Thursday, December 29, 2011

Upstairs Downton Revisited...

Recently I began to rewatch, for the first time since the 1970s, the classic London Weekend Television and ITV television programme Upstairs Downstairs. Upstairs Downstairs, as virtually every television historian knows by now, was the brainchild of actors Jean Marsh, who would go on to play Rose the downstairs parlour maid in the show, and Eileen Atkins, who was supposed to play the downstairs cook but was unable to because of other commitments.

Upstairs Downstairs, which ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975 and was recently revived by the BBC, was originally going to centre on two maids in a Victorian country house--remnants of this remain in the show in the relationship between Rose and her parlour maid comrade in arms Sarah in the early episodes of the show--but by the time it aired the shows focus had broadened out to include not only the lives of two servants but also the lives, travails, and times of all the other servants downstairs and the masters, Sir Richard, later Lord, and Lady Bellamy, 165 Easton Place, Belgravia, London, upstairs.

Surprisingly, at least to those involved in the show (commentary on the first episode by actors Jean Marsh and Evin Crowley (Emily) and writer Fay Weldon on the Network and Acorn DVD's), Upstairs Downstairs became a hit not only in the UK but in the US. Upstairs Downstairs was one of the first shows broadcast on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, in fact, it was the show that put Masterpiece on the television map. It also became popular in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some 65 other countries across the globe. As a result the show spawned a number of clones including the short lived Beacon Hill (1975) on the US CBS network and more recently Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is the creation of British actor--he played the Scottish aristocrat Kilwillie in the BBC's Monarch of the Glen (2000-2005) and politician Claud Seabrook in the BBC's superb Our Friends from the North (1996)--writer--he wrote Robert Altman's Gosford Park itself heir to Upstairs Downstairs and prequel to Downton Abbey--and director Julian Fellowes. It premiered on ITV on 26 September 2010 and was broadcast in America on PBS's on Masterpiece in January of 2011.

Even before Downton Abbey premiered a number of critics pointed out that in many ways Julian Fellowes new series was the grandchild of Upstairs Downstairs. After rewatching the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs, "On Trial", it is quite easy to see why. Both Upstairs Downstairs begin with a new downstairs arrival, Sarah (Pauline Collins), the new parlour maid, in Upstairs Downstairs and Bates (Brendon Coyle), Lord Grantham's new valet, in Downton Abbey. The arrival of Sarah and Bates at Eaton Place and Downton Abbey allow the writers of the first episodes of each series, Upstairs Fay Weldon and Downtons Julian Fellows, to introduce viewers in a very elegant way to the main characters and dynamics of both houses. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have downstairs run by prim and proper yet humane butlers, Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson) in Upstairs and (Charles Carson) in Downton. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have mature and crusty if not nasty cooks, Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) in Upstairs and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) in Downton, and somewhat dim and clumsy kitchen maids, Emily (Evin Crowley) in Upstairs and Rose (Sophia McShera) in Downton. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have scheming and rather "sinister" footmen, Alfred (George Innes) in Upstairs and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) in Downton, both of whom have homosexual relationships with aristocratic foreign visitors to Eaton Place and Downton Abbey. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have ladies of the house who involve themselves in modern radical causes. In Upstairs Downstairs Miss Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) gets involved in "radical" causes like the suffragist movement while in Downton Abbey Lady Sybill (Jessica Brown-Findlay) involves herself with "radical" labour and women's rights political movements. And in both Upstairs Downtairs and Downton Abbey the sinking of the Titanic has an immense impact on the Bellamy and the Grantham households upstairs. In Upstairs Downstairs Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) dies while sailing on the Titanic to New York to visit daughter Elizabeth in America while in Downton Abbey Lord Grantham’s cousin and heir presumptive James Crawley and his son Patrick die when the Titanic sinks in the Atlantic setting in motion the chain of events related to the entail that will dominate the first series.

There are also, of course, differences between the two costume dramas about life upstairs and life downstairs. Upstairs Downstairs was, as was the case with British television in the 1960s, 1970s, and some of the 1980s, a kind of "electronic play" largely shot in the studio and largely recorded on videotape, and is leisurely in pace while Downton, as has been common in British television since the 1990s thanks, in part, to the impact of film, is filmed in the studio and on location at Highclere Castle, has substantially more editing than Upstairs, and is, as a result, much quicker in pace than Upstairs Downstairs. It takes, for example, two series of thirteen episodes each for Upstairs Downstairs to get from the Titanic to World War I while it takes Downton Abbey one series of seven episodes to do it. Additionally, where Upstairs Downstairs was much more critical of the British class system with its masters and servants and the impact of this distanced paternalistic system on the servants, Downton, while engaging in a bit of critical distance, seems to me to romanticise the relationship between upstairs and downstairs, allowing its masters and servants to touch on occasion, wrapping the relationship between master and servant in a kind of nostalgic haze which seems to view the paternalism of the Grantham's (and the aristocracy in general?) in a largely positive light, at least in the first series.

The similarities between the two shows clearly cannot be chalked up purely to genre, purely to the fact that both shows focus on the lives and interrelationships of those upstairs and downstairs and are set in aristocratic homes, one in London, the other in the country, in Edwardian England. Downton Abbey is, as so many critics have pointed out, an Upstairs Downstairs for the new millennium. But while Downton may be an Upstairs clone, at least initially, that doesn't mean that Downton Abbey is any less enjoyable for being an Upstairs Downstairs for the twenty-first century. Personally I love the show and I can't wait for series two of Downton to begin on PBS in January of 2012. It is for me one of the best English language television shows out there along with Sherlock, Doctor Who, Outnumbered, The Thick of It (all British) and Being Erica (a Canadian show).

As to re-watching Upstairs Downstairs, this has been a joy. It is great to see one of the finest television shows ever made again after some forty years in an excellent transfer with tonnes of extras from Acorn.

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