SPOILER ALERT: This blog is for people watching Upstairs Downstairs on BBC1. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen episode one
BBC announcer voice. “And now for a proper costume drama. Stick this up your suffragette’s pantaloons, Downton Abbey.” Upstairs Downstairs is back! And it looks like they’ve spent a fortune on it! Break open the cooking sherry!
It’s London 1938 and the country is – almost – at war. Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) is trying to persuade important people that Hitler is probably not a nice man. Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) has a whole new lying-in wardrobe for a second baby. (Botched C-section? If only we could all look like that just after surgery. Or generally in life.)
And Mr Pritchard the butler (Adrian Scarborough) is engaged in a critical task: single-handedly attempting to out-camp the entire cast of any costume drama ever made. He has succeeded. I hereby conscientiously object to the fact that Pritchard does not have his own show.
The opening episode was promising but confusing. Visually sumptuous, Upstairs Downstairs wears its attention to detail lightly and could not be easier on the eye. There was also little here to trouble eagle-eyed analysts on the look-out for the historical inaccuracy and general lunacy we have become used to in Downton Abbey. The interplay between 165 Eaton Place and the influence of events in a “faraway country about which we know nothing” was deftly handled. Or at least it was not massively annoying. Please, heavens, do not let it be ruined with a Hitler cameo.
But the number of characters! Exhausting. Who could even remember all their names by the end of the episode? Let alone their relationships to each other. OK, so they killed off one of the key protagonists, Solomon the monkey (a massive mistake), but there are so many characters, old and new, that by the time the closing credits rolled I was longing for the palate-cleansing qualities of an EastEnders two-hander.
I’m not entirely sure we really missed Miss Buck (Jean Marsh), who was not especially well-established in last year’s episodes. Yes, the character offers continuity with the original Upstairs Downstairs but is that really a draw forty years later? We’ll see when she returns later in the series. (Ill health prevented Marsh from filming the early episodes of this series.)
There is, however, a real problem with a lack of authority in the house, especially now that Dame Eileen Atkins has quit the show, amid rumours that she was unhappy with the scripts. She was one of the strongest elements of Upstairs Downstairs’ revival.
Obviously Alex Kingston’s eccentric academic has been drafted in to fill that gap. We’ll overlook the fact that the casting doesn’t actually make much sense. She is supposed to be the younger sister of Dame Eileen Atkins’ character Lady Holland. Thirty years separate them. OK, so they only share one parent but still. Precious time was wasted in explaining all this and still you found yourself thinking, “Would the family really just let you move in?”.
There was something very alluring, though, about Kingston’s bluestocking sneer, a sort of female 1930s version of Frasier Crane. Great comic timing too. It’s good to see Kingston having as much fun as she does in Doctor Who.
Good? The gun incident. All the bits with Pritchard being sent to the cells. The interior of the house. Bad? Too. Much. Going. On. Overall, though, a good start, if slightly over-loaded with set-ups.
Things which infused us with a joy equal to the fuzzy peach glow of Lady Agnes’s peignoir
The existence of “the Sikh gentleman” (Art Malik), especially his honourable bearing. The relationship between the gorgeous new nappy-washing nursery maid Beryl Ballard (Laura Haddock) and chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson). The wardrobe of Lady Agnes. “We’re not at home to Mr Jealous in my nursery.” Nanny Lyons (Jemma Churchill). Wonderful. More of her, please.
Things which bathed us in a misery reminiscent of the gassing of Solomon the monkey
Sir Hallam Holland kissing his wife’s sister even if she is supposed to be some kind of flighty Unity Mitford type. The coffin pram. And, of course, the actual gassing of Solomon the monkey. That monkey lasted 22 minutes into that episode. Twenty two measly minutes. I would pay a year’s licence fee for him to live for one minute more. Solomon was the best thing about last year’s show. Was it really necessary to lose it just to safeguard the maraschino cherries? Resuscitate Solomon! Or at least stuff him and keep him as a cast member.
The Lady Maud Holland Tribute Moment
Something tells me that the spirit of “Maud” is going to infuse this series – along with the BBC’s regret that Dame Eileen Atkins is no longer in it. (And if they don’t regret it, they should.) This week Lady Agnes was channelling Maud by parroting advice her mother-in-law would have given in times of war: “Careers are forged and broken in times of crisis. Support the men in power. Don’t make their problems greater.” Wise words. They may have killed Maud’s monkey but they cannot kill her ghost. (Can I just say it one more time: please can we get a replacement monkey? Alex Kingston NEEDS a monkey.)
“Could we get in more food and drink references in if we tried?”
This is a household that likes to eat and drink and make a fuss about it. They couldn’t cram in enough mentions of tapioca, brandy and cherryade. Pamela (Sir Hallam’s sister) drinks her soda water with a maraschino cherry. (Lady Maud Ghost Alert! She had maraschinos with her grapefruit and gave them to the monkey. Keep up, fact fans.) Lady Agnes is served “porridge with blackstrap molasses for breakfast”. “Meatless entrees don’t make themselves,” – Mrs Thackeray, the cook (Anne Reid).
And The House of Idiot Memorial Award for Most Randomly Thrown-In Example of Period Detail goes to …
Mr Pritchard for his brilliantly nonchalant, half-murmured mention of the perfume Lady Agnes likes to have spritzed on her sheets: “Mitsouko. She went off Shalimar.” With a priceless expression and beautifully clipped tone, in five words he got in subconscious references to Hannibal Lecter, Kenneth Williams and Quentin Crisp. Having unleashed this inner Karl Lagerfeld, he brought it back for the new nursery maid: “That lipstick must come off!” Mr Pritchard for world dictator!
More war-type stuff happens. Kingston does what she was born to do: lord it over everyone. But in such a seductive way that we love her for it. The Unity Mitford one realises that the Nazis are perhaps not the great party companions she thought. And, of course, she threatens to tell Lady Agnes (her sister) about the philandering tomfoolery. I’m not convinced these are great cliffhangers myself.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.