home Europe, TV Upstairs, Downstairs struggles to find a direction

Upstairs, Downstairs struggles to find a direction

The new version of 1970s UK favourite Upstairs, Downstairs has crossed the pond to PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, and something about this reboot lacks the spark of the original or the similar Downton Abbey. Masterpiece has been raking in viewers with both shows, but whether Upstairs, Downstairs has the staying power remains to be seen.

This version of the show returns viewers to 165 Eaton Place in 1936, just in time for the death of George V, the coronation and abdication of Edward VIII, and, of course, the Second World War, which looms over the series like a shadow. Or perhaps hangs around its neck like an albatross: Upstairs, Downstairs comes with a heavy-handed dose of political commentary and moralising, and it does not always flow well.

Rarely does the show miss an opportunity to remind viewers that war is looming in Europe, and politicians in Britain haven’t decided which way to jump. Viewers naturally know which side they’re supposed to root for, which relieves much of the tension about which directions their favourite characters will eventually lean in. After all, we can’t have the delicious, and clearly still socially ambitious despite being past her prime, Lady Maude (nor her pet monkey) springing for Hitler, now can we?

The delight of the earlier version, and this show’s competition in the form of Downton Abbey, lies in subtlety, allowing stories to slowly unfold against a shifting political and social background. The story lies in the drama of the characters and their lives, and the interplay between upstairs and downstairs, along with the breaking boundaries between both. While politics certainly played a role in Downton Abbey, it wasn’t the central theme of the series, which focused primarily on domestic matters except when politics intersected with them, showing viewers the house as a microcosm capable of the occasional disruption.

Upstairs, Downstairs pays lip service to the seemingly obligatory scenes like the ceremonial handing over of the cellar key and the bed-making scene, but the work of the household does not appear to be the central focus of the series. Instead, it chooses to focus on the political territory of 1930s Britain. An interesting period in history, to be sure, but I’m not entirely convinced it works within this genre, or at least, it requires somewhat more grace than the show’s producers brought to the task. As a viewer coming for class commentary, I’m getting fascist chauffeurs (a nice foil to Downton’s revolutionary chauffeur, I suppose), convenient Jewish refugees, and political tensions in the drawing room that appear to be setting up for a family schism.

The cast members feel somewhat stiff; much like the show, perhaps they are trying a little bit too hard with their roles. Either they’re supposed to appear palpably strained all the time to reinforce the Gathering Clouds Over Britain, or the director forgot to remove some sticks from some bums before starting production. It creates an air of unnecessary tension and a barrier, for the most part. It also, of course, makes it hard to tell when the characters are actually supposed to be tense.

The return of Jean Marsh as Rose gives the new version of the show some continuity, and it leaned heavily on this in the pilot episode, complete with lingering shots of the front of the house and a not-so-cleverly engineered reunion between Rose and her old workplace. For a moment, I thought we might see some class analysis in the discussion of why Rose would give up an independent business to return to service, but alas, she was folded up into the downstairs staff with hardly a ripple or a tear.

Art Malik as Amanjit Singh struggles to fill a very stereotyped role and bring some nuance to it; in the first episode, he primarily appeared to play the role of Wise Brown Man, complete with solemn aphorisms, while last week’s episode brought more complexity and depth as he started to establish a relationship with Rachel (Helen Bradbury), but unfortunately she was whisked away by a well-timed asthma attack. We can only hope that his emotional depth will continue to develop without her.

‘Convenient’ and ‘well-timed’ are good descriptors of many of the plot twists in the revival of Upstairs, Downstairs. Many of the scenes feel too pat as the show attempts to integrate every possible historical figure from this era in a muddled mess of rallies, cocktail parties, and random street encounters, complete with appropriately ominous or skittish music, depending on whom we happen to be viewing.

The show has been receiving rave reviews and I’m hesitant to condemn it out of hand on the basis of only two episodes; it is possible that it cleans up its act, delves more deeply into family drama and history (spoiler: reviews from the UK seem to suggest that it will), and turns the lens inward more as it continues. One of the most delightful aspects of Downton Abbey is the sections of the plot designed to make viewers squirm, and I hope that Upstairs, Downstairs can nail that as well. In a time of looming political tensions of our own, it would be nice if the show would force us to be something other than passive consumers of entertainment.