Wednesday, August 7, 2013
"UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" - Series Two (2012) Retrospective
"UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" - Series Two (2012) Retrospective
Poor "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS". Poor Jean Marsh. I am saying this out of pure pity and disappointment. Poor "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS". This revival of the old 1970s series really got the shaft from not only the viewers, but critics and one member from its Series One cast. And I feel that it did not deserve its fate.
What fate am I referring to? After the BBC aired the third episode from Series Two of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS", it announced the cancellation of the series after two seasons. Why? Poor ratings and poor reviews. How did it come to this? One could blame Jean Marsh and Heidi Thomas for producing and writing a poorly conceived second season. The problem for me is that I do not view Season Two of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" as poorly conceived and written. In fact, I consider this second season superior to the first. I also consider it equal to the first season of "DOWNTON ABBEY" and better than its second and third seasons. But I doubt that the BBC or anyone else would agree with me or care over what I have to say. "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" got cancelled and there is nothing I can do about it, but accept its fate.
Series Two endured a good deal of problems before the cast was ready to shoot its six episodes. One, actress Eileen Atkins publicly expressed her unhappiness with her character, Maud Lady Holland, and her decision not to return for the second season. Both Atkins and Jean Marsh had served as co-creators of both the original series and the recent one. I believe that she had every right to make this decision. Unfortunately, her announcement not only tattered the series' reputation, but also kept viewers away and ruined her long friendship with Marsh. And in the end, the majority of viewers and critics paid more attention to Atkins, leading toward bad ratings and cancellation by the BBC. When Atkins dropped out of the series, both Marsh and Thomas raced to find a replacement. In the end, they hired Alex Kingston to portray Dr. Blanche Mottershead, Lady Holland's much younger half-sister and aunt to Sir Hallam Holland. Then disaster struck again when Marsh suffered a minor stroke. The actress recovered long enough for minor appearances as housekeeper Rose Buck in two episodes. Despite these setbacks, Thomas managed to produce six episodes for this second series.
Series Two of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" focused on the last year before the outbreak of World War II - between September 1938 and September 1939. Sir Hallam Holland's career with the Foreign Office no longer brings him pleasure, due to the Establishment and the public's reluctance to consider a war against Nazi Germany. The latter demands control of theSudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Only Hallam and a few others like his superior Sir Anthony Eden are against the idea of appeasing to the Germans in order to avoid another war - including the former's wife, Lady Agnes Holland. The latter has no problems with supporting her husband's career, but like many others, support the idea of appeasement. Mind you, Lady Agnes is dealing with the difficult birth of a second child and the news that she can longer carry a baby to full confinement. Lady Agnes' younger sister, Lady Persephone Towyn, is still living in Germany, socializing with top-ranking Nazi politicians and military officers. But an unwanted pregnancy and the violence of the Kristallnacht forces Lady Persephone to seek help from her sister and brother-in-law to get her back to Britain. Following the death of Maud, Lady Holland; Sir Hallam's aunt - an archaeologist named Dr. Blanche Mottershead - arrives to deal with her half-sister's belongings. When she decides to remain with the Hollands to help raise her mentally challenged niece, Lotte Holland; a secret involving a past relationship threatens her reputation within high society. Along with Prince George, Duke of Kent, the series also featured the real life personages of Joseph, Rose and John Kennedy.
The second series also began with the arrival of a new servant in the Holland household named Beryl Ballard. Chauffeur Harry Spargo becomes attracted to her and commences upon a difficult campaign to win her love. Meanwhile, Rose Buck, the Hollands' housekeeper, is confined to a sanatorium after contracting tuberculosis. Her absence creates a hole in the servants' hierarchy and a clash of wills between the butler Warwick Pritchard and the cook Claire Thackeray. Their clash will temporarily lead Mrs. Thackeray to consider leaving service and expose a secret of Mr. Pritchard regarding his World War I experiences, which will affect his private life before the end of the series. Lady Holland's secretary, Amanjit Singh struggles to establish a livelihood, following his employer's death. Footman Johnny Proude is encouraged by Harry to consider a minor career as an amateur boxer and the household's maids - Eunice McCabe and Beryl - struggle to deal with Lady Agnes' demands.
I still believe that this second series was better than the first. But it was not perfect. I did not mind that some of the series' story arcs did not last longer than one episode. A good example of this was Mrs. Thackeray's decision to leave her employment at 165 Eaton Place to live with her nephew. It was a pleasant, yet interesting story. But I was not disappointed that it merely lasted one episode. There were two story arcs that could have lasted beyond one episode. One of them, "A Perfect Specimen of Womanhood" centered around the revelation of Blanche Mottershead's lesbian relationship with Lady Portia Alresford. Unfortunately, the following episodes merely revealed Blanche's banishment from "Society" through dialogue. The audience never really got to experience her social downfall on the screen. In the fourth episode, "All the Things You Are", Mr. Amanjit meets with the teacher of the late Rachel Perlmutter's daughter, Lotte, in a London tea shop. Although a waitress led them to a decent table, a snotty maitre'd coolly asks them to move to another table near the back of the tea shop. Aside from the Hollands' servants initial cool response to Mr. Amanjit in Series One, the Indian-born secretary had never encountered any on-screen racism . . . until this scene. It felt . . . out of the blue. Nor was it ever fully explored or referred to again. I feel that Heidi Thomas could have done a lot more in portraying any racism that Mr. Amanjit may have encountered during the television series' two season run.
