BBC Video // 2012 // 348 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // November 30th, 2012
"Tonight, this house prepares for war."
The fall of 1938 found both England and 165 Eaton Place on the verge of war. Air raid drills, the rescue of young Jewish refugees, and the impending draft are among the concerns in the London home with the very elegant chandelier. At the same time, Hallam and Agnes Holland -- the Upstairses of Upstairs, Downstairs -- are both battling temptation in their marriage. Downstairs, the Hollands' household staff is dealing with numerous concerns, including a pacifist, impending nuptials, and young John F. Kennedy's stomachache.
There's a lot going on in Upstairs, Downstairs: Season Two. Expect a few spoilers if you read on.
Six episodes are included on two discs:
* "A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing" -- Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard, Zen) is trying to make a stand against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy. At home, a gas-proof pram doesn't stand up to the test, and neither does the pet monkey used as a test subject. Beryl (Laura Haddock, Missing) joins the Downstairs staff.
* "The Love That Pays The Price" -- The Duke and Duchess of Kent pay a visit, bringing Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and his son, John F. Kennedy. Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid, Bleak House) also has a visitor from the States -- her nephew. Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik, Sex and the City 2) asks Aunt Blanche (Alex Kingston, Doctor Who) to help bring young Jewish refugees to Britain. Perse (Claire Foy, Terry Pratchett's Going Postal) is caught in Germany, where she sees the anti-Jewish Hitler Youth riots.
* "A Perfect Specimen of Womanhood" -- Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes, MI-5) joins the League of Health and Beauty, drafting two of the servants, who aren't keen on a torchlight parade in their bloomers. Perse's pregnant, and she wants an abortion, which stirs up objections from Hallam. Blanche gets a visit from lover Portia, who has written a loosely fictionalized novel about their affair.
* "All the Things You Are" -- Spargo (Neil Jackson, FlashForward) goes into the boxing ring to win over Beryl, but ends up coaching Johnny. Agnes is asked to try her hand -- or leg, rather -- at hosiery modeling. Somehow, both Spargo and Hallam end up fighting on the night of the big bout.
* "The Last Waltz" -- Agnes takes the children to Buckinghamshire, ostensibly to keep them safe from the coming war. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough, Cranford) helps plan a servants' ball, but doesn't plan on falling in love. Spargo considers emigrating to America and proposes to Beryl.
* "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" -- On the eve of World War II, Hallam suspects there's a German spy at 165 Eaton Place. Pritchard leaves after a drinking bout. Agnes figures out that Perse has been borrowing her husband in her absence. A lot of plot threads come together to end in a knot of trouble.
Watching Season One, there were times when I thought the remake felt rushed, like showrunner Heidi Thomas was trying to cram a full season into three episodes; I wished she'd been given six episodes to tell just about the same amount of story. This time around, Thomas is given six episodes. Upstairs, Downstairs: Season Two still has that very busy, rushed feeling at times; she must have been counting on a full thirteen.
Of course, with pacing, erring on the side of faster is best, even if it means your season opener feels like a blur to viewers who've been away from 165 Eaton Place for a year or so. This update of Upstairs, Downstairs is always lively, always interesting.
The war is always an undercurrent in the season's storylines. The revelation that Pritchard, the butler and head of the serving staff, was a conscientious objector during World War I keeps going throughout the season. On the surface, Adrian Scarborough's character keeps his fussiness -- you have to get the hot water bottle in Lady Agnes' bed just so, after all -- but his long-ago moral stance shows his humanity. The involvement of Mr. Amanjit, a servant to Hallam's late mother, and Blanche, an Egyptologist, in the war refugee effort, bringing Jewish children to safety in England despite the government's indifference, brings the horrors of Europe to the island nation and brings the two characters into the prewar diplomatic efforts. Elsewhere, little touches, like characters playing board games and preparing dinner while trying out their gas masks, help bring alive the underlying concerns of the characters.
The war also plays out in the soapiest story of Season Two. Agnes' sister Perse, who's been in Germany with her lover, a Nazi colonel, turns to Hallam for help with an abortion. Somehow, this brings them closer together -- in Agnes' bed. Claire Foy brings a bold shamelessness to the role of Perse as she tries to have a riding accident to force a miscarriage, seduces her sister's husband, and betrays her country.
Elsewhere in the romantic sphere, Agnes considers an affair with Landry (Michael Landes), an American hosiery entrepreneur, as Hallam's preoccupation with war preparations makes him distant. Alex Kingston as Blanche gets to deal with up-and-down emotions as she's reunited with her lover, only to have the fallout from the novel create new obstacles. The romance between Spargo and Beryl is tied up in their dreams -- his of moving to America, and Beryl's of becoming a hairdresser. Also, Jean Marsh from the original 1970s series makes two brief appearances.
The lone extra is a cast-and-crew interview segment. There's some interesting and amusing material there, even though it seems intended mainly to promote the season. Watch -- but only after you've watched the episodes. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture and Dolby 2.0 Stereo sound quality are first-rate, as you'd expect with a recent hi-def production.
If Upstairs, Downstairs moved at a slower pace, you might find some parts of the story improbable. When Hallam berates Agnes, telling her noble ladies don't pose for billboards touting stockings, it did occur to me that it was probably a rare occurrence in the late 1930s. Of course, Hallam's affair with the lover of a Nazi colonel didn't seem too likely, either.
Hallam's affair takes the story into suds-and-lather territory, even as Upstairs, Downstairs accustoms viewers to the rhythm of life at one of London's finest addresses in the prewar months. If you watched Season One, there's still enough solid drama to draw you in, though.
Review content copyright © 2012 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 348 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated