After the happy reunion with 165 Eaton Place and introduction to the new cast last week in part one, The Fledgling, the tone and plot of Upstairs Downstairs on Masterpiece Classic takes a harsh left turn into the reality of the changing political climate in Europe in the mid 1930’s. The popular 1970’s television series of the same name had earned its reputation as a character driven drama touched by the social and political climate, so viewers might be taken aback by writer Heidi Thomas’ choice to jump right in and throw some unpleasant and disturbing subjects in our faces.
Tensions rise both upstairs and downstairs when bored debutant Lady Persie (Claire Foy) has a dangerous flirtation with a servant and an ideology, friction between Maude, the Dowager Lady Holland (Eileen Atkins) and her daughter-in-law Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) requires Sir Holland’s (Ed Stoppard) intervention, and downstairs, the servants struggle with the reality of anti-Semitism in their own kitchen when a Jewish refugee arrives from Germany to take up her duties as the new parlormaid. Here is the synopsis from the PBS website:
As fascism spreads within Europe, its threat is felt at 165 Eaton Place, both downstairs and up. A new parlormaid, Rachel Perlmutter, arrives safely from Germany having lost nearly everything, but carrying a secret. And the foreign office calls on Sir Hallam to appease the exiled Emperor of Ethiopia, whose country has been annexed by Benito Mussolini. But Hallam’s diplomatic skills are also required at home — Maud continues to find Agnes lacking in her duties, as Agnes’s attentions are happily occupied elsewhere. Persie takes a detour from the boring requirements of her social debut, rejecting a performance of La Bohème in favor of a flirtation with a servant and a dangerous ideology — pursuits which imperil her moral and physical standing.
A genuine companionship grows between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit, both outsiders who share knowledge of loss firsthand. Rachel tells Mr. Amanjit, “We are not forced to accept the things that grieve us,” but it is Hallam who embodies that sentiment when he draws the line about who will live in his house, and how.
Fervent fans of the 1970’s series will feel the abrupt shift in emphasis from the inner relationships at 165 Eaton Place to a politically driven plot. New viewers will not, and take it for face value. It appears that the producers have chosen to push the series in a new direction. It was inevitable. How could they ignore the mounting political atmosphere in Europe in the mid 1930’s, one of the most unsettling and disruptive series of events for England and the world, dominating everyone’s lives? We are introduced to these events through Lady Persie’s romantic interest in the Holland’s chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) and his affiliation with the fascist movement of Oswald Mosely, leading to her involvement in the Blackshirts movement in London. This is a far cry from our previous exposure to violence during World War I with the Bellamy family and their servants in the first series. A soldier writing home or arriving in smart uniform on leave is romantic and melodramatic, totally removing the viewer from the violent reality of war. Here we witness first hand the fascist and anit-fascist riot during the Battle of Cable Street in London. It is harsh, but it is impossible not to face it.
The inner-household relationships that we do witness are interesting, particularly Lady Agnes Holland. Keeley Hawes is superb as the social climbing “perfect wife” to her ambitious foreign diplomat husband Ed Stoppard. As she strives to connect with the right people in London and present her younger sister Lady Persie into society, we begin to see beyond her shallow facade of appearances and possessions and feel for her plight to conceive a child. We are exposed to a bit of the Holland’s back story and her previous losses when she expresses her reservations and grief to her husband with the possibility of new pregnancy. “It is such a cruel thing to lose a baby. Nothing is ever untainted again. Not even hope.” I found this profound statement ran true through many of the events in this episode: Lady Persie’s dangerous adventures, Sir Holland’s introspection over his job, and the refugee parlormaid Rachel, whose hope is very guarded. She is the Ladybird in this drama, who ironically can no longer fly away home.
Sadly, housekeeper Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), who I always enjoy meeting again, had few lines and only Solomon the monkey got a laugh from me. If this all sounds a bit grim, it was. Growing pains. It was, however, beautifully produced with fabulous acting. I suspect it will take a few more episodes for me to adjust to the newness of it all, and then I will never look back, being totally engrossed in the new characters and events.
- Read my preview of Upstairs Downstairs (2010)
- Read my review of Upstairs Downstairs Part One, The Fledgling
- Visit the Upstairs Downstairs official website at Masterpiece PBS
- Watch Upstairs Downstairs Part Two The Ladybird online
Image courtesy © MASTERPIECE