Upstairs Downstairs: Part Three: The Cuckoo on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 1: Eileen Atlins as Maude Lady Holland © 2010 MASTERPIECE  The new residents of 165 Eaton Place have a “day full of unimaginable things” in The Cuckoo, the third and concluding episode of the revival season on Masterpiece Classic PBS.

Last week’s episode two, The Ladybird, had strong political overtones as rebellious Lady Persie (Claire Foy) and the chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) joined the Blackshirts, a fascist group stirring up unrest among the laboring class who are hard hit by the depression. This week, the drama revolves around personal relationships and their effect on the nation and the household, revealing secrets, scandals and new beginnings. Here is the episode three synopsis from PBS.

A chance encounter with greatness goes to Mrs. Thackeray’s (Anne Reid) head, and in turn annoys Rose (Jean Marsh), who, fed up with her pretensions, unleashes an insult so great that it sparks a feud. Yet despite the embattled cook and housekeeper, the downstairs staff is united in their love and nurturing of the child Lotte (Alexia James), who appears to need more help than they can provide. With even more than her customary authority, Maud (Eileen Atkins) steps up to take charge, whisking the child away for treatment even as she guards a secret of her own.

Preoccupied with the abdication crisis, Hallam (Ed Stoppard) attempts to buy some time from the press by hosting a special dinner for the Duke of York (Blake Ritson), placing 165 Eaton Street in the center of the monarchy’s storm. Now preoccupied, Agnes (Keeley Hawes) has abdicated her responsibility of Persie (Claire Foy), who has snapped the long leash her sister provided, and begun engaging in behavior that threatens to taint them all. Only Lotte’s absence galvanizes Hallam to bring light into his home, purging it of dishonor and dark secrets that have been hidden for too long. But just as the king charts his fate, a momentous event will change the Holland family forever.

In this very tightly constructed and emotional charged third episode written by Heidi Thomas, many of the story subplots where concluded and new ones begin. It was indeed a “day full of unimaginable things” for the Holland family and the nation. What a refreshing surprise to witness the selfish Lady Persie being thrown over by the handsome chauffeur Harry Spargo. Bravo Harry. Lady Persie is developing into a repulsive character: ungrateful for her sister’s attentions, uninterested in bettering herself, and uncaring in her selfish actions and how they affect others. It only takes her about two seconds for her to exit Harry’s bed and transfer her shallow affections  to the German Ambassador, Herr Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly) and invite him for a late night cocktail at the house of her brother-in-law Sir Hallam. Ribbentrop’s blaring Nazi pin on his lapel is so shocking. Everything he stands for is controversial, and that is exactly why Persie is attracted to him. I am uncertain of her motivations in wanting to shock and hurt her sister and her family, but sense an interesting family backstory that hopefully we will learn about in future episodes.

We knew that the devastating abdication of King Edward VIII in favor of the “help and support of the women that he loved” was looming over us and history, but it was very interesting to see the political maneuverings to control the bad press transpire in the dining room at 165 Eaton Place. Hallam’s relationship with the Duke of York (Blake Ritson), who in this version is strangely sans a speech impediment and very suave, places us right in the front line of the controversy of the American divorcee Mrs. Simpson and her romantic relationship with the current King of the British Empire, and its inevitable tragic outcome. Watching Maude, Lady Holland matter-of-factly bring the dinner conversation to the point of directly asking the influential editor of a newspaper who has Mrs. Simpson’s ear to encourage her to accept the Morganatic marriage as a suitable compromise is priceless. Lady Maude is my favorite character so far in this new production, which oddly is filled with women that are weak, selfish and unlikeable: i.e. Lady Agnes, Lady Persie, and shockingly Rose the housekeeper, who has evolved into someone that I do not recognize. Does age make people give up their spunk and values? I remember Rose as being outspoken and direct in the original series. This Rose (what little we see of her) seems resigned and ready for pasture.

