torsdag 30 maj 2013

Upstairs Downstairs - The original

OK, back to costume dramas. As I've mentioned, I've started rewatching the original Upstairs Downstairs, one of the great costume-drama classics. As often with a classic TV drama, I was afraid it wouldn't quite live up to my expectations: after all, a lot has happened on the TV front since I saw it last, and programmes from the Seventies and Eighties now tend to seem a bit slow and talky. Upstairs Downstairs is still first-class viewing, though. Yes, it is talky at times, but the conversations are to the point and character-illuminating, not just jaw-jawing. Compared to some scenes in the first two episodes in The Forsyte Saga, which I have unwisely started watching in tandem (you should sandwich Upstairs Downstairs viewing with something modern and snappy, not another old series), the story-telling is well-structured, and you don't feel your inner editor commenting: "All right, cut that! You've already made that point. You can lift this scene right out and give us the information in an aside." (I mean, seriously, Forsyte - do we need to know the details about Mrs Heron's investments?)

Upstairs Downstairs is ground-breaking in many ways. One, it is an original story, not an adaptation of a novel. In costume-drama world, this is rare. Two, it shows a whole new way of telling the story of a well-to-do family (the Bellamys in this case), by bringing in the servants' point of view. Servants have played important parts in dramas before, of course, but I get the impression - though I confess I'm not an expert on the subject - that the double-perspective of masters and servants was something new and fresh at the time. In a story like The Forsyte Saga, servants are constantly glimpsed, but we can never guess what they really think about what's going on. How sanguine do James Forsyte's servants feel when they celebrate Winifred's marriage with food and drink provided for the occasion? What is Mrs Heron's maid's opinion of Soames, who always hangs up his coat himself - does she see it as a kindness, or does it make her feel small both figuratively and literally? Let alone do we get to know anything about the servants' own lives, loves, dreams and ambitions. Upstairs Downstairs shows that the downstairs view can not only be interesting in itself, but shed new light on what goes on upstairs. Far from becoming a dreary social-history lesson, this way of telling the story adds excitement and human interest, and helps middle-class neurotics like me to fight our uneasiness where servants are concerned. Yes, they are talking about you - but not necessarily in a nasty way.

Three, Upstairs Downstairs does something few dramas have the nerve to do (understandably as it's hard to pull off). It doesn't label its characters as good or bad. Each character has his or her flaws and failings, as well as his or her good parts, and the series asks you to accept them as they are and care what happens to them. It works and it gets you thinking. As an example, I remember how shocked I was when I rewatched the series the first time since girlhood and realised that Mr Hudson (the butler) and Mrs Bridges (the cook) - for whom I had cheerfully rooted first time round - were in many ways not particularly nice people. Mr Hudson's hidebound views have a stifling effect on the servants under him which the more good-natured Carson in Downton Abbey can only dream of, and Mrs Bridges is a terrible tyrant with her kitchen maids: somehow I was sorry that Ruby's bids for freedom never came off. Now I see the series again, I think I was being a bit too harsh on these two senior servants. Hudson's preaching about not gossiping about "our betters" may seem unfair when there are so few delights in a servant's life as it is; however, the episode "Magic Casements" shows that a household's happiness and survival might actually depend on the discretion of its staff. The scene at the end of that episode where Hudson mouths a silent "thank you" to the Heavens (at least, I think that's what he's doing) when he realises the Bellamys are reconciled is both human and touching, and I have seldom liked him more. As for Mrs Bridges, she cares for Ruby in her rough way, and who knows if Ruby - who, perhaps, is not quite as simple as the others take her for - may not have the last laugh.

As may have become apparent, Julian Fellowes owes quite a heavy debt to Upstairs Downstairs, which I'm sure he'd be the first to acknowledge. He's benefited from the servant-master perspective both in Gosford Park and in Downton Abbey, while going a little easier on the subtle characterisation part. Maybe as a homage to the great forerunner, he has borrowed one or two story lines from it, notably the "noble suitor of household's daughter who's really more into footmen"-plot (worth filching for the knuckle-smooching alone) and the "admirer of the cook turns out to be a skirt-chaser and only interested in her food"-plot. Also, there are a number of servant names that crop up both in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton. This may be because these were common names among servants - what do I know? - but I wonder. The Downton characters are always so wildly unlike their Upstairs Downstairs namesakes that I suspect Fellowes to have had some deliberate fun with the naming process. In Upstairs Downstairs, we have a determined and temperamental housemaid called Daisy, impervious to bullying or undue influence; a bubbly, pretty housemaid called Sarah who's quite unfit for service; a neurotic footman called Alfred, responsible for the knuckle-smooching mentioned above; and a cheeky-chappie Welsh footman/valet turned chauffeur called Thomas with an eye for the ladies and the main chance (though the main chance rarely has an eye for him). Rose (housemaid in Upstairs Downstairs, lady in Downton) and James (the Bellamys' son in Upstairs Downstairs, footman in Downton) have to be coincidences, though.

It is a little foolhardy of Fellowes to invite comparisons in this way: objectively speaking, Upstairs Downstairs is more ambitious script-wise and characterisation-wise than its successor. Nevertheless, Downton has a charm of its own, and for all its flaws need not be ashamed of itself even when compared with the best that costume drama has to offer. But then I'm rather biased in Downton's favour. This neither-good-nor-bad-character stunt showcased in Upstairs Downstairs has one hefty drawback - when it comes to recurring characters, the series is singularly short of villains.