Many of the fans had complained about the adulterous affair between Sir Hallam Holland and his fascist sister-in-law Lady Persephone ("Persie") Towyn. When I first heard about it, I found the idea of an affair between them hard to believe. But after viewing Series Two, I realized that I had only one complaint about the affair - namely that it did not last long enough. After spending two episodes of developing a close and friendly relationship, Hallam and Persie finally dived into a sexual affair by the end of "All Things You Are". The affair spanned nearly all of the fifth episode, "The Last Waltz", until Hallam stumbled across a revelation that Persie might be using him for nefarious reasons at the end of that episode. Frankly, I wish their affair had lasted a little longer than one episode. I feel this expansion in running time would have served the story arc a little better. The episode also featured one death - a suicide. And to be honest, I thought Heidi Thomas' direction of the moment seemed more anti-climatic than dramatic.
One of the aspects of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" that I like more than "DOWNTON ABBEY" is the portrayal of the relationship between the Hollands and their servants. Yes, the series featured at least two servants that seemed blindingly loyal to the Hollands - Mr. Pritchard and Rose Buck. But Rose spent most of this series in a tuberculosis sanatorium. In an odd way, the series benefited from Rose's absence and focused even more on the other servants. Both Beryl Ballard and Eunice McCabe were constantly switching roles as Lady Agnes' personal maid and nurse maid to the Hollands' children. And both discovered that the socialite could be very demanding in regard to tasks and lack of any real compensation for their hard work. In the end, Beryl resorted to recruiting help for their situation from the Girls’ Friendly Society, an employment service that upper-class women use to find female servants. Mr. Amanjit also clashed with Blanche over the deceased Lady Holland's belongings early in the series, until both learned to work together, while helping with refugees from Nazi Germany. The most interesting clash between servant and employer manifested between Sir Hallam and Harry Spago. This clash came from Harry and Beryl's matrimony plans and desire to emigrate to the United States. Sir Hallam expressed outrage over Harry's desire to leave Britain, instead of face military service in the upcoming world war. Angry over Hallam's self-righteous refusal to help him emigrate, Harry blackmailed his employer with his knowledge about the latter's affair with Lady Persie. Even Beryl's conflict with Lady Agnes played a role in the two men's conflict.
But the series also featured conflict between servants and conflicts within the Holland family. Thomas wrote an excellent portrayal of Sir Hallam's disappointment over Britain's appeasement policy with Germany and Lady Agnes' current inability to have more children. This disappointment with his country, the Foreign Office and his marriage eventually led to a friendship and later affair with Lady Persie. Many fans complained that the idea of the moderately liberal Hallam and a fascist like Persie having an affair - especially since they did not seem particularly friendly toward one another. But Thomas skillfully conveyed how helping Persie deal with an unwanted pregnancy, along with jealousy over Lady Agnes' friendship with a wealthy American named Caspar Landry led him to drift into an affair with his volatile sister-in-law. The Hallan-Persie affair also had an effect on Harry and Beryl's romance and plans for emigration to the U.S., along with Lady Agnes' friendship with Landry, which had the potential to develop into a healthy romance. Another strong story arc that stood above the others proved to be Mr. Pritchard's secret regarding his experiences during World War I. The other servants discovered in the first episode, "A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing", that the butler had opposed military service in the war as conscientious objector. Although this seemed to be a rip off from the Alan Bates story arc from the 2001 movie, "GOSFORD PARK", Heidi Thomas explored the issue with more depth and skill in "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS". Mr. Pritchard's secret not only created a bitter feud between the butler and Mrs. Thackeray (who had lost a husband) and Mr. Amanjit (a veteran of the war), but would also have a negative impact on his personal life in the last two episodes.
"UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" featured some fine performances from the likes of Art Malik, Alex Kingston, Emilia Fox (as Blanche's lover), Ellie Kendrick, Nico Mirallegro, Anne Reid, Keeley Hawes and Michael Landes. But there were performances that stood out for me. One came from Blake Ritson's entertaining performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent. He really was entertaining, especially in the servants' ball sequence. Another first-rate performance came from Ed Stoppard, who impressed me by his portrayal of Sir Hallam's emotional crisis. Both Neil Jackson and Laura Haddock really made me care about the fates of Harry Spago and Beryl Ballard, thanks to their poignant performances. And Claire Foy did an excellent job of taking Lady Persie Towyn's complex character to another level. For me, the best performance came from Adrian Scarborough, who did an excellent job in his portrayal of Warwick Pritchard. He especially stood out in the first, fifth and last episodes.
Looking back on Series Two of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS", it occurred to me that it came off as somewhat darker than the first series. The series found some of the character socially ostracized - briefly or otherwise, or enduring some kind emotional crisis. Its portrayal of the relationships between employers and servants struck me as somewhat more realistic than similar portrayals in "DOWNTON ABBEY". The series also featured a poignant wedding, the end of a marriage - at least emotionally - and a suicide. And the series ended with the loud wail of a siren signaling the beginning of a devastating world war. It is a pity that the BBC decided to end the series. I would have given my right arm to learn of the surviving characters' fates. Both Harry Spago and Johnny Proude found themselves recruited into the army. Sir Hallam resigned from the Foreign Office, due to the political disaster spawned from his affair with Lady Persie and became a royal equerry for the Duke of Kent (who died in a plane crash in 1942). And Lady Agnes said good-bye to Caspar Landry before sending her children and Rose Buck to the country for safety. Oh well. At least the series ended on an artistic note higher than it began. I am a fan of Eileen Atkins and I always will be. But I did not miss her, while watching Series Two.