, and 165 Eaton Place sees its first stirrings of life after years of neglect when the house's new master, Sir Hallam Holland, and his wife, Lady Agnes, cross the threshold. Though dust shrouds every surface, Lady Agnes is stirred to proclaim, "This house is going to see such life!" And with relish, she sets about an extravagant restoration and enlists the help of the staffing agency Bucks of Belgravia and its owner, former longtime 165 Eaton Place housemaid, Rose Buck.
Rose brings her cherished memories and high standards to the project, assembling a motley staff ranging from seasoned snobs to fledgling teens. Upstairs, the unexpected arrival of Hallam's mother, Lady Maud — returning from India with a Sikh secretary and a monkey in tow — introduces both eccentricity and tension as she interferes with Agnes's management of the house. Somewhat in over her head in her new position, Agnes is further tested upon the arrival of her devil-may-care younger sister, Lady Persie. As King George is dying, and against a backdrop of uncertainty, the residents of 165 Eaton Place host an elegant party to launch the Hollands in London society, and together attempt to field obstacles, both comical and sinister, that come their way.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Vacant ever since the Bellamy family moved out six years earlier, 165 Eaton Place gets new residents when Sir Hallam Holland, an up-and-coming young diplomat, and his energetic wife, Lady Agnes, arrive as the new owners, breathing fresh life into the dusty old town house.
The year is 1936, the Depression is on, and unemployed servants are eager for work. Yet Agnes's high standards make it hard to find the perfect staff, a task given to employment agent Rose Buck. Agnes doesn't realize that Rose was a parlor and lady's maid at 165 Eaton Place during the Bellamy era.
Reliable as always, Rose lines up an expert, if irascible, cook, Mrs. Thackeray; a punctilious butler, Mr. Pritchard; a spirited though cheeky maid, Ivy Morris; and a professedly clean-living footman, Johnny Proude. Handsome chauffeur Harry Spargo rounds out the help. Lady Agnes decides that she herself will manage the house, a duty normally performed by a head housekeeper. However, she leans heavily on Rose for advice.
Hallam and Agnes are childless, but they get plenty of parental practice when Hallam's willful mother, Maud, unexpectedly arrives from India with her manservant, Mr. Amanjit, and a pet monkey. Completing the household is Agnes's headstrong younger sister, Lady Persie, a debutante prevented until now from living the high life she craves.
Meanwhile, King George V has died and his playboy son has assumed the throne as Edward VIII. Notoriously, Edward has a divorced American mistress, Wallis Simpson. Having met Mrs. Simpson at an art gallery, Maud and Persie scandalize Agnes with their gossip.
Mrs. Simpson is of theoretical interest only, until Maud proactively invites her to Agnes's inaugural party for 165 Eaton Place: an intimate gathering of Hallam's Foreign Office colleagues and their wives for cocktails and canapés. The American divorcée has asked if she may bring "a particular friend," whom all assume to be the king. Despite the prospect of a royal visit, Agnes is furious with her mother-in-law for meddling in a scrupulously planned social occasion. But nothing is to be done, and soon frantic preparations are underway for a cocktail party worthy of a monarch.
When the fateful evening arrives, Mrs. Simpson shows up not with a king, but with the suave and sinister Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's unofficial envoy to London, who is attempting to network among British aristocrats. With Hallam's career at risk, the ever-resourceful Pritchard contrives to have Johnny, "accidentally" spill drinks on von Ribbentrop, forcing his exit.
Having saved the day, Johnny celebrates after the party by downing leftover champagne, violating his alcohol-abstinence pledge to his mother and getting drunk enough to make a pass at the flirtatious Ivy. The two retire to a pub with Harry, where Johnny slashes a man who makes a rude comment about Ivy, injuring him severely... but not fatally.
Fleeing to Eaton Place, Johnny is soon apprehended by police, creating an even more embarrassing scene for Agnes than the von Ribbentrop affair a few hours earlier. Unknown to all, Johnny was on probation from his home village for brawling and is now in serious trouble with the law.
With her elite new life falling apart around her, Agnes turns to the one person who knows how to handle servants, knows how to cope in a crisis, and knows 165 Eaton Place: Rose. Wistfully but with professional determination, the former maid accepts the head housekeeper's key.