Saturday, December 21, 2013
I am not a Christian but I have come to believe that Christmas, modern Christmas anyway,is a good thing. Christmas is worth celebrating in my opinion because this most consumer oriented of holidays--the Super Bowl, Halloween, and Mother's, Father's, and Valentine's Day are other central holidays of the American consumption ritual calendar--allows a consumer like me to purchase DVD's at Target and WalMart for a really reasonable price.
I recently made my annual Xmas pilgrimage to Target and WalMart where I picked up seasons of the HBO series Carnivale, Deadwood, Girls, Newsroom, and Game of Thrones. I recently watched Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom which I found superb if flawed. Next I started watching Game of Thrones. I found the first episode of Game of Thrones neither superb nor flawed. I found it to be, to put it bluntly and rather unacademically, crap.
Let's start with the cliches on which fantasies like Game of Thrones seems to be based. There's the retro mediaevalism. There's the manichean tale of good guys and the bad guys. There's the tale Roman and Byzantine imperial stab you in the back and throw kids off towers intrigue. There's the tale of a do anything including prostituting his sister cynical royal who wants to get his kingdom back. There's the tale of the youngish queen who is married to a fat middle aged older man but who finds a little cock action amongst the younger really bad guy set.
As I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones I couldn't but think that the show is aimed at a target demographic of literal male teens and males who have never grown out of teenhood who like their heroes good, their villains bad, their queen's beautiful and t&a naked--no dicks need apply save imaginary ones humping beautiful bare jiggly breasted and bare assed women--and who, if they are good guys, imagine themselves as Prince Valiant's who will save their beautiful queen's from a fate worse than death--in this instance, a queen married to a barbarian whose sole reason to be, like those of his ilk, seems to be boffing and killing; I fuck and kill therefore I am--or if they are bad guys who, imagine themselves those barbarians boffing beautiful bare jiggly breasted and bare assed women. The last, of course, seems to be the human condition for most homo sapiens. As for me I think I will stick with the far more intellectually satisfying and much more witty I Claudius. Colour me unimpressed, very unimpressed thus far with Game of Thrones.
Amidst the T&A and the appearance of "barbarian" (read Mongol?) male ass a story that is relatively interesting has begun to appear. Still it is a pity that after fifty years of reflections on females as eye candy for the male gaze we haven't gotten beyond this. One wonders whether Tamzin Merchant, who backed out of the role that Emilia Clarke plays, did so because of all the T&A women have to show in Game of Thrones.
The T&A continues. It appears that Emilia Clarke's "role of a lifetime", as one boosterist online magazine put it, is to show a lot of T&A for the male gaze. She also appears to be someone the female members of the audience can perhaps sympathise and empathise with. The relationship between her and her "barbarian" husband is growing more romantic by the episode and she is starting to act the role of khaleesi, barbarian queen. Meanwhile back in the "civilised" world the byzantine intrigues continue and continues to intrigue even if it is old hat for those who have a historical sense and a knowledge of genre cliches.
Brutal visual violence is added to the T&A. What more could a growing or a grown boy wish for?
I got part of the way through episode five when the DVD froze up. The DVD had numerous scuff marks on it. Needless to say HBO, I have learned again and again, has some pretty poor quality control when it comes to its DVD's.
New and improved DVD that actually works obtained.
A cock doth appear.
Heads do roll.
funeral pyres, forebodings of war, and dragons, oh my.
I asked some self proclaimed fans of Game of Thrones if George R.R. Martin's work was indebted to Plantagenent history. One had no idea who the Plantagenent's were. Another got defensive. Another said yes, it was in part. Game of Thrones and others in the Song of Ice and Fire series is clearly a riff on Plantagenent history likely via Shakespeare. And Martin admits it. It is a pity that fans of media get so emotionally caught up in their loves that they can't see empirical reality through the ideological mist they live their lives in.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Yesterday was the 50th birthday of Doctor Who, the celebrated British television show that premiered on the BBC on 23 November 1963 at 17:16:20. Doctor Who was the creation of a Canadian, Sydney Newman, the British producer Verity Lambert, without doubt one of the most important women in British and global television, and others. Its remit was to teach British children history and science. It went on to teach children fear, fear of the Daleks, the pepper pot shaped Nazish nemeses of the Doctor. It went on to become one of the longest running television shows beyond soap operas running from 1963 to 1989, when it was cancelled by BBC brass who hated it, only to be rebooted in 2005 by noted British writer Russell T. Davies, the writer of the original version of Queer as Folk.
I began watching Doctor Who in the 1980s thanks to PBS affiliate WMHT in Albany, New York, which ran the show on its second channel, channel 45. I continued to watch it when I moved to Utah in the 1990s thanks to PBS affiliate KUED. My first doctor was the fourth doctor, Tom Baker and I have loved him most ever since. I have a sneaking suspicion that for most of those of us who watched and watch Doctor Who our first doctor is our favourite doctor. Thanks to PBS affiliates, however, I was able to see all the episodes featuring the fourth doctor, the fifth doctor, Peter Davison, the sixth doctor, Colin Baker, and the seventh doctor Sebastian McCoy. Thanks again to PBS I was able to see all the episodes featuring the third doctor, Jon Pertwee, and many of the episodes featuring the second doctor, Patrick Troughton. Thanks to DVD's I have been able to see many episodes of the first doctor, William Hartnell.
Needless to say, I loved Doctor Who. I loved its engagement with serious issues, its discontinuity, and perhaps most of all its often sophisticated humour something that made it much more appealing to me than its very serious US TV cousin Star Trek which followed, to some extent, in Who's footsteps, and its discontinuity. As someone said online, looking for continuity is Doctor Who is a fools errand but that is one of its joys. Each doctor is different yet similar to the others. One of the most useful books on Doctor Who, in fact, is titled The Discontinuity Guide.
I was rather hesitant to watch Davies's reboot of Doctor Who. I had very fond memories of the old Who, of classic Who, and I feared that the reboot would not pay homage to the history of Doctor Who before it. I found out when I started watching the new Who that my trepidations were misplaced. Davies's Who reboot, a reboot Davies admitted was influenced by Joss Whedon's brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was, if tenuously at first, loyal to the history of Doctor Who and new technologies and great storytelling made the new Who as good and sometimes even better than the old Who. The third series Stephen Moffat episode "Blink", for instance, is as good and perhaps better than any episode of Doctor Who before it and is one of the best episodes of TV I have ever seen.
So I want to end this brief blog post by wishing one of my favourite TV shows ever a happy birthday. Happy 50th Birthday Doctor Who Long may you reign.
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
This academic year one of the departments I teach in, History, had its part-time adjunct office moved from Alumni Hall on the very south end of campus to the Milne Library where every library should be, in the centre of campus. We history adjuncts share the office with English Department adjuncts.
Before we made the move we were asked by the History Department secretary if any of us would prefer to have a Mac in the office. I am a Mac--I got a MacBook and later a MacBook Pro after two of the three laptop PC's I bought broke down within a year, specifically a Dell and a Toshiba--so I said yes. And lo and behold there was a Mac desktop computer waiting for me when I arrived at my office in Milne 309.
There was only one problem. I didn't know the password to the two entry portals of the Mac. So off I went to the History Department. They didn't know since the library IT folks set up the computers in the office. So I went to IT not once but twice. Three weeks into classes and one week after I went to the IT office in the basement of Milne I finally got a happy ending. I can now use the Mac desktop in my office at Milne. Sometimes bureaucracies do work if sometimes slowly particularly if you are, like me, a lowly adjunct.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
In August of 1993 I got an American passport, number 053587520, in the name of Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. I renewed my passport in 2003 and had suddenly become Ronald Helfrich in that passport, number 208900656. I didn't think a thing about this because I answer to the names Ronnie, Ron, Ronald, Ron Helfrich, Ronald Helfrich, Ronald G. Helfrich, Ronald G. Helfrich Jr., and Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. These are all permutations on my name. Duh! And hey, if taking out the Gail and Jr. from my name was OK for a bureaucracy of the American federal government it was fine by me. Ronald Helfrich like Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. was my name after all.
But there was a problem with me using my passport for identification purposes in the hyper surveillance paranoic post 9/11 world. The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles in all their bureaucratic and legalistic stupidity wouldn't accept a passport with a name that differed from that on my Texas Driver's license, Ronald G. Helfrich Jr. and my social security card, Ronald G. Helfrich Jr. So I dutifully filled out the passport renewal form, put my name, Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. on it, sent the Department of State a copy of my first passport which had Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. on it, sent them a copy of my social security card, which had Ronald G. Helfrich Jr. on it, and sent them a copy of my birth certificate which had me as Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. And what did I get back from the legalistic idiots at State? I got a letter asking me for an affidavit of name change and telling me I had to fill out an application for a US passport, telling me I had to have individuals indicate that Ronald Helfrich is Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr--this is the level of surreal nonsense practised by the dipshit gobshites at State--and telling me I had to send them more money, $25 bucks. Apparently the idiots at State don't realise that Ronald Helfrich and Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. are one in the same person. Nor do these dipshits realise that they are the ones that changed my name from Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. to Ronald Helfrich in the first place. If this were a Goglesque and Bulgakovian Russian satire these two would be doubles of one another with one, Ronald Helfrich, working at the Department of State where he is causing the other, Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr., all sorts of bureaucratic headaches.
Well done US Department of State. You are the biggest bureaucratic legalistic idiot fuckheads without a sense of common sense I have ever encountered. I hope you appreciate my award for you are indeed well and truly the Pharisees, scribes, and hypocrites of the new millennium.
Postscript: So I asked the arseholes at State to contact me by email about my issue and they, of course, called my pay as you go phone instead. I wouldn't have a problem with this except that I have, as I said, a pay by go phone and I prefer email because of this. Anyway, this gobshite at State named Rebecca called and she tells me that though they changed my name in 2003 from Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. to Ronald Helfrich they can't change it back to the original unless I jump through their idiotic hoops and send them affidavits that Ronald Helfrich and Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. are one in the same--I am not making this up, dear readers, I couldn't make anything this surreal, absurd and just plain stupid up--something that is obvious to 99% of the population, and more money. State, of course, in classic blame the victim fashion blames me for this "mistake" since I filled out the form with Ronald Helfrich in 2003. When I asked why they allowed my name to be changed in 2003 but not now in 2013--I filled in the form with Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. this time--they said they couldn't but offered no credible explanation as to why they did it in 2003 but can't do it now. Apparently, I am captive to the petty stupid ass whims of an arshole government bureaucracy that, ironically, wants all our documents to be consistent or, and this I suspect is more likely, I am captive to a bureaucracy that can't admit it fucked up in 2003.
Postscript Two: So I told the arseholes at State that I wanted my monies back. They said no, all fees are forfeited. If I did something like this my arse would be hauled into court for theft. Needless to say government theft isn't called theft. It is called forfeited fees. Wish I could get away with that. Hell I could live off stolen, err, forfeited fees.
Postscript Three: My letter to State
Hello you petty arse play by the inconsistent rule book wankers at the Passport division of the Department of State. My legal name is Ronald Helfrich. My legal full name—as you know those of us in Western countries have first names, middle names, family names, and , in my case, a Jr/Jnr because I am named after my dad— Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. Aren’t semantic games wonderful? Anyway, in August of 1993 I got a passport, number 053587520, in the name of Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. I renewed my passport in 2003 and had suddenly become Ronald Helfrich in that passport, number 208900656. I didn't think a thing about this because I answer to the names Ronnie, Ron, Ronald, Ron Helfrich, Ronald Helfrich, Ronald G. Helfrich, Ronald G. Helfrich Jr., and Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. These are all permutations on my name. Duh! And hey, if taking out the Gail and Jr. from my name was OK for a bureaucracy of the American federal government it was fine by me. Ronald Helfrich like Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. was my name after all.
Since you allowed me to change my name once without any documentation I might add—I assumed you knew then that Ronald Helfrich and Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. were legal variations on my name—there is no reason you can’t change it back to its original form. Hopefully common sense has not disappeared at State since then. There should be no problem doing this since I sent documentation when I sent in my renewal form, specifically my ss card, my birth certificate, a photo of passport 053587250, showing conclusively that Ronald Helfrich was and is Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. That I did this shows how surreal, absurd, Kafkaesque, and Voinivichean all this bureaucratic masturbatory bs has become in the US.
I wouldn’t care way or another about my name on the passport as long as it has some variation on Ronald and Helfrich in it but the idiotic bureaucracies of the US in all their anality do. Therefore, I prefer it to have the name Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr, just as it was on my previous previous passport, for consistencies sake. If you are too petty to do the right thing—I suspect you wouldn’t know the right thing if it kissed you on the lips--send me a passport just like my previous one.
Ronald G. Helfrich
Ronald G. Helfrich Jr.
Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr.
Yada, yada, yada
Postlude: So out of the blue I received a priority post package from Passport at State and lo and behold it had my renewed passport in it with my correct full name, Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. I don't know why they changed my mind. My whinging? Letters I wrote to my congresspeople? A soul at passports was sensitive to my kafkaesque plight? Whatever the reason it was a relief. Unfortunately, I got the passport just after I mailed my old ones back to them so now I have to wait for their return. Beyond this problem there is another problem with my brand spanking new passport. State didn't put the city I was born in on the passport. I don't think I will return it because god only knows what might happen if I did. So until next time a bureaucratic nightmare comes along that I can blog about I bid you adieu dear readers.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
TIAA-CREF, as some of you may know, stands for Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund and is, according to "reliable" sources, the leading retirement provider for people who work in the academic, research, medical and cultural fields. I opened a TIAA-CREF account way back in 2000 or so when I worked at SUNY Press with $300. A few months later I was laid off and I haven't made any additional contributions since because I was, uh, laid off and my "career" has never recovered from this wonderful experience. Thank you SUNY Press and up yours. Thirteen years later my little account has grown to a whopping $664.07. See what TIAA-CREF can do with a little investment?
