Appellate Judge James A. Stewart still dreams of joining the tiny home movement.
Our reviews of Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete First And Second Seasons (published September 8th, 2004), Upstairs, Downstairs: Season Two (published November 30th, 2012), and Upstairs, Downstairs: 40th Anniversary Collection (published March 29th, 2011) are also available.
"We have experience, you and I. We are what that house requires."—Lady Maud Holland to housekeeper Rose Buck
I haven't seen the original Upstairs, Downstairs, but the story of a wealthy household is one of a handful of Masterpiece Theater series that have made their way into the general consciousness in the States. In Upstairs, Downstairs, a three-part 2010 update of the classic series, Jean Marsh (Sense and Sensibility) again stars as Rose Buck, the character she played in four series of Upstairs, Downstairs in the '70s.
If you haven't seen the original, the '30s setting of this series will be of special interest to moviegoers who've seen The King's Speech, since the storyline presents more of the history and atmosphere of pre-World War II Britain.
Facts of the Case
Lord Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard, Nanny McPhee Returns) and wife Agnes (Keeley Hawes, Ashes to Ashes) return to London (played by Cardiff, Wales) from Washington in 1936, taking up residence at 165 Eaton Place at the start of the three-episode run:
• "The Fledgling"
• "The Ladybird"
• "The Cuckoo"
Upstairs, Downstairs seems to be a TV anomaly. It has a classy, modern look that's a notch above anything I've seen in a '70s British period drama, but it retains the leisurely storytelling pace of that era. It has an odd hybrid quality that makes for a powerful drama. It's told in small vignettes that balance a lot of characters in the household, but the undercurrents of scandal in the royal family and a looming war with Germany are a large story. It's a perfect storytelling combination.
There's a lot going on here, and a lot of players, so it might be intimidating at first, but the three episodes manage to give just about everybody at least one scene to shine, whether it's maid Ivy (Ellie Kendrick, The Diary of Anne Frank) talking to Johnny through a bathroom door, Mr. Pritchard helping to hasten an unwanted guest's departure, or cook Mrs. Thackeray's encounter with a photographer who gives her the Upstairs treatment. Of special note is the friendship that starts between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit—and that evolves from a small gesture, when she invites the secretary to join the Downstairs staff in listening to the wireless. A few scenes, as when the Downstairs staff respond to a visit from a former colleague, that show the sense of family that emerges in both parts of the Holland household hit home how the show's little bits add up to a great whole.
Jean Marsh's Rose hides it, but she's eager to return to 165 Eaton Place. Just watch her as she tours the home on a business visit. She's a character who hides a warm heart under a tough exterior as she manages her staff, angry on the surface when Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid, Bleak House) is taken with her portrait, but really not so much. Her concern for the household—the Upstairs people, the Downstairs people, and the house itself—always come through.
The era's tensions are a big part of the story. Hallam's role in the government brings historic figures—such as Mrs. Simpson—into the story, and the characters also are a part of the events of the times. The story of Rachel Perlmutter, a university lecturer who had a maid but now keeps house herself, is touching, her character revealed in small moments, as when she sings a lullaby while sharing a room with Ivy or keeps working while struggling with asthma. Her story is contrasted with that of Harry, the chauffeur who marches in a fascist rally, and Lady Persie, who joins the fascists as her relationship with Harry deepens. These stories cross when Harry and Lady Persie drive into the tense Whitechapel march to join in, while Rachel and Mr. Amanjit go to the scene to oppose the fascists.
In the making-of segment on the DVD, you're told the goal of the design team: "You absolutely have to believe the inside and the outside are the same building." I did, and was surprised that they weren't shooting in a real house. The making-of piece, "Behind Closed Doors," does a good job of showing the aims of the production team. Seeing the sets and realizing they are merely sets is the most impressive part. The music, like the show, is full of the gentle grace notes that quietly build a drama. It hurries occasionally to show urgency, but never at a modern pace.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The first few minutes, as Agnes and Hallam first enter the dilapidated Eaton Place mansion, could seem like any period drama. Even if the start doesn't look that promising, it gets better quickly.
I have the feeling that squeezing a lot of storytelling ambition into a too-short three episode series was what made a strong drama into something perfect. Writer Heidi Thomas (Cranford) packs a lot in without ever making the series feel rushed. I'd like to see more of this Upstairs, Downstairs, but I'd also like them to keep any future series at six episodes or fewer.
If you're a fan of period drama, you've got to see this one. If not, Upstairs, Downstairs probably won't seem like much at first glance, but you'll be intrigued by the end of the first episode and impressed when it's done.
Even though I haven't seen the original, I suspect that writer Heidi Thomas and producer Nikki Wilson, while doing an excellent job, were helped tremendously by a strong template to build on. The result makes a strong case for remakes and sequels.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
Review content copyright © 2011 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.