Upstairs Downstairs

4 January 2011

I was never all that keen on the original series of Upstairs Downstairs. It was after my time after for a start, although that didn’t prevent me from developing a late blossoming passion for Poldark a few years ago. I think it was the fact, and I am really sorry about this, that I am just not that interested in ‘below stairs’ that put me off to be honest. I get that the real drama and machination is all going on behind the green baize door that leads to the servants quarters but to me it just isn’t as interesting as the whimsical turn of an ostrich feather fan or a pained dinner party with ducal guests.

Okay, I’m done, let’s just be honest here – I’m a terrific snob actually.

I was looking forward to the new version of Upstairs Downstairs though – lured in by the sumptuous adverts and still on enough of a Downton Abbey comedown to be in desperate need of my next big costume drama fix.

What I didn’t expect, as I wallowed on the sofa on Boxing Day when it was first aired, was to actually end up preferring Upstairs Downstairs to it’s more Edwardian counterpart. I mean, fundamentally, they were kind of the same with the same emphasis on the similarities and differences between the rich sorts flouncing about above stairs and the servants below. There were the same intrigues, lies, triumphs, ambitions, betrayals and loyalties, the same drama and the same unabashed, unadulterated relishing of both indolent luxury and the busy hive of activity that worked tirelessly to support it.

Even the plot was similar in places – a faintly beleagured daughter in law dealing with a domineering matriach; problems of inheritance and, curiously, both had politically minded chauffeurs escorting young ladies to demonstrations.

The thing that was really good about Downton Abbey was the way that unlike most costume dramas, it wasn’t based on a book and so had no weight of expectation behind. It had its nit pickers of course, complaining about road lines and anachronisms, but ultimately it evaded the usual disappointments that accompany such series when characters aren’t quite how devoted fans imagined them or a favourite scene is missed out. Upstairs Downstairs had an element of this, as it is a sequel to a much loved television series but by setting it several years later, it avoided much of the comparison if not all.

Anyway, Downton Abbey was brilliant of course, but I think I liked Upstairs Downstairs a little bit more. I really adored the often brittle Mitford like glamour of it all, the sadly smiling Duke of Kent, the gorgeous bias cut silk dresses and the unabashed sentimentality. You see, Downton Abbey never once made me weepy but each episode of Upstairs Downstairs managed to make me cry – over a bird kept in an airing cupboard (oh dear, am welling up now), a long lost sister, an orphaned child. Downton Abbey was splendid but I felt like Upstairs Downstairs had real heart to it despite being the town cousin of the country Downton.

My favourite part of the whole series was the gorgeous interlude between the cook, Mrs Thackeray and society photographer Cecil Beaton. It made me cry a little bit and, oh dear, I am welling up a bit again. It was lovely though.

It wasn’t all tears and joyousness of course – I don’t think I have disliked any television character quite as much as Lady Persephone in a very very long time. How horrible was she? I couldn’t wait for her to go away to Germany and do the whole Unity Mitford thing.

Anyway, I hope the BBC decide to make more as it was really, really good. In fact, while they are at it can we have an updated version of that other great Mollie Hardwick classic, By The Sword Divided? Maybe they could have Lucinda’s dreadful children running amock at the Restoration court of Charles II?

Oh and in case you were wondering, I think Mr Bates has been usurped somewhat by the hot chauffeur. Not totally, you understand, but a bit…

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