I recently received a missive from the messengers of the Olympians on high at TIAA-CREF telling me that thanks to a new agreement reached with the Research Foundation of SUNY, SUNY Press is an unimportant arm of the Research Foundation, that my paltry account, and any account below $1000 dollars, was no longer worth their time and was adding to their accounting costs--gee I hope I am not helping to bankrupt this Fortune 100 corporation--and that I had thirty days to transfer the monies or they would send me a refund minus the ten percent charges one gets for doing such things if one isn't 59.5 years of age. Don't you just love it, dear readers, that TIAA-CREF is cleansing my account and that I end up paying the price? Now that is what I call choice. Now that is what I call capitalism. They also, by the way, sent me a form indicating I could transfer my monies into one of the various retirement options at Siena College but since I don't work for Siena, well this option is moot. So much for corporate competency and efficiency.
I now work in the SUNY system, of which in good Kafkaesque and Voinivichean fashion the Research Foundation, SUNY, is really not a part, so I think, well OK, I will open a replica of my the account at SUNY Oneonta and start contributing a bit each month toward my retirement. After contacting SUNY Oneonta who sent me to one Peter Crehan Oneonta's TIAA-CREF representative for SUNY Oneonta, proving you really can still reach a real human being in the United States, I still don't know whether can do this. I asked him whether the account he suggested I open, a 403(b) is the same that I have now. I, as you see dear readers, find this stuff about as exciting as watching paint dry. I asked him if I can add $355.93 plus dollars to the account I have now and keep it. I asked him if TIAA-CREF would pay the fees if I took a refund since they are closing my account. I asked about the life insurance lines in the documents they sent me to sign since I don't have a life insurance policy with tyrannical TIAA-CREF. I still don't know the answer to any of these questions. I wonder if the New York State Attorney General's office or the political entities that regulate companies like TIAA-CREF in New York can help me? I doubt it, they are generally in cahoots with big Money--I give you Chuck Schumer, Mr. Overturn Glass-Steagall himself--but lets see.
I tell you all this dear readers so to help you understand that the division between economic corporations and political bureaucracies is a false or demagogic one. Corporations are bureaucracies. They are hierarchically organised with a few god figures at the top who run the business and more and more minions as you go down the pyramid who really run it. They supposedly hire on the basis of merit. And dealing with them is akin to what the protagonists of Franz Kafka's The Trial and Vladimir Voinicich's Ivankiada had to go through. Such is life in the modern world, a world in which bureaucracies, mostly looking out for their own narrow interests and which care little about yours, dominate daily life. Enjoy.
Postscript. It is now six days late and TIAA-CREF has answered all my questions. But dear reader don't jump to conclusions that TIAA-CREF has suddenly become a lovable and efficient bureaucratic teddy bear. The forms that Peter Crehan sent me to rollover my account were missing the most important form so my surreal bureaucratic journey through the labyrinthian castle that is the TIAA-CREF bureaucracy has not yet finished.
One more thing, TIAA-CREF asserts my account was closed not at their insistence but at the insistence of the Research Foundation who didn't want to deal with menial accounts like mine anymore. Regardless of who closed the account I can't imagine it is bankrupting either.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
One of the problems associated with MHz's Beck DVD releases--I recently purchased Beck episodes one through three and ten through twelve--is its packaging. Beck, the 1997 to 2010 Swedish television programme based on Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s popular Martin Beck book series, has been released in installments by MHz networks, a PBS affiliate in DC and northern Virginia, a company that offers this series along with other television shows from Scandinavia, Italy, and France for sale (a good thing in an American incredibly parochial when it comes to television viewing) via its MHz DVD division. Unfortunately MHz DVD, presumably because it wants to reduce costs, has stacked three DVD's on top of one another, something that puts MHz in the same league as cheapo companies like Mill Creek, Echo Bridge, and the el cheapo division of WB, in their DVD keepcases increasing, in the process, the likelihood of damage to these DVD's. Since MHz prefers cheap packaging to quality packaging I will not be purchasing further releases of Beck from this company. I have an all region DVD player and so I have more "choices" than the average American DVD viewer as a result and I will, in the future, be buying my Beck from across the pond.
Up yours MHz. You just lost a customer.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
As some of you may know I had a car accident in January of this year. I was driving home from my teaching job in Oneonta on I88 when I ran into a blizzard while coming up a hill near Duanesburg, New York. I had moved over into the passing lane because I was coming on the US 20 interchange at Duanesburg and I wanted to give incoming traffic a path onto the freeway. Big mistake it turns out. At at the top of the hill my Honda Fit hit an ice patch and slid and slid eventually ending up in a guardrail. I tried to turn off cruise control but was too late. Long story short: car totaled.
The crash was only the beginning of my nightmare. I had to, of course, buy another car because I commute to my job seventy some miles away. I decided upon a Ford Focus because it is heavier and thus hopefully safer than a Fit (a great car for local commuting) and my friend Bonnie Weddle had one and I liked it for a number of reasons. So I borrowed money from my credit union and got a Focus.
Since I bought a new car I had to change my automobile insurance and this is where the nightmare continues. State Farm twice told me they needed only the bill of sale from Crossroads Ford in order for them to do this. I contacted Crossroads three times to make sure they faxed the bos to State Farm. Mission accomplished I thought to myself for I never heard another word about the bill of sale from good old State Farm. Mistake.
Well last week I discovered that someone or something had scratched the passenger side of my car from the front door handle to the back tail light. As you have probably guessed dear reader I don't live in the safest of neighbourhoods in Albany. I live in a neighbourhood that has experienced burglaries, car break-ins, and seen car tyres/tires slashed. Anyway, I called State Farm to tell them and to see if this repair will be covered by my insurance and they told me that part of my insurance had been cancelled because they had never received my bill of sale.
After several days of frantic investigation I discovered that State Farm did receive my bill of sale. But they lost it. And while State Farm apologised and did the mea culpa samba the bureaucracy with its computerised play book still marched on like the dim witted plots of English detective fiction. I received a letter from State Farm the day I discovered the damage to my car that some of my coverage had been cancelled. Today I received three notifications from the great insurance bureaucracy, one contained a cheque for the amount of coverage cancelled because they didn't get my bill of sale they lost, another said my coverage had been restored, and another asked me to pay $227.91, the monies they refunded me via cheque when they cancelled parts of my coverage as a result of them misplacing my bill of sale. And to top this surreal Kafkaesque and Voinavichian nightmare journey off State Farm now apparently expects me to pay to send the cheque back to them or pay to write another cheque and send it to them. My time and effort in this--my time and effort should be, in a capitalist society, money, shouldn't it?--appears to be as irrelevant to them as does the question of the morality of them asking me to pay for their mistake does.
The moral of this tale dear readers? Dealing with bureaucracies, public or private, governmental or corporate, is often akin to waking up and finding that you have turned into a giant insect. The other moral? Perhaps it is time to consider Amica.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Ah, if only life were like a mediocre sitcom like The Big Bang Theory...Hot waitress lives in same apartment complex as nerdy PhD.
Monday, July 15, 2013
The Bridge now running on F/X is yet another American remake of a "foreign" series. The original, Broen/Bron (2011-) which focused on a case in which a Swedish female cop who may or may not have Asperger's syndrome, Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), and her laid back male Danish partner who is having a mid life crisis, Martin Rhode (Kim Bodnia), investigate the murder of two bodies they find lying on each side of the Danish and Swedish border on the bridge, the Öresund Bridge, that connects Denmark and Copenhagen to Sweden and Malmö. The American "creative" team, after toying with a Canadian and American border setting moved their remake of The Bridge south to the Mexican and Canadian border and made their cops, Sonya Cross and Marco Ruiz, American instead of Swedish and Mexican instead of Danish.
As far as I can tell the American remake of Broen/Bron has kept much of the original intact. One crucial thing that is similar between both shows, at least to this point, is a character trait of one of the protagonists of Broen/Bron and The Bridge, a character trait that neither series, at least at this point, makes explicit, Saga's and Sonya's, Asperger's Syndrome or autism.
At least one critic, John Elder Robison, "The Bridge and the End of Asberger's on TV", Vulture, 12 July 2013, takes Sonya Cross's supposed Asperger's Syndrome as the focus of his essay on the show. As I was reading Robison's essay which focused on the representation of those with Asperger's on recent American TV, an interest apparently stimulated by Robison's own Asperger's, I couldn't help but think of the recent reclassification of Asperger's as Austism Spectrum disorder by the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The fact that the DSM once classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and still, if memory serves, classifies cults as mental disorders has never been free of cultural and political ideology, made me want to play along with this penchant of many in the psychological and psychiatric community for classifying social phenomena as biological disorders. So I thought I would offer a few of my own. So off I go. Will the DSM, I wonder, at some point classify the American television xenophobia related to subtitles as a kind of phobia? Will the DSM classify the American need to remake foreign television shows as a kind of narcissistic disorder? Will the DSM after tracking the American penchant for making mediocre versions of foreign television programmes they remake classify this delusion, I say delusion because the track record of Americans in remaking foreign television programmes is less than stellar, that they can just do it better as another type of narcissistic disorder? On a broader issue will the DSM classify the apparent American film and television penchant for literal mindedness as a form of infantile disorder?
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
As was the case with Morse I became an avid watcher of Lewis through its seven series, the last airing this year. Recently I rewatched every earlier episode of Lewis thanks to the series one through six ITV box set I recently purchased and an all region DVD player. The reasons why I initially watched and loved Lewis are much the same as the reasons I watched and loved Morse. Like Morse Lewis was superbly crafted by a host of writers Stephen Churchett, Russell Lewis, and Alan Plater amongst them. As with Morse I learned some new obscure reference to some historical and literary fact every time I watched Lewis. Lewis like Morse assumed I was intelligent and that it didn't need to ignore my mind's intellectual functions in order to get me to watch it. Like Morse Lewis was superbly acted down to its minor recurring characters like Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) and Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent (Rebecca Front of The Thick of It Fame, another one of those British actors who can so easily and superbly jump from comedy to drama to tragedy) and its guest stars (far too many to list). Like Morse Lewis had a wonderful and memorable old school musical score by Barrington Pheloung). Like Morse I loved the main characters of Lewis, Lewis and his somewhat Morse like brilliant former Cambridge Theology student partner James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). I loved the repartee between the two, the portrayal of their developing and caring relationship with each other, and the tidbits that we learned about their back stories as the series progressed. As with Morse I loved the fact that it was set in Oxford, a city that reminds me so much of the gorgeous college town where I did my undergraduate work, Bloomington, Indiana, that we got to see some of that Oxford, and that most of the murders in Oxford, or at least the ones Lewis and Hathaway investigated, were committed by Oxford's mostly arrogant dons or its arrogant sense of entitlement elite going to bes. As with Morse I loved how Lewis took its time to get to the dénouement of who the murderer was and that it showed us viewers the intellectual work that went into solving the intellectual puzzle of the most recent Oxford murder. It is, as characters in Lewis occasionally say, Oxford after all. As with Morse I loved how Lewis jumped effortlessly from comedy to drama to deep tragedy.
Like many other lovers of British television and British detective fiction I have been avidly awaiting with some trepidation what appears to be the last Lewis's ever made, Lewis's that are running on PBS's mystery summer this year. I liked the first episode of series seven of Lewis, the two part "Down Among the Fearful", a two-parter which is being broadcast as a one parter on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery and which has no doubt been slightly cut as were previous episodes of Lewis on PBS to make it fit into the Masterpiece time slot. The second two part episode, again being broadcast as a one-parter on PBS, "The Ramblin Boy", was a bit odd, however. I don't ever recall being so aware of who the murderer really was during the opening act of the series as I was with "The Ramblin' Boy". Nor do I ever recall an episode of Lewis that seemed so hurried as this one was. It did tie up some loose character development ends, Lewis and Hobson finally get the romance many of us viewers were hoping they would. From the evidence of these two episodes I have to say that it is probably a good time for Lewis to go out, going out on a high note leaving many of us in the viewer audience wanting for more before it gets too tired and clichéd like one of those American television that goes on long after it has become less than fresh because it makes money for the commercial networks. It is still clear from series seven that Lewis, like Morse before it, was one of the finest television programmes or films, at least in my opinion, to ever grace the small or big screen in my lifetime.
I want to end this brief blog with an appropriately heretical sentence. I like Lewis as much if not more than I liked Morse.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
The 2001 The Princess Diaries is yet another Disney fairy tale film entry aimed at the young teen female demographic. The Princess Diaries tells the fairy tale of one Amelia “Mia” Thermopolis (shades of the equally mythical 300?). At the beginning of the film “Mia”, Anne Hathaway in her break out role and doing her best Audrey Hepburn, is living in a converted firehouse with her bohemian artist mother (Caroline Goodall) in hilly once upon a time hippieish San Francisco. She has a best friend who she spends a lot of time with, the even nerdier best friend Lily Moskovitz (Heather Matarazzo), the standard plain Jane sidekick of the heroine of so many chick flicks and television shows (see Larue Wilson in the Gidget TV series). She has a pet cat named Fat Louie. She is devoted to a car she is having fixed up and which she calls her baby, a classic Ford Mustang. She goes to a posh school in which she and Lily are the requisite outsiders and butt of abuse of the equally requisite group of mean girls and mostly shallow boys, one of whom “Mia” romanticises about. Mia’s life, however, is about to change.
