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Upstairs Downstairs (2010) - Full season review

Upstairs Downstairs

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

THE BBC undoubtedly had high hopes for its lavish revival of former TV favourite Upstairs Downstairs but, sadly, the three episodes which made up a pivotal section of its Christmas line-up failed to truly shine.

Impressively mounted and nicely acted, the mini-series never really caught light dramatically and suffered from many of the ‘stuffy’ limitations experienced by a lot of period/costume shows.

What’s more, framing the domestic goings on of the new inhabitants of 165 Eaton Place around the wider historical context of the abdication of King Edward (due to his relationship with Mrs Simpson) and the approaching Second World War is – somewhat unfortunately – an over-used device at present.

Channel 4’s Any Human Heart recently devoted a significant amount of time to Edward and Mrs Simpson, while forthcoming movie The King’s Speech offers the definitive version of events for the moment – and tackles them head on.

ITV’s Downton Abbey, meanwhile, showed how to mix intimate family drama set against the context of sweeping historical change – opening with The Titanic disaster and culminating with the advent of war. But it never put such events to the fore by having key historical characters weave their way in and out, thereby allowing the show’s main characters to shine.

In Upstairs Downstairs, the reverse was opposite. Given that there were only three episodes and three hours, there was the continued feeling of too much going on. No one character really had the chance to shine (like Brendan Coyle’s Bates, for example), and everything was done in ‘splendidly’ polite, over articulate fashion.

Now, I have no problem with the King’s English, eloquence or politeness… but sometimes Upstairs Downstairs felt stuffy, sale and forced – almost as though the actors were straight-jacketed by the time (or, more probably, the script).

Admittedly, episodes two and three improved upon the opening chapter… but only marginally so. The introduction of a new character in the second episode, for instance, felt unnecessary given how hard we’d had to work the previous night to become acquainted with the regulars.

But it did provide the catalyst for the bulk of the drama that followed, by virtue of the fact that the maid in question was a Jew seeking refuge and a new start in Britain. She also had a daughter, who the family resolved to care for once her mother had passed.

Alas, even in this area the series faltered with the young child actress in question failing to illicit much sympathy, let alone acting ability. It was fortunate that she wasn’t given many lines such was her lack of range!

That said, there were several occasions when the dramatic pacing felt uneven as a whole, thereby depriving the actors of the opportunity to shine.

After a leisurely opening half an hour for the final episode, for instance, the final 30 minutes packed in an abdication, a birth, several comeuppances, surprise family revelations and the return of a character from the opening episode… as well as an overly sentimental finale in which family and staff happily bonded over a Christmas tree in spite of the turbulent events surrounding them.

It ended proceedings on a somewhat false note – and it remains to be seen whether there is room (or demand) for a full series.

Of the successes, the attention to period detail was typically excellent for a BBC production, while several of the performances were strong (most notably from Art Malik and Adrian Scarborough.

But there were also disappointments among the cast, with Ed Stoppard’s family head lacking the gravitas and authority needed for his central character and even Aileen Atkins apparently on auto-pilot as his domineering mother, whose continued family meddlings (particularly in regard to Stoppard’s sister) never really got the punishment they warranted.

Overall, then, Upstairs Downstairs disappointed more than it impressed.