“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” – Series One (2010) Retrospective
Not long after ITV had aired its premiere of Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame’s 2010-2015 series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, the BBC announced its plans to air an updated version of the old 1970s television classic, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. The news had taken me by surprise. I had naturally assumed that the series’ creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins decided to revive the series in response to the news about “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Had I been wrong? I do not know. Did it really matter? I do not think so.
The new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” picked up six years following the old series’ finale. The London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in the Belgravia neighborhood is no longer occupied by any member of the Bellamy family. A Foreign Office diplomat and his wife – Sir Hallam Holland and Lady Agnes Holland – have returned to Britain and inherited the Eaton Place townhouse. The couple hired former parlourmaid Rose Buck, now running her own agency for domestic servants, to find them staff as they renovate the house to its former glory. The Hollands are forced to deal with the arrivals of Sir Hallam’s mother, Maud, Dowager Lady Holland and her Sikh secretary Amanjt Singh; and Lady Agnes’ sister, Lady Persephone Towyn – all of whom cause major stirs within the new household. The three-episode series spanned the year 1936 – covering the death of King George V, the Battle of Cable Street and King Edward VIII’s abdication.
Because it came on the heels of the critical and popular darling, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” received a good share of negative criticism from the media and television viewers. And if they were not comparing it to the series written by Julian Fellowes, they were comparing it to the old “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” from the 1970s. Among the negative press it received was a report of a brief clash between Marsh and Fellowes regarding the two series. If I must be honest, I was just as guilty as the others for I had believed the negative press without having seen the series. But my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch it.
I did have a few problems with “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. It had its moments of over-the-top maudlin, courtesy of screenwriter Heidi Thomas. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Thomas had served as screenwriter for 2007’s “CRANFORD” and its 2009 sequel. And she managed to inject plenty of wince-inducing sentiment into those productions, as well. I also found Rose Buck’s hunt for the Hollands’ new staff rather tiresome. It dominated the first half of Episode One, “The Fledgling” and I nearly gave up on the series. And I also found the cook Clarice Thackeray’s encounter with society photographer Cecil Beaton in the third episode, “The Cuckoo”, disgustingly sentimental. But . . . that encounter led to one of the best cat fights I have seen on television, so I was able to tolerate it. I have one last problem – namely the series’ three episode running time. Three episodes? Really? I would have given it at least five or six. Instead, the three episodes forced the first series to pace a lot faster than I would have liked.
For me, the virtues of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” far outweighed the flaws. First of all, I was delighted that Marsh, Atkins and Thomas had decided to set the new series in the 1930s. I have been fascinated with that decade for a long time. It witnessed a great deal of potential change and conflict throughout Europe – including changes within Britain’s Royal Family that had a major impact upon the nation. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” did an excellent job in conveying how these changes affected ordinary Britons and the Holland household in particular. Many had complained about the strong, political overtones that permeated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. I, on the other hand, loved it. The political overtones not only suited the series’ 1930s setting, but also jibed with the fact that one of the major characters happened to be a diplomat from the Foreign Office, with friendly ties to a member of the Royal Family.
Production wise, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” looked gorgeous. Designer Eve Stewart did a superb job in re-creating London in the mid-1930s for the series. Along with set decorator Julia Castle, she converted 165 Eaton Place into a wealth of Art Deco eye candy. Amy Roberts’ costumes – especially for Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy – were outstanding and contributed to the series’ 1930s look. My only complaint regarding the series’ production is the series’ theme and score. Quite frankly, the only memorable thing about Daniel Pemberton’s work was that I found it too light for my tastes. It suited Heidi Thomas’ occasional forays into sentimentality very well. Unfortunately.
Not being that familiar with the original “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” series from the 70s, I did not find myself comparing the old cast with the new one. First of all, I thought the new cast did just fine – including the recurring characters. Blake Ritson gave a subtle performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest living brother at the time to King Edward VIII. I noticed that Thomas took great care to ensure that Ritson’s Duke of Kent would be critical of Wallis Simpson’s pro-Nazi sympathies. I found this interesting, considering rumors of his past reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Speaking of Mrs. Simpson, I was slightly disappointed by Emma Clifford’s portrayal of the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress portrayed Mrs. Simpson as some kind of negative archetype of American women found in many British productions – gauche and verbose. This portrayal seemed completely opposite of how Mrs. Simpson had been described in the past – cool and tart. Edward Baker-Duly was given a more ambiguous character to portray – namely German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop – which allowed him to give a more subtle performance.