Mia is turning 16 and unbeknownst to her she is also about to become something many young girls, young female teens, and even female twentysomethings dream about, a princess. Mia’s father, you see, was King, until his recent death, of one of those mythical duchies that dot the landscape of operettas and Hollywood films, Genovia. Over the course of The Princess Diaries Mia is transformed from a nerdy, frizzy haired, bespectacled, lacking in confidence, and mousy not part of the in crowd ugly duckling into the gorgeous, straight haired, increasingly confident Princess Clarisse Marie Grimaldi Renaldo with the help of a grandmother she hardly knows, the Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews). Along the way Mia learns a number of life lessons from her grandmother and especially from her grandmother’s head of security, Joseph “Joe” (Héctor Elizondo). She learns, this is a fairy tale Disney film after all, life lessons about true friendship, the celebrity obsessed world (a world, of course, Disney helped create in real life), true romance (that other socially and culturally constructed romantic dreams of teenage girls), and responsibility, as she decides, happy ending ahead dear readers, that she will take up her duties just as her father did before her—his sixteenth birthday gift to her is his diary—as heir to the throne of Genovia. We have no doubt at the end of The Princess Diaries that Queen Clarisse Marie will be one of those humane monarchs to her subjects, humane monarchs that show up so often in Hollywood fairy tales. If only real life was like the movies!
Along the we viewers, well this viewer learned several things as well. I learned that there are ugly ducklings who will never be anything other than ugly ducklings and who are the butt of Disney jokes when they are the alternative to the person we are rooting for so hard to become princess. At least the ugly ducking who will assume the throne if “Mia” doesn’t and her scheming father weren’t the evil others of classic Hollywood Disney fairy tales like 101 Dalmatians. I learned that the extras on the Disney DVD I watched (the double disc collector’s set of The Princess Diaries) aren’t worth the time or effort. Promotional drek for the most part. Disney ain’t no Criterion or Masters of Cinema. I learned that dreams really can come true particularly if they come from Hollywood and if you too look like Anne Hathaway. And I learned that I like romantic fairy tales despite all of my smacked in the face by reality cynicism. What can I say, I loved Roman Holiday (where princess escapes from the Roman consulate of her duchy, becomes a commoner, if only for a day, matures, something symbolised by her haircut, and eventually returns to perform her royal duties toward her loving subjects) and I liked The Princess Diaries.
The Princess Diaries is a good film even if it occasionally does slip into that patented disneyfornicated sugar coated almost rots your teeth sweetness and cuteness mode and even though its comedy is sometimes way too sitcomy broad for my taste. Recommended. Just don’t believe all the fairy tale romantic hype.
The Princess Diaries, 2001, directed by Garry Marshall, screenplay by Gina Wendkos, 115 minutes, 1:85:1
Thursday, June 13, 2013
Dear HBO, I hope you love the packaging of this set because it means that you just lost a sale because I just returned this box set for a full refund. I will not be buying another until your design department obtains their Ph.D's in rocket science, a degree which should, I hope, allow them to build a The Sopranos box set that actually protects the DVD's rather than looks sexy design pretty. Unlike you I don't judge a book by its cover.
The DVD: Very good transfer. Good clean audio. A bit difficult for an oldie like me on a few occasions. 4 stars.
The Package: Up to ITV’s usual standard for its larger box sets: Mediocre. Two of the discs in the second and third of the three keepcases were off their spindles. Thankfully they weren’t damaged much. One of the discs, the behind the scenes disc in series one (disc three) was scratched and buffed and didn't function properly freezing up, thanks to the scratches and buffings, periodically. 2 stars.
Miscellaneous: For those of you who don't have an all region DVD player the first series of Lewis put out by the sometimes incompetent PBS is the cut PBS version of Lewis, cut bizarrely in order to fit into the Masterpiece 1 hour and a half slot, not the full ITV version. So at this point you have no other option, if you want series one, than to go for the hack and hacked up PBS version of series one. So many DVD companies aren't worth the cost of plastic in the DVD's they peddle.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
The show: I haven't watched the Flatiron H2O DVD yet so can't really comment on the transfer or the show itself. It was a why not purchase when the series was on sale. I want to see what this Aussie show is like since I have an interest in non-US TV.
The packaging: Mediocre at best. The set arrived with each and every one of the six discs on the left side of each of the four disc season keepcases off of their spindles. On the plus side a cursory glance suggests that no damage was done to the discs, a rare occurrence. I will look more closely in the future to see if this is the case. As for the slip case that the three DVD's slip into, good.
Summary. If you don't care about potentially bad discs take your chance...
The series. Very good. 4 to 4.5 stars.
The package. On the positive side, this is a very good transfer and is up to Acron's usual high standards. On the negative side, there's the packaging. Instead of one episode per disc Acorn could have put two episodes on each of the first four series discs. Disc three of set six was cracked so I had to return it adding a layer of annoyance into the purchase. The packaging is up to Acorn's usual standards on its larger sets: MEDIOCRE. The slipcase into which the six series regular size keepcases slip into had already split apart at its poorly glued seams before I even took the six series sets out of the Amazon box. Note to Acorn: put as much care into your slip cases as the rest of your product. Your slipcases as a general rule are quite awful. Keepcases? Well they are flimsy, very flimsy. 2.5 stars.
Summation: a mixed bag. If you only care about the series and not about the packaging go for it. 3 stars total.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
The similarities between the two shows didn't go unnoticed in the world of Upstairs Downstairs either. Upstairs co-creator Jean Marsh told BBC 1's The One Show that Downton Abbey was a thinly disguised “facsimile” of Upstairs Downstairs. Jean Marsh’s take on Downton Abbey as a copy of Upstairs Downstairs may not simply have been a question of historical influence. It may have had something to do television competition since the BBC was in the process of reviving Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey was receiving all the critical and viewer attention Marsh and the BBC presumably hoped the new Up Down would receive.
Upstairs Downstairs, which ran on British commercial network ITV from 1971 to 1975,  was the brainchild of actors Jean Marsh, who would go on to play Rose the downstairs parlour or house maid in the show, and Eileen Atkins, who was supposed to play the downstairs cook but was unable to because of other commitments. The show became, to the surprise of many of those involved with it including many at London Weekend Television (LWT), the ITV franchise holder for Greater London and the Home Counties that commissioned the show, and John Whitney’s and John Hawksworth’s Sagitta Productions company, the production company that produced the show, not only a hit in the United Kingdom, where it garnered some 15 million viewers in its second week on the air in the 10:15 pm Sunday graveyard shift, but also in the United States, where it was broadcast on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Somewhere between 300 million to one billion viewers tuned in to the show worldwide in its heyday in the 1970s making Upstairs Downstairs one of the most popular shows in the world at the time.
Upstairs Downstairs was not only a popular success it was also a success within the entertainment industry. By 1977 he show had garnered 26 British and international awards including BAFTA awards for Best Drama in 1972 and 1974 and Emmy awards for Outstanding Drama Series in 1974, 1975, and 1977. Perhaps most importantly the programme brought around £1 million pounds to struggling London Weekend Television thanks, in large part, to sales of the show to some 70 countries worldwide.
Beyond the world of television Upstairs Downstairs spawned novelisations (as did the Upstairs Downstairs spin off Thomas and Sarah) by Up Down producer John Hawksworth, Mollie Hardwick, and Michael Hardwick, fictional books about series characters Rose, Mr. Hudson, Sarah, Mrs. Bridges, Richard Bellamy, and the Bellamy's in general, a cookbook, Mrs. Bridges Upstairs, Downstairs Cookery Book written by Adrian Bailey (1974), and a book on the historical and sociological background of the series written by Mollie Hardwick, The World of Upstairs, Downstairs (1976). It also spawned a number of television clones including the short lived Beacon Hill (1975) on the US CBS network, Upstairs Downstairs producer John Hawksworth's The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC, 1976-1977), Upstairs's story editor’s Alfred Shaughnessy’s The Cedar Tree (ATV/ITV, 1976-1979), the Up Down spin-off Thomas and Sarah (LWT/ITV, 1979), The Grand (ITV, 1997-1998), and, more recently, Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey is the creation of British actor, writer, and director Julian Fellowes. Downton was developed by Carnival Films and premiered on the same network Upstairs Downstairs had been broadcast on in the 1970’s, ITV. In the United States Downton was broadcast on, Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, the same franchise Up Down had been broadcast on almost forty years before.
Like Upstairs Downstairs, Downton has proved to be a popular success around the globe. Downton Abbey is shown in over 200 national markets around the world. In the UK the series attracted some nine to twelve million viewers per episode. In the US the first episode of the second series was watched by more than four million viewers, up 18% from the first series, while the premiere of the third series was watched by 7.9 million. In Australia, where Downton is broadcast on Seven, the series attracted a “mammoth audience” of almost two million viewers. In New Zealand, where it is broadcast on Prime TV, the Downton premiere garnered almost 340,000 viewers. Globally close to 120 million viewers are estimated to have tuned into Downton Abbey.
Like Upstairs Downstairs before it Downton Abbey has also proven to be a critical success within the television industry. Downton’s first series was awarded three BAFTA’s, four Emmy’s, and two Golden Globes. Its second series was nominated for sixteen Emmy’s, winning one. Like Upstairs Downstairs Downton Abbey has become something of a cultural phenomenon beyond the television screen stimulating the publication of a book, The World of Downton Abbey authored by creator Fellowes’s niece Jessica, leading American bookstores to offer book suggestions to its customers on Edwardian social and cultural life and World War I, stimulated viewers to hold Downton themed viewer parties, moved PBS to offer Downton themed jewellry, and stimulated much discussion on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.
Interest in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey within the ivy halls of the academy, however, has trailed far behind that of institutional and popular interest. Despite Upstairs Downstairs being the first upstairs downstairs television show in television history, despite it being one of the most popular shows in the world in the 1970s, and despite its impact on later television programmes, all things that one would think would make Upstairs Downstairs a candidate for a scholarly attention, little in the way of academic exploration of the series has appeared since the 1970s.  There is no mention of the Up Down in such key books in the burgeoning field of television studies as Glen Creeber’s collection Fifty Key Television Programmes, Toby Miller’s collection The Television Studies Book, Creeber’s collection The Television Genre Book, or Michelle Hilmes’s collection The Television History Book. Nor is there a monograph, at least at the moment, devoted to Up Down in either of the leading book series devoted to “television classics”, the British Film Institute’s (BFI) TV Classics series or Wayne State University’s Presses TV Milestones series.
When Up Down is mentioned in what little academic literature on the show there is, it is usually to bury it for its role as a defender of the political and economic status quo in 1970’s Britain. Colin McArthur, for instance, argues that the Upstairs Downstairs episode set during the 1926 General Strike, “The Nine Day Wonder” (5:9), represents the strike in dominant ideological terms, as, in other words, an illegal action that sought to undermine the British nation and British society. Like McArthur Carl Freedman reads Upstairs Downstairs as a defender of the status quo. For Freedman Up Down is reflective of the yearnings or desires of mostly middle class viewers living in a 1970s Britain experiencing change, for a world in which everyone knew their place and all was right with Great Britain and its Empire. A few academics have come not to condemn but to explore Upstairs Downstairs. Charles Barr, James Hillier and V.F. Perkins and Catherine Itzin, for instance, focus on how the show came to be made and on those who made it.
Though Downton Abbey, like Upstairs Downstairs, hasn’t generated much in the way of scholarly analysis it has generated and continues to generate a healthy amount of journalistic criticism, some of it critical, and a significant amount of media attention from old and new media, so much, in fact, during the third series that Downton mania seemed to almost achieve cultural phenomenon status in the United States. For Rachel Cook Downton Abbey is “status quo television” filled to the brim with nostalgia for the days when people knew their place and knew the difference between a duke and an earl. For Tanya Gold Downton gives viewers a sanitized portrait of the British aristocracy, a compassionate aristocracy that sends their cooks to London for cataract operations (1:7) and who forgive their butlers their music hall indiscretions (1:2). Gold makes much of the fact that Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes, was made a peer of the realm by that new New Tory leader and Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, an aristocratic something Gold apparently finds particularly telling in Fellowes ideological biography. For Simon Schama, never one to mince words when in his more popular guise, Downton Abbey is snob and nostalgia television that wallows in cultural necrophilia and appeals to Americans stuck in the age of paranoid Tea Party fantasies about the evils of socialism and the absence of birth certificates. What is so interesting about so much of this condemnation of Downton as conservative status quo television is that it is very much like the criticism aimed at Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970’s. Even academic criticism apparently gets rerun sometimes.
Beyond being possibly status quo television there are a number of other things Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey share. They share a genre, drama. They share subgenres, the family drama, the historical drama, the costume drama, and the upstairs downstairs drama. They share seriality. Stories in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are not tidily wrapped up in the space of around fifty minutes so character traits that exist and events that happen in earlier episodes impact events and characters in later episodes. They share a context, the Edwardian age, the Great War, and that era after the Great War in which the hierarchical modern world was on the verge of even greater historical change than that which preceded it. But perhaps more than anything else they share a setting, a family setting.
Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are largely set in Edwardian aristocratic homes, Up Down in London’s posh Belgravia at 135 Easton Place, Downton Abbey in a manor house in the Yorkshire countryside, Downton Abbey. Both share a focus on the trials and travails, loves, hoped for loves, loves lost, scandals and intrigues, and triumphs and tragedies of the Bellamy and Crawley clans, the somewhat unhappy Bellamy and Crawley clans upstairs (shades of Tolstoy’s interesting in their own way unhappy families?), and their servants downstairs. And both focus, at least in part, on the interaction between these upstairs and downstairs families with each other within the confines of a set of ritualized behaviours and manners determined by tradition, class, and status. It is these family sagas which are at the heart of both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, is home to the Bellamy clan upstairs, Lady Bellamy (Rachel Gurney), her husband Richard Bellamy (David Langton), Lady Bellamy’s and Richard’s oldest son James (Simon Williams), and their daughter Lady Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett). Downstairs are butler Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson), cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), parlour maid Rose (Jean Marsh), lady’s maid Mrs. Roberts (Patsy Smart), under housemaid Sarah (Pauline Collins), footman Alfred (George Innis), driver Pearce (Brian Osborne), and scullery maid Emily (Evin Crowley).