I am glad to see the shift back to inter-personal relationships of the family and staff in this episode. Even though last week’s foray into the political sphere of fascism was true to events transpiring in London during the mid-1930’s, I found it overpowered the personal drama that I have enjoyed in the original series and hoped to experience in this new revival. In this episode we saw some characters reveal secrets, react to change, emotionally evolve and others make choices that will cause anguish for their families and the nation. In folklore, the cuckoo is symbolic of loss and misery.  One wonders if the cuckoo in this episode is the abdicated King, this new wife, or the spiteful Lady Persie?

Image courtesy of © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Upstairs Downstairs: Part Two: The Ladybird on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Claire Foy as Lady Persie in Upstairs Downstairs (2010) 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.

Image courtesy © MASTERPIECE

Upstairs Downstairs: Part One: The Fledgling, on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Jean Marsh as Rose Buck in Upstairs Downstairs (2010)After a thirty-four year wait, many faces will be beaming and hearts gladdened by the concluding scenes of the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs’ triumphant return to Masterpiece Classic tonight.

As the camera panned the front façade of the stately Georgian townhouse at 165 Eaton Place, my heart was in my throat, and Goosebumps covered my arms. It does not get much better than this for a period drama lover – well – maybe if it is a Jane Austen mini-series, but that is only a far off dream at this point.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the highly successful and beloved original 1974-77 series of the same name, this posh address was the London home of the Bellamy clan. Renowned for its intimate view of an aristocratic family and their household of servants, the series spanned the Edwardian period until post WWI, ending in 1930 with a scene of ladies maid Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) closing the front door and walking down the street. Jean Marsh is the one returning cast member from the original series. It was a very long walk Rose, but we are glad you finally made it back.

Upstairs Downstairs original Masterpiece Theatre series poster 1970'sOne of the delights of episode drama is that it’s never really over, ever. Years can pass in our physical dimension but they stand still in TV land until recalled into service. Happily, the original series co-creators Dame Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh are both attached to this new series – Atkins as eccentric widow Maud, Lady Holland and Marsh reprising her role as Rose Buck, now promoted to housekeeper.  Here is an episode synopsis from PBS:

It’s 1936, and 165 Eaton Place sees its first stirrings of life after years of neglect when the house’s new master, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), and his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes), cross the threshold. Though dust shrouds every surface, Lady Agnes is stirred to proclaim, “This house is going to see such life!” And with relish, she sets about an extravagant restoration and enlists the help of the staffing agency Bucks of Belgravia and its owner, former longtime 165 Eaton Place housemaid, Rose Buck (Jean Marsh).

Rose brings her cherished memories and high standards to the project, assembling a motley staff ranging from seasoned snobs to fledgling teens. Upstairs, the unexpected arrival of Hallam’s mother, Maud, Lady Hallam (Eileen Atkins) — returning from India with a Sikh secretary Amanjit Singh (Art Malik) and monkey Solomon in tow — introduces both eccentricity and tension as she interferes with Agnes’s management of the house. Somewhat in over her head in her new position, Agnes is further tested upon the arrival of her devil-may-care younger sister, Lady Persie (Claire Foy). As King George is dying, and against a backdrop of uncertainty, the residents of 165 Eaton Place host an elegant party to launch the Hollands in London society, and together attempt to field obstacles, both comical and sinister, that come their way.

The opening episode of this three part drama brings us The Fledgling – and very aptly named. Like a young bird, this series has new wings and must learn to fly. Acclaimed screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Cranford) has written a superb script. The storyline is filled with endings and beginnings – a perfect bridge for our memories of the original series and the introduction to the new one. There are nice touches of nostalgia, but it does not get too maudlin. The opening credits use the famous series music, but with a new remix, focusing on the sparkling crystal chandelier in the townhouse foyer. It is a symbol of both the old elegance and lifestyle of the Bellamy’s and a new beginning for the Holland clan and their household of servants. The scene when Rose returns to 165 Eaton Place, her former home of almost forty years, will require a hanky.