I found the casting for the Holland servants very satisfying. Many have complained that Jean Marsh’s role as Rose Buck seemed woefully reduced in compared to the old production. If her role had been reduced, I did not mind. After all, Rose was a familiar figure and I believe it was time for the lesser-known characters to shine. As much as I had enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s solid yet nervous butler, Mr. Pritchard, and Anne Reid’s tart-tongued cook Clarice Thackeray; I found myself impressed by Neil Jackson’s cool portrayal of the ambiguous chauffeur Harry Spargo. I thought he did a great job in conveying the changing passions of Harry, without resorting to histrionics. Ellie Kendrick did an excellent job in her portrayal of the young and very spirited housemaid, Ivy Morris. Although Art Malik seemed a bit noble as the Dowager Lady Holland’s Sikh secretary, Mr. Amanjit, I believe that he managed to come into his own when his character befriended the German-Jewish refugee Rachel Perlmutter in Episode Two, “The Ladybird”. Like Scarborough and Red, Helen Bradbury gave solid performance as Frau Perlmutter. However, there were a few moments when she managed to inject a great deal of pathos into her performance, making it a pity that she only appeared in one episode. Heidi Thomas’ portrayal of the Hollands’ servants really impressed me. She managed to portray them as multi-dimensional characters, instead of the one-dimensional portrayals that marred the characterizations of the servants featured in Series One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”.
Heidi Thomas certainly did a marvelous job with her characterizations of the members of the Holland family. I had noticed that most fans and critics were impressed by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of the Maud, Dowager Lady Holland. I cannot deny that she did a superb job. Atkins was overbearing, intelligent, wise and impetuous. But . . . the Lady Holland character also struck me as a remake of the Dowager Countess of Grantham character from “DOWNTON ABBEY” . . . who struck me as a remake of the Countess of Trentham character from “GOSFORD PARK”. In other words, the Lady Holland character struck me as being a somewhat unoriginal character. One could almost say the same about the Sir Hallam Holland character, portrayed by Ed Stoppard. Many fans have complained about his “noble” personality and penchant for political correctness – especially in his handling of Lotte, the orphaned daughter of Holland maid, Rachel Perlmutter, and his distaste toward the British Fascist movement. However, Stoppard did an excellent job in making Sir Hallam a flesh-and-blood character. And this came about, due to Stoppard’s opportunity to reveal Sir Hallam’s reaction to the conflict between his mother and wife, making him seem like a bit of a pushover.
But for me, the two most interesting characters in the series proved to be Lady Agnes Holland and Lady Persephone Towyn, the two daughters of an impoverished Welsh peer. In their unique ways, the two sisters struck me as very complex and ambiguous. At first glance, Keeley Hawes’ portrayal of Lady Agnes Holland seemed like a cheerful, slightly shallow woman bubbling with excitement over establishing a new home in London. Hawes’ performance, along with Thomas’ script, even managed to inject some pathos into the character after the revelations about Lady Agnes’ past failures to maintain a successful pregnancy. But once her mother-in-law and rebellious sister became a permanent fixture in her house, the cracks in Lady Agnes’ personality began to show. Thanks to Hawes’ superb performance, audiences were allowed glimpses into the darker side of Lady Agnes’ personality. After watching Series One of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, many would view Lady Agnes’ younger sister – Lady Persephone – as the series’ villain. And she seemed so perfect for the role, thanks to Claire Foy’s brilliant performance. Her Lady Persephone was a vain, arrogant and temperamental bitch, who treated the Hollands’ staff like dirt – save for Harry Spago, with whom she conducted an affair. At first, it seemed that Harry managed to bring out Lady Persephone’s softer side, especially in her ability to emphasize with his woes regarding the country’s social system. Harry also introduced her to the British Fascist movement. But whereas he ended up finding it repellent, Lady Persephone became even more involved . . . to the point that she developed a relationship with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, before following him back to Germany.
I am not going to pretend that the new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” is an exceptional series. Because I do not think that it is. Basically, it is simply a continuation of the old series from the 1970s. I thought that its running time was ridiculously short – three episodes. It could have benefited from at least two or three more episodes. And screenwriter Heidi Thomas marred it even further with a good deal of over-the-top sentimentality, especially in the first and third episodes. However, Thomas managed to tone down that same sentimentality in the characters. Nor she follow Julian Fellowes’ mistake in “DOWNTON ABBEY” by portraying the servants as one-dimensional characters. And the cast, led by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, were first rate. But what really worked for me was the 1930s setting that allowed Thomas to inject the political turmoil that made that era so memorable. Thankfully, Thomas and Marsh managed to continue that setting in the second series. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” may not have been perfect, but I believe it was a lot better than a good number of critics and fans had deemed it.