Masters and servants came and went throughout Upstairs Downstairs five series. Upstairs middle class Hazel (Meg Wynn Owen) became James’s wife in series three and died of influenza in series four. Lady Georgina (Lesley-Anne Down), daughter of Lady Marjorie’s brother Hugo, arrived as Richard’s ward in series three. Richard married Virginia Hamilton (Hannah Gordon) who brought her two children Alice (Anne Yarker) and William (Jonathan Seely) from a previous marriage with her in series five. Alfred and Pearce left service in series one to be replaced by Edward (Christopher Beeney) and Thomas (John Aldington). Emily committed suicide in series one and was replaced by Ruby (Jenny Tomasin). Sarah left service in series one to return in series two at the end of which she left along with Thomas, her new husband. Parlour maid Daisy (Jacqueline Tong) arrived in series three. Footman Frederick (Gareth Hunt) came to Eaton Place in series four while parlour maid Lily (Karen Dotrice) arrived in series five.
Like Upstairs Downstairs Downton Abbey has its family of masters upstairs and “family” of servants downstairs. Downton Abbey is the home of the Crawley clan upstairs, the Earl of Grantham, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his American born wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Downstairs are butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and their squabbling “children” Lord Grantham’s valet Mr. Bates (Brendon Coyle), footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), second footman William (Thomas Howes), Irish chauffeur Branson (Allen Leech), Lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), house maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie), cook Mrs. Patmore (Leslie Nichol), and kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera).
Servants come and go at Downton Abbey just as they did at Eaton Place. Gwen leaves Downton to become a secretary (1:7) and is replaced by Ethel (Amy Nuttall) (2:1) until she is forced to leave service after a scandal (2:4). Jane (Clare Calbraith) replaces Ethel (2:5) but leaves service toward the end of series two (2:7). Mr. Lang (Cal Macaninch) becomes Robert’s valet after Bates leaves service in the first episode of series two only to return after Mr. Lang leaves service as a result of his shell shock (2:3 and 2:4). Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Matthew’s butler/valet, becomes Matthew’s valet at Downton Abbey in series three after Matthew and Mary marry and Matthew moves into the manor house (3:3). Alfred (Matt Milne), a relative of O’Brien, becomes a footman at the beginning of series three (3:1). James “Jimmy” Kent (Ed Speelers) is taken on as second footman once Downton’s finances are put back on a sound footing after the war (3:4). Ivy Stuart (Cara Theobold) replaces Daisy as kitchen maid allowing Daisy to become Mrs. Patmore’s assistant cook (3:4).
Other members of the aristocratic Crawley family reside near to the estate. The Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) lives in the Dower house on the estate itself. The male heir to the estate, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), until he moves to the Abbey after he marries Lady Mary in series three (3:2), and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) reside in the Crawley House in nearby Downton village.
Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey share more than just genre, setting, seriality, and an emphasis on masters upstairs and their servants downstairs. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey begin with new downstairs arrivals. In Upstairs Downstairs Sarah arrives at Eaton Place for an interview and eventually gets the job of under parlour maid ("On Trial", 1:1). In Downton Abbey Bates arrives at the Abbey to begin work as Lord Grantham's new valet (1:1)). The arrivals of Sarah and Bates allow the writers of the first episodes of Upstairs and Downton, Fay Weldon and Julian Fellowes respectively, to introduce viewers to the main characters, master and servant dynamics, and leisure and work at 165 Eaton Place and Downton Abbey. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have downstairs run by generally tradition bound, prim, proper, snobby, and devoted to service and its rules and rituals butlers, Mr. Hudson in Upstairs and Mr. Carson in Downton. Both have mature and crusty cooks, Mrs. Bridges in Upstairs and Mrs. Patmore in Downton. Both have somewhat dim and occasionally clumsy kitchen maids, Emily in Upstairs and Daisy in Downton. Both have scheming and rather “sinister” footmen, Alfred in Upstairs and Thomas in Downton. Both footmen, by the way, engage in homosexual relationships with aristocratic visitors to Eaton Place and Downton Abbey in the first series of each show. (Upstairs, "A Suitable Marriage", 1:5, Downton 1:3). Both have aristocratic daughters who become involved in radical causes, Miss Elizabeth in Up Down and Lady Sybil in Downton (Upstairs Downstairs "The Key of the Door", 1:12, "For Love of Love, 1:13, and "Special Mischief”, 2:10, Downton 1:6). Both have aristocratic radical daughters who marry scandalously, Miss Elizabeth in Up Down and Lady Sybil in Downton (Upstairs 1:10 and 1:13, Downton 2:7 and 2:8). Both have aristocratic or soon to be aristocratic men who go missing in action during the Great War, James in Upstairs Downstairs (“Missing Believed Killed”, 4:11) and Matthew in Downton Abbey (2:4). Both have ladies of the house who become nurses during World War I, Lady Georgina in Up Down (Series Four) and Lady Sybil in Downton (Series Two). Both have ladies of the house affected by Spanish flu after the end of the Great War, Hazel in Up Down and Cora in Downton (Up Down 4:13, Downton 2:8). Both have young female Twenties rebels come to live in their great houses well into the series, Lady Georgina the step-daughter of Lady Marjorie's brother Hugo, arrives at Eaton Place in Series Three (“Goodwill to All Men”, 3:9) while Violet’s great niece Lady Rose (Lily James) arrives at Downtown Abbey the end of Series Three (3:8). In both the sinking of the RMS Titanic play critical roles in the plot. In Upstairs Downstairs Lady Marjorie Bellamy dies while sailing on the Titanic to New York to visit daughter Elizabeth in the United States and her brother in Canada ("Miss Forrest", 3:1 and "A House Divided", 3:2) while in Downton Abbey Lord Grantham’s cousin and heir presumptive James Crawley and his son Patrick, the latter the fiancée of Lady Mary, die when the Titanic sinks in the North Atlantic setting in motion the chain of events related to the entail, the tying of the land, the basis of aristocratic wealth, and titles to primogeniture, that will dominate the first and second series of the show.
Though there are significant similarities between Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey, similarities that while circumstantial cannot be ascribed solely to shared genre, shared general setting, shared seriality, and a shared emphasis on masters upstairs and their servants downstairs and as a result must be ascribed to the influence of Upstairs Downstairs on Downton Abbey, there are also significant differences between the two dramas which distinguish them from one another. Downton Abbey is set in a much larger house with many more servants than the Belgrave home of the Bellamy clan. Upstairs Downstairs is, as was the case with British television and particularly British “quality” television costume dramas throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s,  a kind of "electronic theatre". It was, for the most part, shot live in the studio over a three-hour period on Friday after a week of rehearsal and recorded largely on videotape. Its pace, like the pace of most television programmes at the time, is leisurely, particularly when compared to today’s much faster film and television rhythm. Downton Abbey, on the other hand, as has become increasingly common in British television since the 1980s and 1990s, bears the increasing imprint of film and American television, itself, at least by the late 1950’s, the child of Hollywood cinema. It is filmed at Ealing Studios and on location at Highclere Castle, Bampton in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and London with digital cameras. As a result it takes much more time to make an episode of Downton than it took to make an episode of Upstairs Downstairs. Camera setups and lighting for filmed dramas like Downton alone can and often do take hours, as long or longer, in other words, as it took to record a single episode of Upstairs Downstairs.
As a contemporary filmed drama Downton is characterized by much more editing than was Up Down. While some scenes in Upstairs Downstairs last close to ten minutes and contain healthy amounts of dialogue Downton Abbey’s scenes generally last less than five minutes, some less than even a minute, with much less dialogue. Even history runs at a faster pace in Downton that it did in Upstairs Downstairs. It took two series of thirteen episodes each for Upstairs Downstairs to get from the Titanic to World War I. It has taken Downton Abbey one series of seven episodes to cover the same historical terrain.
Though Helen Wheatley argues, without any empirical audience analysis evidence for support, that viewers in the 1970s derived pleasure from Upstairs Downstairs domestic space with its period detail of Edwardian manners, language, routines, food, and costumes, Up Down, given that it was largely recorded on videotape, is nowhere near as lush as Downton Abbey. The studio sets of Upstairs Downstairs with their aristocratic material culture may exude aristocracy but the cinematography of Up Down is no where near as rich as that of Downton Abbey with its lush and elegant depictions of nature, the estate, its aristocrats upstairs, Downton village, and upstairs itself in its stately camera movements. Camera movements downstairs, by the way, are far less rich, much more energetic and shaky thanks to more extensive camera movement, and much faster in pace exuding an almost documentary like quality, something quite common, perhaps too common, in the post The Office (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, BBC, 2001-2003) television world.
Downton and Upstairs Downstairs differ in their mise-en-scène in other ways as well. Downton’s use of music is quite different from that of Upstairs Downstairs. Orchestral music in Downton is quite extensive and punctuates, underlines, and reflects the narrative in each episode, as was common in classical cinema. Music in Upstairs Downstairs, on the other hand, music scored by Alexander Faris, music which nicely captures the Elgarian and Edwardian music hall spirit of the age, was generally only used during the opening title sequence, during act breaks (before and after commercial breaks), and during closing credit sequences, making it more akin to the limited use of music in non-musical theatre.
The differences between Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey aren't simply differences of film style or mise-en-scène. Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey are also somewhat different in their narrative themes. Piers Wenger argues that while Upstairs’ plots centre around history Downton’s centre around class. And it is true both dramas are inherently about class and the complexities of class-consciousness given the upstairs downstairs, masters and servants, upper class and working class, structure of each show. But what really makes Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey different from each other is the differing roles the narrative themes of scandal, history, intrigue, deception, and romance play in each show.
Scandal and attempts to contain scandals is one of the narrative themes at the heart of Upstairs Downstairs. And there is a lot of scandal (only a few of which are noted here) in Up Down. James flirts with and has an affair with downstairs maid Sarah, an affair that ends in Sarah’s pregnancy, acts beastly toward his wife Hazel after she has a miscarriage, has an affair with the wife of his "longest friend" Bunny Newbury (John Quayle), and commits suicide after losing his and now lady’s maid Rose's savings during the stock market crash leading to the sale of 165 Eaton Place ("Board Wages", 1:3, "A Pair of Exiles", 2:2, "Distant Thunder", 3:12, "An Old Flame", 5:6, "All the King's Horses", 5:13, "Whither Shall I Wander". 5:14). Lady Elizabeth refuses to conform to custom and involves herself in "radical” causes and bohemian practises, has a failed marriage, has an affair that ends in pregnancy, and has an affair with a rich publisher on the make ("The Path of Duty", 1:4, "The Key of the Door", 1:12, "For Love of Love", 1:13, "The New Man", 2:1, "Married Love", 2:3, "Whom God Hath Joined", 2:4, "A Special Mischief", 2:10, "The Fruits of Love", 2:11). Lady Bellamy has an affair with a British officer home from the Indian subcontinent ("Magic Casements", 1:7, "The Property of a Lady", 2:6). Miss Georgina spurns the advances of a paramour who ends up taking his life at a wild Twenties party at the Bellamy home, scandalously plays a prostitute in a film in which she is paired with 165’s footman Frederick (Gareth Hunt) moonlighting, and accidentally kills a biker after a drink soaked scavenger hunt ("Laugh a Little Louder", 5:3, "Alberto", 5:11, "Joke Over", 5:13). Upstairs’s downstairs has its share of "unsuitable" scandals as well whether its the scullery maid Emily committing suicide when her relationship with a footman from another house is forbidden ("I Dies from Love", 1:8), Mrs. Bridges taking a baby from its perambulator on the street while distraught over the death of Emily ("Why is Her Door Locked?", 1:8), Sarah taking part in a plan to steal valuables from the Bellamy household ("The Swedish Tiger", 1:9), unmarried Sarah getting pregnant, twice ("A Pair of Exiles", 2:2, "The Wages of Sin", 2:12), Thomas's questionable scheming to better his position downstairs, to better his financial position, or getting Sarah pregnant, without revealing to those upstairs that he is the father ("The Property of a Lady", 2:6, "The Wages of Sin", 2:12), Alfred having a homosexual relationship with a visiting German aristocrat and spy and returning to Eaton Place after murdering his brutal aristocratic lover ("A Suitable Marriage", 1:5, "Rose's Pigeon", 3:5), Mr. Hudson falling in love with house maid Lily ("Disillusion", 5:7), Frederick trying to undermine Edward's position as acting butler in the wake of Hudson's heart attack ("The Understudy", 5:10) or becoming the "kept man" of Lady Dorothy "Dolly" Hale (Madeleine Cannon) ("Alberto", 5:11). The Bellamy’s spend considerable time and energy trying to contain these scandals, mostly successfully, over the course of the show.
History and historical change (the death of a monarch, the coming of war, increasing industrialization, the rise of labour) is another narrative theme at the heart of Upstairs Downstairs. Up Down uses history, in fact, in such a way that it recalls the Reithian remit and the use of science and history in Doctor Who, as opportunities for teaching moments Over five series Upstairs Downstairs took viewers back to the Edwardian age, the age of jazz, the flapper, phonographs, the wireless, the king's speech, tabloids, the rise of labour, the general strike, the age of cinema, the American age, and the stock market crash of 1929. And it took viewers back to World War I.
For many critics and for many of the Upstairs Downstairs cast and crew themselves, Series Four centring on the Great War, was the high point of the series. Series Four really begins with the final two episodes of Series Three. "Distant Thunder" (3:12) and "A Sudden Storm" (3:13), place the Bellamy family saga in the context of rising tensions in Europe. “A Sudden Storm” ends with the declaration of war between Great Britain and Germany and captures superbly the patriotic mania that gripped Great Britain at the time along with the common belief that the Britain and her allies would win the war in a few months.
