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Saturday, May 28, 2011

What We Make of Ourselves; Part 1: Upstairs Downstairs (TV)

Destiny. Fate. Call it what you will, but the fact remains that all of us start out, to a certain extent, either cursed or blessed by circumstances entirely beyond our control--namely, the sort of conditions into which we’re born.
There’s little rhyme or reason to it, of course; it’s all a matter of biology and luck-of-the-draw as to our parents and their respective situations. Kings and queens are just as likely to have half-wits for heirs as paupers are to bear geniuses. (And no, I’m not discounting the importance of “nurture” in the old “nature vs. nurture” equation, I’m merely pointing out the randomness of it all when it comes to innate abilities.)
That kind of randomness--and whether or not we attempt to change our lots in life or just accept things as they are--struck me when watching a pair of mini-series which aired (on PBS, here in the States) recently. The two stories have their similarities and differences, but it was how each character’s situation in life informs his/her actions (or doesn’t) which stood out to me in both programs. First up, Upstairs Downstairs...
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Upstairs Downstairs picks up shortly after the point when the original, long-running (and über-popular) series left off. It's now 1936, and handsome diplomat Sir Hallam Holland is returning to England so that he and his wife, the elegant Lady Agnes, at long last can settle down. Their new home? A certain 165 Eaton Place--formerly a posh London town home, the site of so many day-to-day dramas (both above- and below-stairs), now dilapidated and swathed in layers of dust after sitting vacant for several years.
Lady Agnes isn’t daunted by the mess, however, and she fearlessly assures her slightly-skeptical hubby that she, herself, will oversee the house’s refurbishment. Her first step? Stopping by a staffing agency in Belgravia, run by none other than one Mrs. Rose Buck, who (unbeknownst to Lady Agnes) happened to work as a housemaid at that very address for thirty-odd years.
Rose dutifully goes about assembling a rather motley staff--with Lady Agnes’ dubious “help”. Naturally, the lady wishes to have the best staff possible (although, truth be told, the wages the Hollands are offering make that a rather tall task). Nonetheless, Rose cobbles together a more-or-less-workable bunch: Mr. Pritchard, the stiff and proper butler; Mrs. Thackeray, the feisty cook (who has her own views on how things should be); Johnny Proude, the young, inexperienced footman (whom Lady Agnes quickly approves, strictly on the basis of his apparent innocence); Ivy Morris, the cheeky little maid; and Harry Spargo, the dashing chauffeur. When Rose points out that the house lacks only a proper housekeeper, Lady Agnes cavalierly states that she--Lady Agnes--will be able to and will even find great pleasure in seeing to such tasks, herself. (It is to Rose’s credit that she doesn’t simply leave Lady Agnes to her own devices, but instead, helps the younger woman learn her way--and occasionally fixes things behind her back.)
With the “Downstairs” personnel thus taken care of, that leaves the “Upstairs” residents... which would have numbered only two (Sir and Lady Holland), were it not for the unplanned arrivals of Sir Hallam’s widowed mother, Maud (an opinionated and eccentric woman who, having raised her own family, is confident she knows better than Lady Agnes about everything), who also brings with her a foreign manservant, Mr. Amanjit, as well as a pet monkey. Lady Agnes’s younger sister, Lady Persie (a spoiled and headstrong debutante, previously relegated to living a sheltered and boring existence in a remote Scottish castle), rounds out the party. (Clashes, tantrums, and various contretemps are clearly inevitable.) 
It’s only after things start falling apart at the seams, though--both upstairs and down--that Lady Agnes admits she’s in over her head; one botched society party and one embarrassing arrest later finds her begging Rose to assume the position of head housekeeper. Graciously (and somewhat wistfully), Rose agrees. (Excellent timing, too, because things get progressively more difficult for every single member of the household.)
Set, as it is, against the turbulent backdrop of London on the eve of World War II, it’s fascinating to watch the various players act and react to everything going on around them. There are, of course, the royal scandals (King Edward VIII and his shocking American mistress, the divorced and outspoken Wallis Simpson, and Edward’s eventual abdication)--titillating subjects on everyone’s lips. There are grave political issues (the rise and spread of fascism across Europe, as Hitler and his Nazis prepare to make their next big move), which are cause for considerable worry. There are also societal concerns (strikingly exemplified by Lady Persie’s freedom to engage in a dalliance with one of the downstairs staff... and her newfound fascination with a particularly-troubling ideology), and never-far-from-the-surface prejudices (most notably, those faced by the newly-arrived German parlormaid, Rachel Perlmutter--a sad young woman with secrets aplenty).
Freedom of behavior has dramatically increased by this time, to be sure--although Persie, in particular, chafes at exactly how she is expected to behave. Class stratification is undeniably still the norm, yet there is evidence that the rules are gradually relaxing. And, there’s no doubt that the staff work hard for their wages, but their jobs seem more like jobs--and less like pure drudgery--than they did in the depictions of household servants fifty or sixty years earlier. The times, they are a’changing... slowly, but surely.  
Throughout, there are tragedies and disappointments, physical pains and emotional scars... interspersed randomly with little moments of pure joy. Life, we soon see, is really no less-messy upstairs (for those born to the silver spoon)... nor, perhaps, is it so much less-grand downstairs (for those from the most modest of backgrounds). And, in the end, redemption comes from both levels as well, as Sir Hallam rises above the haughtiness and class-consciousness of his wife, the bitter racism embraced by her sister, and the old fears and prejudices long-hidden by his own mother... and the staff come to terms with one another, finding forgiveness, friendship, and family within their ranks.
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Although I haven’t seen any of the original Upstairs Downstairs, I enjoyed this new, three-hour continuation of the series immensely. The cast is first-rate, including Jean Marsh (reprising her role as Rose Buck) and Eileen Atkins (Maud Holland)--two of the creators of the series, coincidentally--and Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes (Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes). The sets are wonderful, full of small details which give an excellent sense of time and place. Costuming, makeup, lighting, and cinematography are all top-notch. In short, this series is everything I’ve come to expect from a BBC production: beautifully-produced, intelligent, and entertaining.