Upstairs Downstairs (2010) cast

The casting is top notch and their performances amazing. There is a wide range of personalities interacting in this newly refurbished series, all appealing to different demographics. The standouts are hard to earmark, since everyone was superb. We are happy to see scene stealing conceded to age and experience over youth and beauty. Dame Eileen Atkins as the Dowager Lady Holland and Jean Marsh as Miss Rose Buck dominated every scene over their younger compatriots. Of the upstairs personalities, Keeley Hawes is duly luminescent as the rattled social climber, Ed Stoppard charming as her careening husband, and Claire Foy sizzles as the rebellious baby sister.

Downstairs, Adrian Scarborough has big shoes to fill after butler Mr. Hudson left a indelible impression in our memories of what a proper English butler should be. He has a promising beginning. Anne Reid as the snooty cook should stir up some trouble and Art Malik as Lady Maud’s Indian secretary is imposing and mysterious. The selection of younger actors might attract a new crowd to this Masterpiece series. Ellie Kendrick as saucy orphan housemaid teases footman in the making Nico Mirallego into a risky flirtation, and every household needs a hunky chauffeur like Neil Jackson to drive you around and put naughty thoughts in your head. We concede to being personally delighted with Solomon the monkey, Lady Holland’s particular friend she brought back with her from India, since he is partial to sweet tea and thick-cut marmalade.

The staff at 165 Eaton Place, Upstairs Downstairs (2010)

Welcome home Upstairs Downstairs fans. It has begun again. A new period drama series filled with secrets, scandals and seductions from both sides of the stairs. Episode two, The Lady Bird, continues next Sunday April 17 on PBS

Images courtesy © MASTERPIECE

Some Say that Gaskell is Austen embellished with Dickens…

Image of Cranford on Masterpiece Classic (2007)

A comparison (of Elizabeth Gaskell) to Jane Austen for its combination of humor and moral judgment in the observation of character and conduct is often made, not unjustly, though Mrs. Gaskell’s canvas is larger than Austen’s bit of ivory.Edgar Wright 

Image of portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell, (1832)Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) has been said to have a “wit to challenge Jane Austen’s, a conscience of social struggle unrivalled by Dickens, and charm and values to enrapture George Eliot’s fans”. This is high praise indeed to be mentioned with such exalted literary company, and we are fortunate that several of her novels have been recently adapted into movies by the BBC; Wives and Daughter (1999), North and South (2004) and now Cranford, which will be presented on the next three Sundays (May 4th, 11th and 18th) on PBS. 

Image of the book cover of Cranford (2007)Cranford is a combination of four of Elizabeth Gaskells’ stories; Cranford, Dr. Harrison’s Confessions, My Lady Ludlow aka Round the Sofa, and The Last Generation in England;  that were written as short stories for her employer Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words between 1851- 1853. It offers us a glimpse of Victorian life in a rural English village circa 1842, introducing us to many memorable characters that revolve around the lives of Misses Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and Matty (Judi Dench) Jenkyns; – two spinsters who live a seemingly quiet life full of “busy nothings” with their mostly female community of Cranford as they face adversity and change. 

Image of Cranford ladies, Miss Deborah (Eileen Atkins), Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon), and Miss Matty (Judi Dench)

The characters are so engaging and finely drawn that comparisons to Miss Austen are inevitable, and we see a bit of Miss Bates (Emma), Mrs. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park) in Mrs. Gaskells’s characterizations. Life in the village of Cranford has it’s similarities to Meryton (Pride and Prejudice) or Highbury (Emma), but Gaskell’s narrative is more expansive than Austen, introducing a wider social and economic sphere into her characters lives, and we feel the influence of her contemporaries such as author Charles Dickens’ deeper social commentary and moral sensibility throughout the story. 

Image of Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie) and Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), Cranford (2007)

The new adaptation of Cranford aired in the UK last fall to rave reviews, so this series is highly anticipated by many Masterpiece fans, and a fit finale to the Classic portion of the re-modeled Masterpiece Theatre which began last January with The Complete Jane Austen series. You can prime yourself for the premiere at these fine sites… 

*Image of the miniature portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell, circa 1832 by William John Thomson (Scottish, born circa 1771-1845)