Series Four uses history in the same way that Upstairs Downstairs always has used history since its inception. It weaves important aspects of World War I into the Bellamy family saga upstairs and servant life downstairs. In "A Patriotic Offering" (4:1) the Bellamy's take in a Belgian refugee family which, since they turn out to be Belgian peasants, are moved downstairs for the servants to take care of while James is off to the Western Front. In "News from the Front" (4:2) James, home from the front, inadvertently reveals important information about the war to Sir Richard's Tory colleagues who use it to further Tory attempts to force the Liberals into a coalition government. As a result James is posted, against his will, to general staff behind battle lines. In "The Beastly Hun" (4:3) Hudson’s xenophobia about the beastly Huns and their rape and brutalisation of poor Belgium, rears its ugly head—Hudson rails against foreigners on occasion in Upstairs often in scripts authored by Jeremy Paul. Meanwhile outside the Bellamy home British anti-German xenophobia reaches its zenith with an attack on a German born baker and his family, a baker from whom the Bellamys buy goods, and their establishment. In "Women Shall Not Weep" (4:4) Edward goes off to war after marrying under housemaid Daisy, scullery maid Ruby, goes off to make munitions at Silverton along the Thames, and Lady Georgina takes her first steps to becoming a volunteer war nurse. In "Tug of War" (4:5) Georgina begins working in a hospital on the home front while James returns from the front depressed about the real war that those on the home front know little to nothing about thanks to government propaganda. In the eighth episode, "The Glorious Dead" (4:8) Rose learns that her fiancée, Gregory Wilmot (Keith Barron) has died "quickly" and "without pain" on the Western Front. In "Another Year" (4:9) Edward returns home suffering from shell shock. In "The Heroes Farewell" (4:10) Ruby returns to Eaton Place after the munitions factory she works in is bombed by a German zeppelins. In episode eleven, "Missing Believed Killed", James, who was sent back to the front after Hazel, James's wife, pleads his case to his colonel, is missing and presumed dead. He is eventually found in a hospital on the Western Front in which Georgina is working and is brought home by the Bellamy's, one of the perks of privilege apparently. In "Peace out of Pain" (4:13) the war ends but the Bellamy saga continues as Hazel is killed by the Spanish influenza, the flu that killed more men and women than the Great War.
Though the war is over by the end of Upstairs Downstairs series four the war is neither out of sight nor out of mind in Series Five. In "On With the Dance" (5:1), James continues to suffer from the trauma of the Great War specifically shell shock. In "A Place in the World" (5:2) Edward, who has left service, for the moment at least, along with his wife downstairs maid Daisy, is, like so many other former British soldiers, out of work.
The Great War, and history in general, play a much less central and far more peripheral role in Downton Abbey and the Grantham Saga than it does in Upstairs Downstairs. The sinking of the Titanic is there but its function is more to move the narrative about the entail along than about the Titanic itself. World War I is there but it is more a narrative prop to, thanks to Matthew’s frequent leaves back to England and visits to Downton Abbey and the injury that leaves him likely unable to walk and have children in the future (2:5), move Matthew’s and Mary’s will they, won’t they relationship along. The Great War serves a similar function in the Thomas narrative strand. Thomas may be serving in the medical corps in the trenches, the same trenches Matthew is serving in during the War, but the focus of the narrative is less on what Thomas does during the war than on Thomas’s schemes to get out of the trenches and return to Downton Abbey, schemes that come to fruition when Thomas successfully engineers having his hand shot so can return to England (2:2) so that the Thomas and O’Brien versus Bates and Anna narrative thread can continue.
It is not history or scandal—Downton Abbey does, like Upstairs Downstairs, have its share of scandals—Lady Mary, for instance, has a premarital affair with a “Turkish” embassy attaché visiting Downton, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), resulting in his death and necessitating that Cora and Anna help Mary move the body out of Mary’s bedroom (1:3), housemaid Ethel has an affair with a wounded officer convalescing at Downton and ends up pregnant (2:4), Lord Grantham loses the family fortune (3:1), Branson shows up at dinner without tails (3:1)—and attempts to contain these scandals—Cora and the Dowager Countess Violet intrigue to keep Lady Mary’s affair with Mr. Pamuk secret (1:6), Robert initially keeps his financial problems hidden from his daughters and those downstairs (3:1, 3:2, 3:3, 3:4)—but rather intrigues, schemings, deceptions, secrets, romance, and change which are at the narrative heart of the first three series of Downton Abbey.
Throughout Downton’s first series Lady Cora and the Dowager Countess intrigue to break the entail which means that the Grantham estate, including the dowry monies Cora brought with her when she married Robert, have to go to distant male heirs rather than to Lady Mary. Cora and the Dowager Countess intrigue to marry Mary off to Matthew and if not to Matthew than to some other appropriate suitor (even a rich Italian) particularly after whispers of Mary’s illicit affair with Mr. Pamuk begin to circulate throughout British polite aristocratic society (1:6). Lady Mary and Lady Edith constantly conspire against each other. Stung by Lady Mary’s sharp tongue telling her that she can take any man Lady Edith wants, Lady Edith writes to the “Turkish” ambassador informing him of Lady Mary’s illicit affair with Mr. Pamuk. When Lady Mary learns that Lady Edith has written the letter she pays Lady Edith back by successfully scheming to keep Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) from asking Lady Edith to marry him (1:5, 1:6). The family intrigues to make Branson, the radical Irish chauffeur Lady Sybil marries, into someone of Lady Sybil’s status (2:7). Lady Mary and Violet conspire to obtain money from Cora’s mother Violet to save the estate after Robert’s investments in Canadian rail fail (3:1 and 3:2).
Intrigues and deceptions don’t occur only upstairs. Servants Thomas and O’Brien, scheme to get Bates fired so that Thomas can become the Lord Grantham’s valet (1:4, 1:5, 1:6). Bates and Anna scheme to turn the tables on Thomas and O’Brien, or at least to make them think they turned the tables (1:5). Thomas intrigues to turn his sexual relationship with a visiting duke into a change of status and home. He wants to be the Duke of Crowborough’s (Charlie Cox) valet (1:2). The duke, however, refuses to take him on and doesn’t have to since he has secretly stolen the love letters he wrote to Thomas while wondering with Lady Mary through the servant’s quarters (1:1). Thomas schemes to steal wine from the wine cellar and to blame it on Bates (1:5, 1:6). O’Brien intrigues to revenge herself on Cora because she thinks Cora is about to replace her as her lady’s maid. O’Brien places soap on the floor where she knows Cora will step when she gets out of the bathtub. Cora slips on the soap as O’Brien intended, an injury that ends in the miscarriage of Cora’s child. The miscarried child, it turns out, was the male heir that Lord Grantham had been hoping for, a male heir that Lord Grantham had long wanted, the male heir who would have inherited Downton Abbey keeping the estate in the immediate Crawley family (1:7). Thomas and O’Brien scheme to use Cora to bring Thomas to the Downton village hospital and then to put Thomas in charge of the convalescent centre for officers housed in the Abbey (2:2, 2:3). Daisy intrigues to make Mrs. Bird’s cooking less than edible while Mrs. Patmore is away in London having an operation on her eyes (1:7). Bates’s wife Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy) schemes to get him back and does so, at least for while, by threatening to reveal Lady Mary’s illicit affair to the tabloid press (2:2). O’Brien schemes to get her nephew Alfred a position at Downton and intrigues against Thomas when Thomas schemes against Alfred to keep him from moving up the hierarchical servant ladder to valet (3:1 and 3:2). Thomas intrigues against O’Brien by telling Mr. Molesley that O’Brien is leaving and Molesley, in turn, informs the family upstairs as he has a replacement for her in mind (3:2). O’Brien schemes against Thomas by manipulating new footman James’s discomfort with Thomas’s close attentions and by manipulating Thomas by telling him that “Jimmy” has told her how much he likes him (3:5, 3:7, 3:8).
Deceptions and secrets are another narrative thread that is at the heart of Downton Abbey. There is the secret about Lady Mary’s indiscretion with Mr. Pamuk. There is Cora’s and the Dowager Countesses’s secret that they know about Mary’s “indiscretion”. There is Lord Grantham’s secret that Thomas is a thief (1:6). There is Lady Sybil’s secret that she is attending “radical” political rallies. There is Bates’s secret that he is married, was an alcoholic, and was a thief. There is O’Brien’s secret that she plotted to injure Cora (1:7). There is Thomas’s secret that he is gay. There is Lavinia’s, Matthew’s fiancée, secret, that she stole government documents that reveal governmental corruption in order to save her father from the blackmailing schemes of tabloid newspaper magnate Sir Richard Carlisle (2:3). There is Robert’s attempts to hide his money loss from his daughters and the servants downstairs (3:1, 3:2, 3:3, 3:4).
Romance is another theme, the theme that most resonates with viewers if viewer comments, mostly from women, at the PBS Facebook Masterpiece page are a guide, that is at the narrative heart of Downton Abbey. At the heart of Downton’s romances are the parallel romances between Mary and Matthew, Sybil and Branson, Anna and Bates, and Daisy and William, parallel romances that are sometimes reflected in the editing of the show as in episode 4 of Series Two where each of the relationships are touched on in succession in the last several minutes of the episode. At the heart of these parallel romances is that seemingly endless eternal literary, film, and television question of will they or won’t they, will they or won’t they be able find ways to surmount the problems they face—bad timing and war wounds, wicked wives and intrigues by other servants, class barriers, and does she really love him or is she just doing her wartime duty respectively—and find true love and happiness together. Downton’s romances are, in particular, at the heart of Series Two. In episode 5 Daisy marries a dying William but feels guilt for doing so for she didn’t love him like, as she says, he loved her (2:5). She comes to grips with her love for and marriage to William and her relationship to William’s father (Paul Copley) in the Christmas episode of series two. In episodes 7 and 8 Sybil decides to marry Branson and, after much gnashing of teeth, the Grantham’s finally accept, if tenuously, Branson into the family. After a flirtation with Patrick (2:6) Lady Edith renews her relationship with Sir Anthony Strallan in the Christmas episode of series two. In episode 8 Bates and Anna finally marry just before Bates is arrested for murdering his wife Vera. At the end of series two Robert and Cora are apparently reconciled after their respective flings with the housemaid Jane and the running of Downton Abbey in war and all that entails. In the Christmas episode Bates is tried and convicted of murder, Robert and Matthew are finally told Mary’s secret about Mr. Pamuk, and Matthew finally proposes to Mary.
Romance continues to be a major theme in Series Three. Matthew and Mary marry early in series three (3:2) and their relationships has ups and downs throughout series three, including downs over Matthew’s refusal, at first, to use his inheritance from Reggie Swire to save Mary’s beloved Downton Abbey (3:1, 3:2, 3:3). Edith’s relationship with Strallan ends when Sir Anthony leaves Edith at the altar (3:3). Lady Edith takes up with her married publisher, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), in the 2012 Christmas episode. Anna continues to try to prove Bates’s innocence and their relationship, though it has some tense moments as when both think that each has given up on the other as a result of prison authorities stopping the flow of Bates’s letters to Anna and Anna’s to Bates (3:4), is renewed when Bates is released from prison after detective Anna uncovers the truth, that Vera has killed herself in order to put the blame on Bates (3:6).
Change, change as a plot device rather than as an almost pedagogical strategy as in Upstairs Downstairs, is another important theme at the narrative heart of Downton Abbey. Downton begins with change, the death of Patrick, heir to Downton on the Titanic in 1912, and the impact of that dramatic and tragic change particularly on the masters upstairs. Change continues to impact Downton Abbey throughout series one and two whether it is Sybil’s relationship and eventual marriage to the chauffeur Branson or Mary’s relationship with Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), a self made tabloid magnate who plans to buy an old manor house from a family that has fallen on hard times and modernize it after he and Mary are married.
While change has been important in earlier series' of Downton Abbey it is in the Third Series that change and its impact on Downton Abbey’s masters, particularly Robert upstairs, and servants, particularly Carson downstairs, becomes central to Downton Abbey. Series Three begins in March of 1920, an era of change, thanks, in part, to the Great War, economic change, social movements like the suffragette movement, the Irish Republican movement, greater job opportunities for lower class men and women outside of service, and the motor car. The winds of financial change blow across Downton Abbey as Robert learns that the money, he invested in a railroad in Canada, Cora’s money, has been lost putting the Crawley’s future and the Crawley ownership of Downton Abbey itself in peril. Downton is conveniently saved when Matthew receives an inheritance from Reggie Swire in Downton, the father of his former fiancée Lavinia (3:3), but his “modern” management style and that of his ally Tom, clashes with that of Robert (3:4, 3:5, 3:6, 3:6, 3:7). After Sybil’s death Robert becomes more open to changes at Downton and he eventually comes to see the changes in the management of the estate that Matthew and Tom bring as Downton Abbey’s salvation. As Hugh “Shrimpy” MacClaire (Peter Egan), who loses his Scottish Highlands home because he didn’t modernize his estate, says to Robert in the third series Christmas special, it was Matthew’s and Tom’s changes that saved Downton Abbey and by this time Robert knows that.
Change isn’t something that impacts only the Crawley estate. It also impacts the Crawley family itself. Branson, who has come to Downton with Sybil to attend Lady Mary’s wedding, and his lack of proper formal dinner wear, his attitudes toward British rule in Ireland, attitudes Robert finds wrongheaded, and his arguments for changes in Ireland are out of place in the traditional world of Downton Abbey (3:1 and 3:4). Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), who like Branson has come to Downton for Lady Mary’s and Matthew’s wedding and who has brought with her an American attitude to openness and promotion of some of the winds of change, is out of place in tradition drenched Downton Abbey (3:1 and 3:2). Edith becomes a reporter over Robert’s objections (3:5, 2012 Christmas Special) that her editor wants not for her skills but because she has a title. Sybil’s death is caused, at least in part, by Robert’s decision to have obstetrician to England’s elite, Sir Philip Tapsel (Tim Pigott-Smith), replace family doctor Doctor Clarkson (David Robb) (3:5). Matthew dies in an AS motor car, perhaps the most dramatic symbol of change after the Great War, that he purchases after his and Mary’s honeymoon (3:2). Even the clothes, or at least the servants, seem to conspiring to bring change to the Abbey. Matthew and Robert dress improperly for dinner (3:2) thanks to the continuing battle between Thomas and O’Brien.
