Can Upstairs Downstairs steal Downton's crown?
They are the two undisputed titans of TV costume drama. But which is better? As the new series of Upstairs begins, Michael Moran, our TV critic, tunes in and asks…
In 2011, it seemed practically impossible to open a magazine or newspaper without reading paeans of praise to Downton Abbey. The drama about life in a grand country house at the turn of the last century didn’t actually do anything new, but it did do everything ‘right’. By comparison, the BBC’s 2010 revival of the old ITV period drama Upstairs Downstairs seemed rather ordinary. By no means dreadful, but just ambling, where Downton flew.
But the beautifully laid tables may have been turned. The second series of the much-loved Downton Abbey still stood head, shoulders and exquisite picture hat above the greater mass of popular television. I’ve now seen the first
few episodes of Upstairs Downstairs series two, and the bar has most definitely been raised. And French polished.
A few small but telling changes have been made at 165 Eaton Place. Jean Marsh, who with Dame Eileen Atkins
created the original for ITV in 1971, has unfortunately had to take a leave of absence to recover from illness. And
Dame Eileen has left the show permanently, amid rumours of disagreements with writer Heidi Thomas. Despite, or
perhaps because of, that adversity, Upstairs Downstairs has come back immeasurably stronger.
In Eaton Place we’re on the brink of the Second World War. And because the show’s male lead (Ed Stoppard as Sir Hallam Holland) is a Foreign Office diplomat, we are a lot closer to the corridors of power than we could be in Downton. That in turn lends a political dimension to the domestic drama. We don’t just read about Anthony Eden or Von Ribbentrop in one of the Earl of Grantham’s crisply ironed newspapers: they are an intimate part of the story. It’s almost as if the BBC had some sort of remit to educate and inform as well as entertain. Incidentally, whoever found the show’s Neville Chamberlain (played by Nicolas Chagrin) deserves some sort of casting medal – an extraordinary likeness.
What’s more, I spoke to Nico Mirallegro, who plays footman Johnny Proude, and he assures me that Upstairs Downstairs has a couple of interesting new characters yet to come, and an unmissable fancy-dress ball.
The loss of Dame Eileen’s character Maud, Lady Holland, has been balanced by the arrival of Maud’s younger half-sister, Dr Blanche Mottershead. Blanche, played by Alex Kingston, has all the show’s best lines. In episode one alone she let fly at least three timeless fusillades of dialogue that are destined to ricochet through conversations for weeks to come. As glamorous as Keeley Hawes may be as Lady Agnes Holland, and though her husband Sir Hallam is almost unbearably decent, all the early betting is on Alex Kingston to be the standout star of this series.
And that’s before we have explained the mysterious Egyptian allusions in the background music whenever she
It’s in the area of music that the slightly later setting of Upstairs Downstairs provides part of its newfound edge over Downton. While the denizens of Downton are only just embarking on the jazz age, in Eaton Place we are firmly into the first great era of popular song, with snatches of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael popping up all over the place.
With its music, with its glamour, and by dint of being the only mainstream historical drama to feature (if only
briefly) a monkey as a character, Upstairs Downstairs has edged (just) into the top spot. But if the BBC’s contender is at the moment in the ascendant, that seems only right.
The BBC has been the dominant force in the great British period drama since at least 1967, when it serialised John Galsworthy’s epic The Forsyte Saga. That show made its debut on Saturday evenings, but it was only when the repeat took its rightful place as the centrepiece of our national Sunday evening reconciliation to another working
week that it reached its full flowering.
There’s a special alchemy to creating the perfect Sunday evening television show. It should be stimulating enough to prevent exhausted viewers from dropping off altogether and yet sufficiently calming to smooth the anxious brows of those of us facing the grisly prospect of another week’s work.
A lot of it, one might think, is the calming power of nostalgia. Much popular period drama sits in a late 19th- or early 20th-century milieu, when we all had our place and were content in it. And as often as not it shows a lucky few being waited upon hand and foot, which naturally remains a heartfelt aspiration for practically everyone. Social mobility may have ended the divided society of the Upstairs Downstairs era, but the culture of domestic service is still with us.
Indeed, recent figures show that there are now more professionals working to ensure the smooth running of Britain’s households than there were in the Edwardian ‘golden age’ of domestic service – over two million today, in fact, compared to some 1.8 million in 1910. These domestic goddesses (and gods) may be more likely to wear designer
suits than a servant’s livery, but we are closer to the world of Upstairs Downstairs than we might think.
Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey combine the lost elegance of a bygone age with a surprising relevance to modern life. Both feature almost preposterously decent chaps at the head of their respective families. And both have a fearsome female character capable of crushing any opponent with a withering aperçu.
I’m sorry to see the last of the show’s most unique character – after all, everyone likes a monkey – but Nico Mirallegro tells me that Solomon bit Art Malik during the filming of the last series, and that’s taking method acting a shade too far. Still, I’m assured that Lady Persie has all manner of monkey business up her Mainbocher sleeve this season, more than amply compensating for the loss of Solomon.
I can’t wait. The last series of Upstairs Downstairs may have suffered by comparison with its great rival. This time round I feel as if the elegant court shoe is on the other foot. But the big question is this: with a third dazzling series of Downton scheduled for later in the year, can it stay there?
Daily tip from the lady archive
"BE careful with your mouth make-up. By careless work you may obliterate well-cut lines, and you will always achieve a badly groomed look if your lipstick is smudged and badly applied."The Lady, Make-Up for Mouths, 8th January, 1942