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
First of all, I will admit to not knowing the previous series. I didn’t notice any change from the original series. I will also admit to being confused by the politics of this episode. But, I see it all through 21st century eyes. Fascism is a mystery to me. Why any English people would support such a cause befuddled me, until my husband shared a little of the history. An understanding of history of this time would have been helpful. It was a really great production and I look forward to the next installment.
I enjoyed reading this review; you pegged it!
The character, Rachel, was so well drawn; being the link between those in the household who were Upstairs and Downstairs.
Her avoidable death, because Mr. Amanjit was “needed” on urgent business driving Sir Holland to rescue Ladie Persie, illustrated the fragility of life.
Both Ladie Persie and Rachel’s lives were in danger but those who would have saved Rachel from cruel fate, were busy rescuing a debutante from her own folly!
I watched my first episode last night, and I was surprised by how disappointed I was. Everything said in the post is true. However, I don’t think viewers should have to choose between a character-driven and a political drama. I love politics and since my writing is history-based I have nothing against bringing in historical fact.
But it’s the “character-driven” aspect that brings the history to life and makes the characters more than just puppets: this one is the Victim, this one is the Prejudiced Person. That doesn’t illuminate the “why’s.” Moreover, I felt this remake has a 21st-century ennui and melancholy to it. The first one dealt with World War I, but its characters were animated with post-Victorian earnestness!
SPOILER BELOW, PROCEED AT OWN RISK
I spent a lot of time after watching it trying to justify Lady Agnes’ actions at the end. I’ve enjoyed Keeley Hawes in MI-5 (Spooks) and Ashes to Ashes and even as the voice of Lara Croft. I was already inclined to dismiss Lady Persie, but I thought better of her sister.
I’ve had to tell myself that Sir Holland perhaps could have qualified his promise: take care of the child until suitable adoptive parents could be found, but in matters like this it far more to his credit that his first instinct is to not qualify or prevaricate.
If he had qualified his statement, perhaps she wouldn’t have kicked up a fuss. But I am still disappointed with her and delighted with him.
As to the tone of the show, my husband, who hates drama because he takes it too personally, had to get up and walk around the room after the riot, fearing something bad would happen. I think it was appropriate, however, and also a little daring of the producers not to use the event as a means of reversing the opinions of those characters we now despise.
I LOVED this episode! Every week I wish more and more that the filmmakers had a six hour time frame to work with. The exploration of the political realities of the time on the characters is just fascinating to me. (Linked to your review, too, Laurel Ann!)
This episode was very interesting because it was the first time I had ever heard of “blackshirts” in England. I don’t even remember any History Channel programs mentioning it. The treatment of the politics at the time was creative and instructive. Kudos to the writer and producers. Since I did not watch the original series, Upstairs, Downstairs, I had no preconceived notions about it. I love most “period piece” programs, so I was already inclined to enjoy this version.
I found this episode more focussed than the first (which had about 12 plotlines) and I was impressed that the cliché of the rebellious debutante drawn to a social cause is turned on its head here when the social cause is British Fascism.
History is replete with examples of the elite finding the allure of fascism, socialism and communism irresistible; Clement Atlee found Herr Hitler so reasonable, the New York Times editorialized that Fidel Castro was “the George Washington of the Sierra Maestra…” and Jane Fonda was a devotee of Ho Chi Minh…
After loving the first episode, I will admit to being disappointed with the second. The issue is the pace. I like long drawn out stories in which I can get to know characters so that I can debate the nuances of their actions, words, looks, etc.
I don’t understand why the rush. Just when I was getting involved in the story of the footman of last episode, he’s gone now. Just when I was getting to know Rachel, she’s gone now. Letting her remain on the series and drawing out her story would’ve made her death so much more powerful.
I did love how Ivy has grown from 1st to 2nd; she’s matured almost as much as Lady Percie and Lady Agnes have slid backward.
And don’t you think it’s a bit of a parallel universe with Downton Abbey in that both have the young lady of the house championing the working class and being driven to events by a radical chauffuer? Granted, the Upstairs/Downstairs version is more extreme all round, but still…a bit too close for comfort. Or is it merely slipping into stereotype?
I know the original series very well, and the differences jumped out at me immediately. This is a good show, but it is not the BEST show – it is not THE show.
Unlike the original, there isn’t the slow development of character and background – the gradual realization of the history that is happening all around: Fabianism, women’s rights, the death of a king, WWI, the death of a generation.
But Upstairs, Downstairs Original went on for five seasons! So I have to be tolerant. This series is rushed – so much so that names come and go, their stories are forgotten.
Also, during the first episode, I had to constantly remind myself that this is a different time, and must stop saying to myself, ‘Lady Marjorie would NEVER stand for that!’
I think this series is suffering b/c of the lack of character development. Although Elizabeth Bellamy was always getting into trouble, we liked her and wanted her to do well in the end. Lady Percy, on the other hand, is an unlikable brat. They are doing the same thing to her sister. Except for the politics, which are of particular interest to me, I thought this episode was average bordering on boring.
(Solicitation removed by moderator) Upstairs-Downstairs new version lacked both the humor and depth of the original.
I was intrigued by the politics of the period — Lady Persie’s fascination with the Union of British Fascists is suggestive of the fact that quite a few British aristocrats (including King Edward, who eventually abdicated) were sympathetic to Hitler’s Third Reich, so Lady Persie somewhat mirrors Diana Mitford’s intense involvement with fascism (she married Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the Union of British Fascists).
I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I did the first. I realize that the first episode’s job was to introduce the cast of characters. But I do wish it could have included a lot more of the social and political drama of mid-1930s Europe, as it has done in this episode.