Bittersweet Series Three leaves us viewers with a lot of questions to ponder as we await for series four. What is going to happen to Downton Abbey now that Matthew is dead and Tom is still in mourning after the death of Lady Sybil? What is to happen to Lady Mary now that Matthew is dead? What will happen to Tom and Sybil? Where is Edith’s relationship with her married editor heading?? Will Thomas’s feud with Bates end now that he is under butler to Bates’s valet or will power go to Thomas’s head? Will Thomas’s and O’Brien’s war of intrigue against each other heat up again? Will Thomas find true love with Jimmy? Will Daisy leave Downton to help Mr. Mason run his farm? Will O’Brien take revenge on Bates somehow?
In her essay on Up Down Helen Wheatley decries the lack of critical attention paid to textual aspects of British studio historical dramas of the past like Upstairs Downstairs. Unfortunately this lack of critical attention has continued into the present with filmed historical dramas like Downton Abbey receiving as little attention behind the ivy covered walls of academe as Up Down did. This paper attempts to redress this critical inattention by attempting to explore the similarities and differences, particularly the narrative similarities and differences, between Upstairs and Downstairs and Downton Abbey. As I have tried to make clear there are a number of similarities between the two dramas—genre, subgenres, seriality, settings, the fact that Downton was heavily influenced by Upstairs in several ways—and differences between the two shows. Downton, as I have tried to show, is much less centred around history and scandal, the central narrative themes of Upstairs Down while Downton plays extensively with narrative themes of intrigue, deceit and romance.
I don’t want to suggest that my focus in this paper on specific narrative themes in both Up Down and Downton is the be all and end all of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey criticism and studies. My brief list of central narrative themes is intended to be introductory rather than exhaustive. One could, for instance, profitably explore the theme of death and loss in Upstairs Downstairs, Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey as soap operas,  and narrative parallels between what is happening upstairs and what is happening downstairs. Going beyond narrative one could explore further aspects of mise-en-scène than I have in this paper, including, for example, the role of photographs play in maintaining memory in Up Down, the increased amount of filming outside of the studio that was done in series five of Upstairs Downstairs, the fascinating conjunction between theatricality and historical verisimilitude in Up Down, 165 Eaton Place and Downton Abbey as characters in Up Down and Downton Abbey, the importance of costumes and food and the look of clothes and food, upstairs and downstairs, in both shows, the importance of sound in Upstairs Downstairs, the sound of expensively dressed masters upstairs sitting down on expensive leather couches upstairs in Upstairs Downstairs, the sound of aristocrats pouring sherry from decanters into exquisite glasses in the morning room upstairs in Upstairs Downstairs, and the sound of servants leather shoes as they go about their daily routines in Upstairs Downstairs, or the role of mirrors in Downton Abbey. All of these deserve far more critical attention than they have received thus far.
So too do the obsessions with the politics of class, gender, colonialism, and history that impacts so much of the research and writing in the intellectual and academic world today. While much has been written about the “reactionary” nostalgia of heritage costume dramas like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey and their celebration of spectacular aristocratic landscapes, spectacular aristocratic stately homes, spectacular aristocratic period décor, spectacular aristocratic period food, spectacular aristocratic period fashions, spectacular aristocratic period fabrics, and the spectacular period furnishings of England’s privileged Anglo-Saxons of the past and in so doing contribute to a sense of English identity, an argument I don’t yet find fully convincing because I think much more research on the historical context and politics of both television shows needs to be done.
Upstairs Downstairs, for instance, was made in an era in which television thanks to BBC 1, BBC 2, and ITV, became the most popular form of leisure in Great Britain, in which Harold Wilson and Edward Heath played prime ministerial musical chairs, in which the consumer society expanded, in which standards of living increased, in which the British class system went through increasing transformations, in which education expanded, in which the troubles in Northern Ireland exploded, in which ties between the UK and the EEC increased, in which economic stagflation came thanks in large part to the oil crises of 1973 and 1975, in which celebrity culture expanded, something in which television played an important role, in which multiculturalism, particularly in the cities, increased, in which urban and racial violence increased, and in which a neoliberal austerity gained ascendency when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, four years after Upstairs Downstairs ended. Downton Abbey and its predecessor Gosford Park, on the other hand, took form in the era of New Labour, an age that saw Labour move away from its labour roots in favour of the holy electoral grail of the political centre, the ascendency of Tony Blair, economic growth, a rise in real incomes, market based reforms, further transformations in the British class system, political devolution, increased spending on education, the institution of a minimum wage, economic collapse in 2008, and many more television viewing choices whether over the air, on cable, or on the World Wide Web thanks, particularly to government policies, the growth of cable, and the rise of new digital technologies. Much more analysis, in my estimation, needs to be done on the connections between both of these eras of political and economic stability and instability, economic growth and economic decline, the transformation of the British class system, conceptions of Englishness, and nostalgia for a remembered English past in the midst of all this change, and the Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey that were made during these somewhat different periods of British history.
There may be, as Andrew Higson notes, contradictions in Britain’s television heritage costume dramas both in terms of their production contexts and their consumption. Recent costume dramas, Higson writes, may be as parodic, farcical, and transgressive as nostalgic and they may be read more as soap operaish, romantic, and even multicultural by its viewers than nationalistic. For instance, the class backgrounds of the creators and, in the cases of Alfred Shaughnessy, John Hawksworth, and Julian Fellowes the writers, of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey, foreground the complexity of the relationship between class and television in Britain in the mid 1970s and in the 2010s. Downstairs' creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins hail from working class backgrounds and had relatives who were servants. Alfred Shaughnessy attended Eton, Oxford, and Sandhurst, and his stepfather, the Honourable Sir Piers “Joey” Legh, was equerry to the Prince of Wales and master of the household of George VI though his father was an American of Irish background. John Hawksworth was the son of an army officer and went to the Rugby School, Oxford, rose to the Captain in the military, spent time in Picasso’s studio in Paris, and started his career in entertainment in film set design.
These various class backgrounds of Up Down’s creators did and do clearly impact both television shows. Originally Up Down was going to centre on two maids in a Victorian country house—remnants of this idea remain in the show in the relationship between Rose and her parlour or house maid comrade in arms Sarah in the early episodes of the first series—but by the time it began to air in 1971 the focus of the show had broadened out, thanks to Shaughnessy and Hawksworth, to include not only the lives of two servants downstairs but also the lives, loves, travails, and times of all the other servants and all the upstairs masters. It was this focus on both upstairs and downstairs which distinguished Upstairs Downstairs from that earlier and tremendously successful BBC2 adaptation of John Gallsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967) which focused on the trials and travails of the aristocratic Forsyte family between 1879 and 1926. While watching The Forsyte Saga Atkins and Marsh wondered why they had never seen those who kept the Forsyte house looking the way it did and the Forsyte clan looking the way they did and eating the food they were, the servants. This focus not only on masters but also on servants which made and makes Up Down even today an important and significant television event in British television history. Many of the cast and crew ascribe Upstairs Downstairs’s scrupulous attention to historical detail (language, manners, rituals, decor aristocratic space upstairs, servant space downstairs, contemporary hoovers or vacuum cleaners, aristocratic clothes, servant uniforms, and so on) to producer John Hawksworth, who was in the military, and story editor Alfred Shaughnessy, who grew up in an Edwardian manor house.
If there is a nostalgia for a more ordered past in which everyone knew their place and all was right with the empire in both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey it is a nostalgia tinged with more ambiguity about that mythic remembered past than many critics would like to admit. In the episode of Upstairs Downstairs that MacArthur is so critical of because of its supposed negative representation of the general strike, “The Nine Days Wonder” (5:9), for instance, most of those upstairs do oppose the strike including James, who, like his father is a Tory and who had run for the House of Commons on the Conservative ticket (“A Place in the World”, 5:2) and who drives a bus to help break the general strike called by the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) in support of miners strike in opposition to wage reductions and worsening work conditions in the episode. Some downstairs oppose the strike as well including downstairs’ conservative patriarch, butler Mr. Hudson. Other servants, however, speak quite vocally in favour of the strike including Edward, Rose, and Ruby whose coal miner Uncle Len Finch (John Breslin) and his friend Arnold Thompson (Roy Pattison) come to visit Ruby and speak eloquently in favour of the strike and the reasons for it.
Downton Abbey has a degree of ambiguity as well. Downton’s creator Julian Fellowes may have had a diplomat father, may have grown up in posh South Kensington, may have matriculated at public schools and Cambridge, and may be a Tory peer but the Downton masters he has created and for whom he writes are not always saintly. Lord Grantham has his failings as is particularly apparent in series three. Nor are Downton’s servants always sinners. Even Thomas and O’Brien have their redeeming qualities. If there is anyone who is the moral centre of Downton Abbey it is probably the servants Bates and Anna. And while it is true, in general, that the upstairs aristocrats of Downton Abbey are close with and friendly toward the servants below stairs, even touching and hugging them on occasion, there is some historical evidence for the kind of welfare aristocracism that seems to be practiced at Downton Abbey, a welfare aristocracism that keeps a Bates with a leg injured during the Boer War in service and which sends Mrs. Patmore to London for an eye operation, despite some claims to the contrary. Personally, I think there is a lot more romance in Downton Abbey than nostalgia.
 And any criticism worth its historical salt has to, if we want to fully understand films and television shows economically, politically, culturally, and geographically, do them all. I hope this brief historical and exegetical essay, the necessary first steps on which any hermeneutical analysis of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey must be founded, has contributed, if only slightly and tentatively, to, putting the donut dough back in the glazed donut hole that is crystal ball textualism.
1. I want to thank Penny Fielding, Matthew Hendley, Nathaniel Bouman, and Scott F. Stoddart for their help with this paper over the course of its long period of gestation between the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2013. Primary source material used in this paper includes the DVD’s of each show Upstairs Downstairs, The Complete Series, Network and Acorn, Downton Abbey, Series One, Universal Playback and PBS, Downton Abbey, Series Two, Universal Playback and PBS, and Downton Abbey, Series Three, Universal Playback and PBS, and interviews with those involved on both shows including Bob Frost, The HistoryAccess.com Interviews: Upstairs, Downstairs, Interviews with John Hawksworth, Jean Marsh, and Jeremy Paul, 1995-1996, “The Story of Upstairs Downstairs”, five parts, on Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Network and Acorn, Upstairs Downstairs Remembered”, on Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Network and Acorn, Upstairs Downstairs, Q&A , BFI, 23 December 2010, Downton Abbey, Q&A , BFI, 21 September 2010, Downton Abbey, Season 2: A Special Q&A with the Cast, Downton Abbey, PBS. For secondary work on Upstairs Downstairs see Richard Marson’s, Inside UpDown: The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs (Handsworth Wood, UK: Kaleidoscope, 2011). A wonderful Upstairs Downstairs site can be found at Upstairs Downstairs. For interesting secondary analyses of Downton Abbey see Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog, the Heroes and Heartbreakers Downton Abbey section, and the Downton Abbey Wiki .↩
2. Mark Lawson, "TV Review: Downton Abbey", the Guardian, 7 November 2010,David Breaker, “Posh and Posher: Downton Abbey Vs Upstairs Downstairs”, the Spectator, no original date, accessed 14 January 2012, Mary McNamara, "Aristocrats and Servants Face a Changing World in Downton Abbey", Los Angeles Times, 9 January 2011, Rob Owen, “Tuned In: Downton Abbey Revisits the British Class System”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 31 December 2010, Alessandra Stanley, "Sincerest Forms of Flattery for British Shows", New York Times, 6 January 2011, John Plunkett, ,"War Declared as Upstairs, Downstairs Creator Fires Volley at Downton Abbey", the Guardian, 16 December 2010, and Simon Schama, “No Downers in Downton: Why Have Americans Fallen For a Show That Serves up Snobbery by the Bucketfuls?”, Newsweek, 16 January 2012, reprinted online in The Daily Beast.↩
3. "Interview with Jean Marsh", The One Show, BBC 1, 14 December 2010. Also see John Plunkett, ,"War Declared as Upstairs, Downstairs Creator Fires Volley at Downton Abbey", the Guardian, 16 December 2010, and Maggie Brown, “Downton Creator Praises Upstairs Downstairs”, the Guardian, 24 December 2010.↩
4. Not the BBC as Carl Freedman unfortunately has it throughout his, “England as Ideology: From Upstairs Downstairs to Room with a View” chapter in his book The Incomplete Projects: Marxism, Modernity, and the Politics of Culture (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002). The attribution of ITV and Channel 4 shows to the BBC is far too common particularly in the US and may itself deserve critical attention. ↩
5. On the surprise of those involved in Upstairs Downstairs at the success of the show see Jean Marsh, Evin Crowley, and Fay Weldon, Commentary: "On Trial", Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Series One, Network and Acorn and “Upstairs Downstairs Remembered”, Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Series Five, Network and Acorn. On Up Down's popularity see Interview with Jean Marsh, The One Show, BBC 1, 14 December 2010, Jonathan Bignall, An Introduction to Television Studies (London: Routledge, second edition, 2004), p. 56, Jeremy Potter, Independent Television in Britain, Volume Four, Companies and Programmes, 1968-1980 (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 75. On Upstairs’s popularity worldwide see “Upstairs Downstairs Remembered”, Upstairs Downstairs, The Complete Series, Acorn, Patty Lou Floyd, Backstairs with Upstairs Downstairs (New York: St. Martin’s, 1988), and Jeremy Potter, Independent Television in Britain, Volume Four, Companies and Programmes, 1968-1980 (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 75.
