Upstairs, Downstairs: Series Two (2012)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs

Wartime dramas can signify beauty and disaster. They allow for snapshots of charm as they catch us up in the dizzying lives of their characters but should compel us into realizing how frightening the idea of war is. It was not a pleasant time and as a result should not mislead otherwise. In advance, let me apologize for this lengthy, spoiler revealing and somewhat frank review as I attempt to share honest thoughts on this controversial second – and reported last, series of a once beloved BBC classic.

The running of 165 Eaton Place is much different in the two years since Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes) and her husband Lord Hallam (Ed Stoppard) were blessed with their son, a child they thought they would never have. Following complications, Agnes is about to bring home her second child from a hospital stay as talk of a second war looms in the year 1938. As a secretary to the British Foreign Secretary at Whitehall, Hallam is an important political diplomat. Chamberlain wants peace talks between England and Germany – specifically with Hitler, and signed documents to back them, which Hallam opposes believing that war is inevitable.

Coinciding with all this unrest is the arrival of his aunt Blanche (Alex Kingston), the half sister of Hallam’s recently deceased mother. Blanche wastes little time in commandeering his mother’s study, which upsets Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik), the personal secretary and friend of Lady Maud. Protection of his mistress knew no limits and he is loathe to see her memory disrupted.

Downstairs, the one woman everyone depended on to run an efficient household has taken to her sick bed. Competent from years of experience, housekeeper Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) is absent from the place she loved as if it were her own home. The meticulous butler, Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) assures his mistress that the household will function properly without a housekeeper and so he sets about seeing that 165 runs without anything so much as a crease amiss. Entering into their downstairs family, as a nursery maid, is the pretty Beryl Ballard (Laura Haddock). A girl with big dreams that don’t include a life in servitude, she catches the fancy of the now reformed chauffeur  Spargo (Neil Jackson). The unrest that the household feels now is about to be further upset when the flamboyant Lady Persie (Claire Foy) soon re-enters all their lives only to set her sights on Hallam. All a series of choices that will forever alter the once happy balances of 165.

TV MINISERIES REVIEW | Upstairs, Downstairs: Series One (2010)

Upstairs Downstairs

Before diving into the good, bad and ugly, allow me to just say that contrary to what this review suggests, I do not regret having finished this second series. It broke my heart and made me smile but ultimately (regrettably so) left me feeling empty. New faces and old were brought together for a longer, darker, more political series of the re-booted Upstairs, Downstairs, a BBC production that no matter how hard it tried never captured a “real” magic. To let you in on a little secret, I wasn’t sure what to think of this follow-up series, a kind of sequel to the successful, beloved 70’s series of the same name. I was aware that certain portions would disappoint me in way that I could not easily turn a blind eye on (more on this later) and yet, loving British drama compelled me to complete the series drawing my curiosity in a way that a two-hour film would not have.

Sometimes I “overlook” whatever the content is in favor of the story (perhaps because of its historical leanings) or sometimes I do it for surface reasons (the cast or screenwriter) but whatever I usually don’t lightly decide to see something if I have foreknowledge of it being distasteful. Seasoned scriptwriter Heidi Thomas is a British scripter worth her salt; she possesses a talent in holding the audience captive. Her claim to fame has been bringing to life multiple classics to the small screen but in this scenario she did a disservice by taking all we liked about Blanche and turning it inside out when we learn that she has a past that is not exactly above board (sadly this all happens in the third episode which would have been cute otherwise).

If this was Thomas’ one chance at grave errors, than she also messed up by involving Hallam and his tart of a sister-in-law, Persie. I am sorry if anyone liked her but save for a moment (a brief one at that), I never was fond of her. Even by the end when she is sobbing, I feel nothing for her. She was a selfish train wreck that Hallam knew better than to indulge in and in the end he allowed her to ruin his home. Though it was a “proper” British marriage, he did love his wife and their marriage is left in shambles. The fact that Agnes’ heart is so broken in a conclusion that is, perhaps not satisfying for the most critical viewers, didn’t set well with me. Though I am pleased at her loyalty, I was very nearly rooting for the prospect that she may listen to her heart. It’s not a happy ending but given the circumstances that led to it, it would have been impossible to have written it any other way.
Upstairs Downstairs

With all those disappointments, I will admit that I delighted in seeing Lotte in a pair of episodes, the young orphan Hallam provided for plus getting to know the innocent new kitchen maid, Eunice. Equally charming was the light-hearted banter and gossip of the downstairs staff that counter-acted beautifully with the depressing topics that overruled the better running time of the six hours. I felt sometimes cheated out of happy endings but also recognize that much of the writing is historically intricate disallowing happiness though it's far more information than necessary. That is another failing. It seems so many of the episodes were over run with political goings on and the consequences of them. (It felt like Thomas fancied this as Foyle’s War.) The series started out very well with tight-plotting and decent humor though the film work begins awkward (there is a magical sequence between Agnes and Hallam) before everything went downhill. There are some stunning designs and pretty happenings that almost make up for the failings. If you thought the first series was scandal prone, you haven’t seen anything yet! Open the door of 165 Eaton Place at your own risk.

CONTENT: there are three, possibly four same-sex kisses. One is rejected and is repulsive to the victim, the other’s are between lovers. [There are also two bedroom scenes, sheets appropriate placed as they talk.] A married man carried on an affair with a woman whose past is one long line of ex lovers – prior to that she is pregnant and arranges the service of a woman who provides her with an abortion [non-graphic situations reveal that the fetus is disposed of]. There are implications of an extra marital affair and two bedroom scenes [once he is dressed, the second time they are lying in the sheets]. One woman is shot, another commits suicide. Two scenes involve boxing matches. There is drinking and perhaps a mild profanity or two.


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