on 30 March 2012
It's a shame that Upstairs Downstairs has been eclipsed by Downton Abbey - I would urge any Downton-lovers who didn't return for the latest instalment of Upstairs to give it a go on DVD: you are missing something rather marvellous. Series one of Downton was magnificent; but series two was under-powered and sometimes threatened to be a camp travesty of itself. Upstairs, on the other hand, has continued to improve and develop in wonderful and surprising ways as the series progressed.
The worlds of almost every character in Upstairs are beautifully drawn and complex, unlike those in Downton that too often are of the single note variety (Maggie Smith is arch - there is nothing left for her to do than raise an ironic eyebrow). In particular, Lady Persie (Claire Foy) and Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) are endlessly fascinating and never as straightforward as they appear on the surface. You meet a character such as archaeologist Dr Motteshead (Alex Kingston) and at first she seems every bit the stereotype of the intellectual 1930s lesbian; but then, as the series evolves, expectations are confounded through great writing and an excellent performance.
Upstairs handles its period detail and sense of time perfectly with none (well I didn't spot them) of the anachronisms that irked me so much in Downton. Moreover, it is really engaged with the history taking place as the drama unfolds - I can think of no other drama that has dealt so well with the mindset of Britain on the eve of war. Scenes such as the household watching the streetlights of London being turned off for the final time are deeply moving. Again, I can also think of no other TV costume drama that has been more beautifully designed, lit and shot. This is far more noticeable in series 2.
For me there were 2 downers to Upstairs: the sometimes maddeningly short scenes and the miscasting of Ed Stoppard - a charisma-free zone. But these are minor niggles for a series that has proved so engaging and full of so many rewards.
on 12 November 2012
(Spoilers, I'm afraid, for this one.) I really did enjoy Season One, even more than Downtown Abbey, which was its main competitor. But oh my sainted aunt; oh my paws and whiskers! What DID they do with Season Two? The characters are simply unrecongizable and the narrative goes from realistically uplifting to quite unbelievable trash.
Hallum changes, with no warning, from a noble person with brilliant international insights to an idiot so enslaved to his nether regions that he sleeps with his sister-in-law and allows her to extract information for the Nazis, toward whom she is still sympathetic; Percy goes from being an understandably confused and spoiled adolescent to practically a psychopath. When it finally looks like Pritchard, that kind man, finds love, it is ripped away and he descends into alcoholism; the driver, who had rejected his Nazi leanings, now becomes a blackmailer and potential deserter; Beryl, who had begun to respect her mistress for her better understanding of the servants' situation, turns spiteful. And Eileen Atkins, alas, is put on the shelf (literally) and replaced by her sister--a very sensible, endearing, and wise woman, who, it is clearly implied, has romantic preferences for her own gender (stereotypically very male clothing, etc). Hardly unusual, but here it has to be drawn out and detailed explicitly with a lost lover and a bedroom scene or two. With all this, throw in a botched abortion, equally detailed, and the series becomes, as Lady Agnes puts is so succinctly in the end, "a sordid affair." Not that these issues should have been ignored, but it seems a great deal of valuable narrative time was was wasted on drawing them out melodramatically as a suddenly major focus--while viewers, I suspect, were wondering how the children refugees were doing, the step-daughter at school, etc., all of which were just dropped.
Johnny, the likable footman lad, and the sweet housemaid with glasses, seem to be the only two who stay their kind and believeable selves (though Johnny is listed as 1-A for conscription, so of course such a good-hearted and outdated character will be killed in the war), along with Hallum's disabled sister, who makes a couple of charming appearances. At least the Indian manservant and the cook stay sensibly level-headed, while everyone else devolves into raving bonkers and you wonder if they will all be carted off to Bedlam Hospital. Agnes, in the end, decides, unselfishly, for the sake of the children and her household, to stay with her husband; but her love for Hallum, now esquery for the Duke of Kent after resigning his position at Whitehall, is extinquished.
The last scene, with guns, attempted murder, and suicide--all neatly swept up by the returning Pritchard with an amazing lack of emotion for what has just happened--approaches farce; and is such a sad contrast to the first scene in the series, where the children's refugee home is established. The very fact that a viewer can actually sit through this second series until the end is due entirely to the truly brilliant actors, who had very little material to work with. It is almost as if the scriptwriters were taking their revenge for the series not being continued. Poor Jean Marsh; they really ruined her revival in Series Two. We wish her the very best in her recovery from her stroke, but I doubt the second series will help. She is a genius; these writers were, alas, not.
on 27 April 2012
This second series follows on brilliantly from series 1. The uncertainties faced by the population under threat of war are mirrored perfectly within 165 Eaton Place. This is not a soap opera "period" drama like Downton Abbey but a classic BBC period drama set at a specific point in history.
It's refreshing to have the period of the "phoney war" as a backdrop, it's a point in history which has been all but forgotten.
A third series has not so far been commissioned which may be a good move. I'd far rather have two excellent productions than spoil the whole series with a poor relation third offering. However, a third series as good as 1 and 2 (same writer, same leading cast, proper historical background) would have me rushing to buy!
Last but not least: this is not a follow on from the original Upstairs Downstairs but a series in its own right so don't confuse the two! Only the house, 165 Eaton Place, is the same.