Reflective of Up Down’s popularity was how seriously some viewers took the show. Simon Williams, who played James Bellamy, the eldest of the Bellamy children, was attacked by a woman in a supermarket with a handbag for his callous treatment of his formerly middle class wife Hazel during much of the third and fourth series of the show and Karen Dotrice, who played the under housemaid Lily who downstairs butler Mr. Hudson fell in love with in series five, received letters pillorying her for stealing the affections of Mr. Hudson, the butler, from Mrs. Bridges, the cook. Many viewers apparently believed that Mr. Hudson and Mrs. Bridges were meant for each other. On viewers mistaking actors for the characters they play on television see Simon Williams and Meg Wynn Owens, Commentary: "Sudden Impact", Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Acorn and Karen Dotrice, Commentary: "Disillusion", Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Series Five, Acorn and Network.↩
6. Jeremy Potter, Independent Television in Britain, Volume Four, Companies and Programmes, 1968-1980 (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 75. ↩
7. Downton viewership data can be obtained from BARB, the Broadcast Audience Research Board. On Downton’s popularity with viewers in the UK see John Plunkett, “Downton Abbey Scares Spooks with 9m Viewers”, the Guardian, 18 September 2011. On Downton’s global reach see John Heilpern, “Downton Abbey: Escapist Kitsch Posing as Masterpiece Theatre”, the Nation, 8 February 2012 and Richard Brooks, “Frightfully British TV Drama Downton Abbey Wins a Worldwide Audience”, the Australian, 17 January 2013. On Downton’s popularity in the US see "Downton Abbey Season 2 Premiere Doubles PBS Ratings”, Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2012, Scott Collins, “Downton Abbey Season Three Premiere Draws Record Ratings”, Los Angeles Times, 7 January 2013, and Brian Stelter, “No Savior Needed for This Old House”, New York Times, 8 January 2013. On Downton’s popularity in Australia see Staff Writer, “Downton Abbey’s A Surprise Hit”, [Melbourne] Herald Sun, 7 June 2011. On Downton’s success in New Zealand see Brad Kreft, “Downton’s Premiere Proves a Hit for Prime”, Throng: New Zealand’s TV Watching Community, 11 May 2011. On Downton’s global popularity see Jeremy Egner, “A Bit of Britain Where the Sun Still Never Sets: Downton Abbey Reaches Around the World”, New York Times, 3 January 2013. ↩
8. On the cultural impact of Downton Abbey see Aimee Lee Ball, “Pass the Tea and the Remote and Put on Your Tiaras”, New York Times, 18 January 2012. On Downton’s impact on bookstores in the US see Julie Bosman, “If You’re Mad for Downton, Publishers Have Reading List”, New York Times, 11 January 2011. On Downton themed watching parties see Jill Radsken, “Dear Abbey: Downton Styles Flourish at Viewing Party”, Boston Herald, 22 January 2012. On the impact of Downton on the fashion world see Lauren Cochrane, “Downton Abbey Inspires the Fashion World”, 31 July 2012, the Guardian. On PBS’s Downton themed jewellry see Emma Brockes, “Downton Abbey to PBS: Knock It Off With the Knockoffs”, the Guardian, 25 January 2012. Carnival, the maker of Downton Abbey, demanded that PBS cease using Downton character names to sell these jewels (Sarah Nathan and Daisy Dumas, “PBS is Forced to Pull ‘Unauthorised’ Downton Abbey Jewellry Line After Show Producers Object”, the Mail Online Online, 25 January 2012, which accuses PBS of engaging in black market practises, it is the Mail after all, and Michael Getler, "The Daily Downton", PBS Ombudsman, 24 January 2012 who notes that PBS obtained the jewellry from a third party. ↩
9. John Caughie attributes the lack of critical interest in “quality” studio costume dramas like Upstairs Downstairs to the fact that they were women’s programmes (Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 207) I think there is something else or something in addition to this going on in the dismissal of theatrical dramas. What I suspect is going on here is that with the rise and impact of mise-en-scene criticism and that theoretical smorgasbord of mix and match social theory from semiotic to structuralist, feminist to psychoanalytic, racist to classist, marxist to cognitive, and phenomenological to hermeneutic theory that has come to dominate film and television theory since the 1960s costume dramas, including those which have been adapted from literary or theatrical works, have come to be seen by many in the journalistic and academic worlds of film and television criticism as elitist, aesthetically regressive, or ideologically regressive and as a result deserving only of dismissive critical attention if they get any critical attention at all.
Whether BBC and ITV costume dramas are elitist or not it is clear that there are problems with painting either the BBC or ITV with such a broad brush since the BBC has broadcast not only adaptations of Jane Austen but also broadcast television shows like Steptoe and Son (1962-1965, 1970-1974), Doctor Who (1963-1989, 1996, 2005-), and Days of Hope (Ken Loach, 1975), which clearly have a popular if not a populist dimension to them, and ITV has given us Upstairs Downstairs, a show that took its gaze away from masters upstairs to also focus on servants, and that populist adaptation produced by a political refugee from McCarthy era America, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-1960). Beyond the issue of elitism and populism one could raise the question of whether the avant-garde and Brechtian television praised by many of critics as disruptive of dominant discourse, TV shows like Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) for instance, are any less elitist than adaptations of Jane Austen or John Gallsworthy. Additionally, whether a show like Upstairs Downstairs because it is a filmed play has little going on in its mise-en-scene is simply not correct. Great care has been put into creating the mise-en-scene of both upstairs and downstairs in Upstairs Downstairs as I have tried to show in this paper.
I think the reason both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have garnered such limited attention from academics beyond the ideological reasons noted above are several. Neither Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey are television programes that seem to stir the academic blood these days. Both are on PBS in the US, a network that has garnered little attention from academe compared to the hundreds of papers and dozens of books on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003) alone, for example. Both aren’t one of the genres that seem to obsess fan scholars or scholar fans such as Doctor Who or Buffy, both of which have generated far more scholarly interest that Up Down and Downton, and neither are American. A quick survey found that 19 of 21 of the monographs in US publisher Wayne State University Press’s “TV Milestones” series are on American television programmes, 21 of 30 books published by British publisher IB Tauris are on American TV series’, and around 90% of the books published by the US publisher McFarland are on American television shows. The British Film Institute’s “TV Classics” series is almost the obverse of Wayne State’s: only 6 of 21 books in the series are on American television shows. British publisher Tauris published a book on Charmed (Stan Beeler and Karin Beeler (eds.), Investigating Charmed: The Magic Power of TV (London: Tauris, 2007), a derivative television show that was on the WB (1998-2006), some referred to it as Buffy light, of questionable historical significance beyond its derivative nature, but has not published one on Upstairs Downstairs. What does all of this say about the academic audience that these books are primarily geared towards? ↩
10. Glen Creeber (ed.), Fifty Key Television Programmes (London: Arnold, 2004); Toby Miller’s (ed.), The Television Studies Book (London: BFI, 2002); Glen Creeber (ed.), The Television Genre Book (London: BFI, 2001); Michelle Hilmes (ed.), The Television History Book (London: BFI, 2003). ↩
11. Colin McArthur, Television and History (BFI, 1978), p. 40; Carl Freedman, The Incomplete Projects: Marxism, Modernity, and the Politics of Culture (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), pp. 76-80; Catherine Itzin, “Upstairs Downstairs: London Weekend Drama Series", Theatre Quarterly, 6, April-June 1972, pp. 26-38; and Charles Barr, James Hillier, and V.F. Perkins, "The Making of Upstairs Downstairs, a Television Series", Movie, 21 (Autumn 1975), p. 46-63. ↩
12. Rachel Cooke, “Downton Abbey: Heirs and Graces”, 14 October 2010, the New Statesman, Tanya Gold, “Downton Abbey: Class and Distinction”, 13 September 2011, the Guardian, and Simon Schama, “No Downers in Downton: Why Have Americans Fallen For a Show That Serves up Snobbery by the Bucketfuls?”, Newsweek, 16 January 2012, reprinted online in The Daily Beast. For a somewhat feminist reading of Downton Abbey see Amanda Civitello, “A Gilded Cage: A Feminist Critique of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special”, Bitch Flicks, 20 September 2012. ↩
13. For an interesting discussion of Upstairs Downstairs classic and Downton Abbey see Gary Holmes,
“Downton Abbey Vs. Upstairs Downstairs”, MediaPost Blogs: TV Board, Big Thoughts on the Future of the Small Screen, 31 January 2012.
Graeme McMillan, “’I Must Have Said It Wrong’: Decoding Downton Abbey’s Television DNA”, Time, 4 January 2013, notes the similarities between Upstairs Downstairs classic and Downton Abbey.
In yet another battle in the British culture war against the public broadcaster the BBC the right wing Mail Online has published a number of articles claiming that the revived Upstairs Downstairs on the BBC is derivative of the former including Paul Revoir’s "Upstairs Downton...or How the New BBC Period Drama Series Echoes Its Hit ITV Rival", The Mail Online, 31 January 2012. The Mail Online’s claims are rather odd since it is quite clear that Downton is in so many ways, as I have tried to show, a remake of the original Upstairs Downstairs. On the other hand, perhaps The Mail’s claim here is not so odd since the right wing Mail, both in its traditional newspaper form and its online form, has long been known for its opposition to British public television and a purveryor of the notion that the Beeb is a bastion of left wing propaganda. On the ideology of The Daily Mail and The Mail Online see Will Oremus, "The Worlds Most Popular Online Newspaper: How The Daily Mail Took the Title from the New York Times”, Slate, 3 February 2012 and Dean Hardman, “Political Ideologies and Identities in British Newspaper Discourse”, Ph.D, dissertation, University of Nottingham, 2008.
Speaking of the ideology of The Daily Mail and its online Mail Online, The Mail’s Chris Hastings, "Downton Downsized...By Two Hours Because American TV Executives Fear Its Intricate Plot Will Baffle U.S. Viewers", The Mail Online, 7 January 2011, claims that PBS cut Downton by two hours because of fears that Americans would simply not be intellectually able to grasp its intricate plot about the entail. This internet myth (a new area of study for folklorists?) that PBS cut Downton by two hours because of American ignorance is, however, as Jace Lacob points out in his "In Defense of Downton Abbey (Or, Don't Believe Everything You Read)", Televisionary, 3 January 2012, simply false. As Lacob notes the episodes were slightly cut in order to fit Downton into the Masterpiece time slot. Why would The Mail Online make such a claim? It would not, I think, be a stretch to conclude that The Mail Online’s caricature and stereotypes of Americans as semi-literate country bumpkins fits hand in glove with its right wing xenophobia. While all of this, as Oremus suggests, may simply be an attempt by The Mail Online to intrigue and “hook” its targeted female demographic, it also reflects and is consistent with the broader right wing, anti-public television, and xenophobic ideology of its newspaper parent.↩
14. I haven’t heard Fellowes address these similarities anywhere. It would be nice if someone asked him about them.↩
15. On the impact of theatre on British television see Glen Creeber, Dennis Potter: Between Two Worlds (London: Macmillan, 1998) and Jerome Bourdon with Juan Carlos Ibanez, Catherine Johnson, and Eggo Muller, “Searching for an Identity for Television: Programmes, Genres, Formats” in Jonathan Bignell and Andreas Flickers, A European Television History (Oxford; Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), p. 107. Film was also an influence on British television from the very beginning. The American left wing refugee from McCarthyism Hannah Weinstein’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITP/ITV, 1955-1959) was shot on film and partly on location. The Avengers (ABC/ITV, 1961-1969) was shot on film and partly on location. The Saint (ITC/ITV, 1962-1969) was shot on film and, if only rarely, on location, Ken Loach’s Up the Junction (BBC, 1964) was shot on film in a somewhat realist documentary style and partly on location. It was Peter Watkins’s War Game (BBC, 1965) and Loach’s Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966) that really took British television into the streets and, in the process, blurred the boundaries between television fiction and documentary fact. On the impact of cinema on British television drama see Lez Cooke; British Television Drama: A History (London: BFI, 2003), pp. 30, 70, 76. On the impact of film on Loach and Loach’s impact on British TV see Graham Fuller (ed.), Loach on Loach (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 9-10. On Weinstein see Tise Vahimagi, “Hannah Weinstein (1912-1984)”, Screenoline. ↩
16. In his writer’s guidelines for Upstairs Downstairs story editor Alfred Shaughnessy wrote that “[t]elevision is electronic theatre and not second-rate film”. “Obituary: Alfred Shaughnessy”, the Telegraph, 14 November 2005. ↩
17. Downton is not the first costume drama to bring an action, commercial, and music video pace and a paring down of dialogue to a minimum to the costume drama. You can see aspects of these in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice and you can see all of them in the 2005 BBC Bleak House. Apparently television viewers today expect minimum dialogue and action pacing in every genre of film and television programmes these days regardless of how appropriate it may be. Speaking of pacing, I recently watched Up Down again for the first time since the 1970’s and have to say that it was a pleasure, for a change, to watch a show which allowed actors to act and scenes to breath, something rare in an American and British film and television landscape increasingly devoted to the cult of jump cutting and limited attention spans.↩
18. Laurel Ann [Nattress], “Downton Abbey’s Stunning Film Locations”, Austenprose-A Jane Austen Blog, 28 January 2011. On the cinematography of Downton see the interview with one of Downton’s directors of photography David Katznelson, "Downton Abbey: David Katznelson on Using the D-21 to Shoot ITV’s Hugely Successful Period Drama”, ARRI Media. The digital nature of Downton is particularly noticeable in the World War I scenes.↩
19. Helen Wheatley, "Rooms within Rooms: Upstairs Downstairs and the Studio Costume Drama of the 1970s" in Catherine Johnson and Rob Turnock (eds.), ITV Cultures: Independent Television Over Fifty Years (Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 2005) p. 147.↩
20. I wouldn’t, by the way, claim that modern digital technologies bring greater realism to the cinema or television. I would, in fact, argue just the opposite, to some extent. In the days before CGI special effects crews blew up real cars and the cars that blew up looked like they really blew up. GGI, on the other hand, simulates cars being blown up. Additionally, digital technologies tend to, though I suspect not intentionally, as when, for instance, scenes have rain falling or soil flying, seem “fake”, quite different from what the human eye sees and experiences. Finally, we all know that the real reason by and large digital film is triumphing over film stock of the past isn’t realism. It is cost. Digital is less costly to shoot on and easier to manipulate.↩
