Flights of Fancy

It seems you can’t put on a costume drama these days unless you have a septuagenarian Dame in your cast.

A bird in the airing cupboard; a monkey at the breakfast table; and a trainee footman getting frisky with one of the maids. Whatever else you can say about the first episode of BBC1’s new Upstairs Downstairs, it certainly would have had Mr Angus Hudson, former butler at 165 Eaton Place, turning in his grave.

Viewers slumped in front of their TVs after 48 hours of non-stop eating and drinking might have struggled to detect a resemblance between this shiny Christmas bauble of a production and the old Upstairs Downstairs. That fondly remembered ITV drama from the 70s featured a virtually static camera, few exterior shots and a bunch of annoying ad breaks. The new production sticks with the familiar theme music, but also boasts the superior standards of lighting, editing and photography we’ve come to expect from high-end TV dramas. As the interior comes into view at the foot of that famous Belgravia staircase, you find yourself thinking how spacious it all looks now.

One thing hasn’t changed: Jean Marsh is back as Rose, who was the spiky maid to the Bellamy household, in the series that first ran from 1971-75. Marsh, who created the original show with fellow actress Eileen Atkins, has been warming up for the unveiling of the new Upstairs Downstairs by taking potshots at Downton Abbey and Julian Fellowes. I didn’t see her interview on BBC1’s The One Show, because frankly I’d rather watch drying paint than that early evening dross. But apparently she was a bit put out that someone else had made a drama about a rich family and its servants that begins — wait for it — in the Edwardian era. It’s all a storm in a tea cup if you ask me and, make no mistake, this is a genre in which posh tea sets are much in evidence.

Episode One (“The Fledgling”) begins in 1936 with Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) returning from Washington to the news that the ailing King George V is on his way out. The couple are taking possession of their new house at Eaton Place, which turns out to be a bit of a wreck — “a ghastly old mausoleum” as Agnes puts it. But moments earlier she was declaring “It’s like a fairy tale!”, before revealing her fanciful plans for filling the house with lights and bowls of lilies. With that moonlight glow around the chandelier and cobweb-strewn stairs we’re all feeling the magic, aren’t we?

The main dramatic focus of this episode is the clueless Lady Agnes’s search for servants to run her household and cater her diplomat hubby’s tedious parties. It’s not long before she’s headed down to Buck’s of Belgravia — the upmarket employment bureau run by Rose. There’s an immediate clash of values and styles, because Agnes is looking for cheap and cheerful bodies to fill her servants’ hall, while Rose knows that you can only really trust people who are as grumpy as Hudson, Mrs Bridges and herself.

As Rose tries to persuade her mate Mrs Thackeray (Anne Reid) to take up the position of cook, Agnes has to deal with the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of her mother-in-law, Maud (played by Atkins). Hilariously, she mistakes the older woman for the new housekeeper. Atkins’s grande dame is this show’s answer to Maggie Smith’s waspish Violet in Downton Abbey. It seems you can’t put on a costume drama these days unless you have a septuagenarian Dame in your cast.

Is it fair to judge any series (in this case mini-series) on the basis of a single episode? Probably not. I must admit that so far I much prefer both the original series and Downton Abbey to this. There were times during the hour-long opener when my eyes strayed to the Dexter Season 4 boxed set that is perched on top of my TV set. Surely I’d be drawn in eventually by one of the new characters from above or below stairs?

I think viewers of a certain age are supposed to empathise with Rose’s gradual rediscovery and repossession of her old home. We hear her speak wistfully of her former employer, Lord Bellamy, and watch her clutching that famous banister as though trying to summon up the spirits of the former residents. But I found these moments rather clumsy — especially the symbolic handing over the housekeeper’s keys at the end.

For those who never saw the original series, writer Heidi Thomas has thrown lots of quirky and potentially comic material, including a sexually provocative maid, a pugilistic trainee footman and Maud’s Indian manservant/secretary (Art Malik). Oh, and there’s that monkey. In one of the key scenes of this first episode, uninvited Nazi guest Joachim von Ribbentrop is given a lapful of cold champagne before being ejected from the house. I think it was supposed to be an amusing climax to a horribly awkward scene, but it fell as flat as the bubbly.

Atkins and Marsh share a brief but well-written scene on a park bench near the end of the episode that hints at better things to come. But I’m not convinced by the central pairing of Hawes and Stoppard as the shrill/dull Hollands. Part of the problem is that Hawes is now too old to play the spoilt ingenue and she hasn’t yet acquired any gravitas. I don’t think anyone who watched Downton Abbey just to see the dashing Dan Stevens is going to find the saturnine Ed Stoppard much of a draw here. But Anne Reid may yet mix things up in the kitchen and banish the ghost of Angela Baddeley’s Mrs Bridges. I’ll reserve judgment on Adrian Scarborough’s butler.

With only three episodes in this mini-series, Upstairs Downstairs isn’t going to have much time to build up a following before it’s swept aside in the tide of new and returning shows. I caught the Abbey habit after one week. Upstairs Downstairs may have to battle with a certain Miami serial killer for my attention.

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