tisdag 19 juni 2012

Eaton Place bested by World War II

I've finally had the opportunity to watch the second - and, as it turns out, last - series of the new Upstairs Downstairs. It was curiously like the the last one: after a wobbly start, I started to enjoy myself and become at least mildly interested in the characters and their fates. But I'm not inconsolable about the fact that they axed the series. The final episode ends just when World War Two is about to begin, and frankly, I don't care if I ever see another WWII-themed show again.

Admittedly, the last English TV series set during WWII - Foyle's War - I did enjoy very much. It managed to find fresh and interesting angles to life at the English home front, and it very seldom preached (except when the script-writers were having a bad day). Instead, the quiet dignity of Foyle as played by Michael Kitchen won you over, and I found myself caring desperately about his son remaining unscathed - that would be his son, the bomber. However, I don't think Upstairs Downstairs would have managed to bring anything new to a territory already explored by series such as We'll Meet Again and A Family at War. Last time around, the macho but not evil chauffeur Spargo's misguided flirtation with Fascism lent some interest, but this time everyone (always excepting unbelievably wicked Lady Persie) acted with perfect political decorum. Sir Hallam, the master of the house and a diplomat, is against any sort of appeasement from the word go. His eccentric aunt and the Indian servant Mr Amanjit - yes, and Lady Agnes too, on occasion - are busy organising the Kindertransport almost single-handedly. When Chamberlain steps out of that aircraft waving the Munich agreement and promising "peace in our time", only two of the servants are allowed to briefly show relief, before taking their cue from them upstairs, who remain stony-faced. They know, see, that this is Just The Beginning.

One interesting thing about historical dramas tends to be that the characters don't know what we know and view events with which we are familiar in a different way, without - as the political phrase goes - the benefit of hindsight. We know that appeasement turned out to be the wrong call, but it wasn't as easy to be sure about that back in the Thirties, with the horrors of World War One still fresh in most people's minds. I'd like to see at least one character in a WWII show fighting poor old Chamberlain's corner. That show was obviously not going to be Upstairs Downstairs, however, and it would have been pretty dull to have to follow this poster family of Churchillian rectitude through the entire war.

It's a pity, because there was much to enjoy in the series. Granted, we knew long before Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes did that their marriage was in trouble - their chemistry is non-existent - and though Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, both fine actors, do their best, it's not easy to care about this over-polished couple. But other characters, such as the caustic cook Mrs Thackeray and the sweet butler Pritchard, livened things up; the eccentric aunt worked too, though she couldn't quite replace Eileen Atkins's eccentric mother. I was also amused by the way they kept shoe-horning the Duke of Kent into the plot. My theory is that Blake Ritson's melancholy-eyed Duke proved such a scene-stealer the first time round the script-writers crammed as much Kent-time they possibly could into the second series. A good idea, as it turns out - though generally benign, the Duke is puckish and not entirely predictable. In view of the unoriginal spin on pre-WWII events, a bit of unpredictability was sorely needed.