21. Piers Wenger, "Will Upstairs Downstairs Upstage Downton Abbey?”, the Telegraph, 23 December 2010. Film critic Roger Ebert also argues that class is at the heart of Downton Abbey in his “Think of Me as the Butler, Carson”, the Chicago Sun-Times, 19 January 2012.↩
22. Both Simon Williams and Meg Wynn Owens have said that series four was their favourite. Simon Williams and Meg Wynn Owens, Commentary: “Miss Forest”, Upstairs Downstairs, Complete Series, Network and Acorn. ↩
23. History and scandal remain the central narrative themes and thrusts of the revived BBC Wales Upstairs Downstairs. The revived Upstairs Downstairs has a new cast, save that of Jean Marsh who returns as Rose, and also stars, for the first time, in the first revived series, the other co-creator of the series Eileen Atkins. The revived Upstairs Downstairs, series six, begins in 1936 with new owners of 165 Eaton Place, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife, Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes), moving into and restoring the house (“The Fledgling”). The Holland’s hire Rose, who now runs an agency which finds domestic servants for the great houses of Belgravia, to assemble a new staff for 165 Eaton Place. Rose assembles a new staff for the house and eventually joins staff herself becoming 165’s head housemaid. In terms of history the new series is set against the backdrop of the death of George V, the rise of Hitler in Germany, the rise of the British Union of Fascists and Oswald Mosley, rising anti-Semitism, the Edward and Mrs. Simpson scandal, and Edward VIII's abdication in December 1936. Amidst this history Lady Hallam’s younger sister, Lady Persephone (Claire Foy), Lady Persie, has, beginning in the second episode of the revived series (“The Ladybird”), a scandalous relationship with 165’s chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson), becomes, like Spargo, enamoured of and involved with the British Union of Fascists, and by the third episode (“The Cuckoo”) allies herself with the German Ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly) and the Nazi cause. Politics remains a part of Up Down since Sir Hallam works at the Foreign Office. Series two of the revived Upstairs Downstairs, unfortunately its last, was broadcast in 2012. Unlike Upstairs Downstairs classic the revived Up Down is filmed, highly edited, has scenes of limited duration, and music punctuates each episode. For an excellent discussion of the revived Upstairs Downstairs see Laurel Ann [Nattress], “Upstairs Downstairs 2010: A Triumphant Return to UK Television”, Austenprose-A Jane Austen Blog, 26 December 2010.↩
24. Fellowes has occasionally commented on the history in some of the details of Downton Abbey. For example, Fellowes notes in an article in the Telegraph that the affair between Lady Mary and Mr. Pamuk was based on an actual historical incident. On this see Andy Bloxham, “Downton Abbey's Turkish Diplomat Sex Scandal ‘Is Not Fiction’”, the Telegraph, 11 October 2011. Dina Copelman explores the historical accuracies and historical inaccuracies in Downton Abbey in her "Real Life History of “Downton Abbey Series Three”, WETA.org, n.d. While this historical discussion of Downton Abbey is interesting it must always be remembered that Downton is a work of fiction not a historical documentary and like almost any work of historical fiction makes use of fictional narrative conventions and has to be judged on that basis. ↩
25. For a discussion of Downton viewership in one American city see Gene Balk, “This Sunday, Will You Be Watching Seahawks or Downton Abbey — or Both?”, Seattle Times, 8 January 2013. Balik notes that according to Scarborough Research 60% of those who watch PBS dramas in general in Seattle are women something a quick and unscientific perusal of the Masterpiece Facebook pages seems to bear out. Similarly, if the Facebook Call the Midwife page is a guide as well, the viewership of that show is primarily female as well.↩
26. There is a pressing need to do much more research on Downton viewership in all its aspects. I don’t mean the type of research that is far too common and hardly compelling in contemporary Film and Television Studies these days, however, the type of audience research where academics seem to largely construct ideal readers much like Noam Chomsky constructs ideal speakers, which they can then analyse, and critique in straw man fashion. I mean audience research that goes beyond the construction of an ideal watcher. Such research must not only be ethnographic but also statistical. We need, in other words, to collect data about Downton viewership from representative samples of the Downton watching population. Once we ascertain what Downton viewers find in and take from Downton Abbey we can then and only then explore how Downton viewing (and beyond) is constructed and how cultural phenomena like romanticism are constructed. By the way, the tendency amongst Film and Television Studies academics to avoid primary source analysis and statistical research unnecessary or even to disdain it means that their readings of film and television texts are essentially a variety of reader response since invariably one can find another academic with an entirely different perspective on the same text. Some academics find Buffy the Vampire Slayer sexist, other find it feminist, for instance. It is a variety of reader response that tells us much about the social and cultural contexts of contemporary academia. Speaking of intellectual “readings” of Downton Abbey I have a sneaking suspicion that some of these if not most of them break down along ideological lines and that “readings” of Downton in the right leaning Daily Mail vary from those in the liberal and left leaning New Statesman and The Nation, most obviously, and even beyond in the mainstream corporate press. This suspicion, of course, is very much in need of further empirical development and investigation. Empirical audience analysis has not been a major or even minor concern of this paper.
Speaking of audience analysis, since academia is the product of specific historical and cultural formations academic it too is a form of audience analysis particularly when it is not backed up by historical research, interview or archival. Given this we might want to ask about what historical social and cultural factors have made so many academics in thrall to a historical psychoanalysis.↩
27. I am, of course, fully aware that my reading of Downton Abbey must be regarded as tentative given that Downton, at the time of the writing of this paper, is still in production (a fourth series is on the way) and remains, as a result, an open text. So feel free to take my reading of Downton with a grain of salt. ↩
28. Fellowes decision to kill Sybil and Matthew, one presumes, was occasioned by Jessica Brown Findlay’s and Dan Stevens’s decision to leave the show. Sarah Crompton, “Dan Stevens: Why I Left Downton Abbey”, the Telegraph, 26 December 2012.↩
29. Helen Wheatley, "Rooms within Rooms: Upstairs Downstairs and the Studio Costume Drama of the 1970s" in Catherine Johnson and Rob Turnock (eds.), ITV Cultures: Independent Television Over Fifty Years (Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 2005) p. 146. ↩
30. I am beginning to wonder whether Fellowes has an obsession with body trauma given Downton’s vivid portrayal of the farmer’s dropsy (1:2), Mr. Bates’s leg after he tries to use a device to cure his limp (1:3), Thomas’s hand after it has been shot by a German sniper during WWI (2:1), the death of a solder shot by a German sniper thorough the temple who is talking to Thomas (2:1), the missing limbs of a soldier who Edith is helping (2:3), William’s and Matthew’s injuries suffered at the Battle of Amiens (2:5 and 2:6), “Patrick’s” facial and limb injuries (2:6), Cora’s hemorrhaging (2:8), and the sounds of William, Lavinia, and Sybil dying (2:5, 2:8, and 3:5). ↩
31. James Fenton, “The Abbey That Jumped the Shark", New York Review of Books, 8 March 2012 makes some nice points about the sentimental and soap aspects of Downton and makes some interesting historical points about the programme along the way.↩
32.Andrew Higson nicely summarises the costume drama as nostalgia for times past perspective in his “Heritage Cinema and Television” in David Morley and Kevin Robins (eds.), British Cultural Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 252-257. For a recent example of this paint by the it must be nostalgic because pre-existing theory says it must be far too few numbers see Kristen Hatch, “Downton Abbey and Mad Men: The End of the World as We Know It”, Flow, 5 March 2013.↩
33. Michael Young and Peter Wilmott, The Symmetrical Family: A Study of Work and Leisure in the London Region (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973), pp 212 and 216. Young and Wilmott found that 97% watched television. The next most popular leisure activity for Britons was gardening at 64%. According to Taylor Downing, The World at War (London: BFI, 2012), p. 3, 18 million British households and 90% of British families had televisions by the 1970s. ↩
34. Andrew Higson, “Heritage Cinema and Television” in David Morley and Kevin Robins (eds.), British Cultural Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 256-258. ↩
35. In her interview with Bob Frost Jean Marsh The HistoryAccess.com Interviews: Upstairs, Downstairs mentions how Up Down played off of the Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967). Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins also talk about the relationship between the Forsyte Saga and Upstairs Downstairs and the origins of Up Down during a question and answer session at the BFI, Upstairs Downstairs Q&A, BFI, 23 December 2010. Also see Lez Cooke, British Television Drama: A History (London: BFI, 2003) on the Forsyte Upstairs connection. On Jean Marsh see Elizabeth Grice, “Upstairs Downstairs' Jean Marsh Interview: A Touch of Class Below Stairs”, 16 December 2010, the Telegraph. On Eileen Atkins see, Sally Vincent, “A Class Act”, 9 December 2000, the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2000/dec/09/weekend.sallyvincent.On Alfred Shaughnessy see “Obituary: Alfred Shaughnessy”, the Telegraph, 14 November 2005, and Derek Grainger, “Obituary: Alfred Shaughnessy”, the Guardian, 15 December 2005.On John Hawksworth see “Obituary: John Hawksworth”, 31 October 2003, the Telegraph, , and Philip Purser, “Obituary: John Hawksworth”, 10 October 2003, the Guardian. The comments by cast and crew on Hawksworth’s and Shaughnessy’s contributions to Up Down’s historical veracity can be found interspersed in the commentaries throughout the five series of Upstairs Downstairs on the Network and Acorn completes series DVD collections and particularly in the fourth series commentaries by Rosemary Anne Sisson, Jean Marsh, and Jacqueline Tong for “A Patriotic Offering”, Christopher Beeny, Christopher Hodson, Jean Marsh and Jacqueline Tong for “Women shall not Weep”, Jean Marsh, Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel) and Simon Williams for “The Glorious Dead”, and Jean Marsh, Meg Wynn Owen and Simon Williams for “Peace out of Pain”. ↩
36. Colin McArthur, Television and History (BFI, 1978), p. 40. ↩
37. On Julian Fellowes see Christopher Wilson, “Is This Why Downton's Creator is Obsessed By Class? Julian Fellowes' Ancestors Were Not Masters but Servants on the Estate That Inspired the Abbey”, 26 November 2011, The Mail Online, Mark Sweeney,
"Downton Abbey Creator Julian Fellowes to Become Tory Peer", 19 November 2010, the Guardian, and Horacio Silva, “Julian Fellowes”, January 2012, Los Angeles Times Magazine. Tony Rennell’s
“Downton’s Dirty Secret: one Former Maid on the Risible Relationship Between the Granthams and their Servants”, The Mail Online, 29 December 2011, explores some of the criticisms that have been made about Downton’s unrealistic portrayal of masters and servants while critic and writer A.N. Wilson criticises Downton creator Julian Fellowes claims that Downton is realistic in his “Is Downton’s Creator the Biggest Snob in Britain?”, The Mail Online, 14 September 2011 arguing that Downton’s depiction of close and almost friendly relationships between masters and servants (Mary and Carson, Mary and Anna, Cora and O’Brien, Robert and Bates) at Downton Abbey are ahistorical. Corina Chocano, “The Upside-Down Appeal of Downton Abbey”, New York Times Magazine, 17 February 2012, argues that Downton Abbey is home to kind of a beneficent and benevolent welfare aristocracism. For historical studies of service see Frank Dawes, Not in Front of the Servants: A True Portrait of Upstairs, Downstairs Life (London: Hutchinson, second edition, 1984), Siân Evans, Life below Stairs in the Victorian and Edwardian Country House (London: National Trust Books, 2011), Lucy Delap, Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University, 2011), and Pamela Cox, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, three parts, BBC 2, 2012. James Fenton, “The Abbey That Jumped the Shark”,
New York Review of Books, 8 March 2012, notes that employing batmen as valets was sometimes a cover for homosexual attachments.
I don’t, by the way, mean to suggest that Fellowes is saying that humane aristocracism plus humane liberalism plus humane socialism equals an important theme of Downton Abbey Series Three. It is a possible reading of Series Three. Its validity as an interpretation would need to be checked and balanced against interviews or writings done with Fellowes, however. ↩
38. Michael Temple and Michael Witt, The French Cinema Book (London: BFI, 2004), pp. 1-5. ↩
The problem with crystal ball textualism is that it takes what is ultimately a polemical and apologetic position that everything you ever needed to know about a film or a television show is in the text. This is similar, by the way, to fundamentalist approaches of “sacred” religious texts in which they assume that the only thing you need to know about the Bible, the Quran or the writings of Bahaullah is in the Bible, the Quran, or the writings of Bahaullah. Exegetical and hermeneutic tautology. Theoretically, it is possible that crystal ball textualist critics may be right about Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey being must see nostalgia television, the arc of the glazed doughnut, but we can’t really check whether they are right because they give us nothing to check beyond the text, the missing piece at the centre of a glazed doughnut. The problem with this is that critics often come to different conclusions about the same text. Anyway, much more in the way a historical analysis grounded in primary source material is essential if we are to conclude that both Up Down and Downton are nostalgia TV. Now, don’t get me wrong I think the texts of Up Down and Downton Abbey should be an essential part of any analysis, they are primary source documents after all. I am simply suggesting that should not be the be all and end all of analysis as they so often are in crystal ball textualism. Analysts must go beyond the text to explore the rich primary source material relating to television production and television creation out there in primary source material land in order to place interpretive checks and balanced on what are often unchecked academic hermeneutic speculations. For my take on and critique of crystal ball textualism see Ronald Helfrich, “’Note to Self, Religion Freaky’: When Buffy Met Biblical Studies”, in PopMatters, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion: The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More: The Essential Guide to the Whedonverse (London: Titan Books, 2012), pp. 37-48.↩