Monday, April 11, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs, Part One: "The Fledgling"

Upstairs Downstairs began its three-part return to Masterpiece yesterday, and for someone almost wholly unfamilar with the original classic show, I found myself unexpectedly moved watching 165 Eaton Place, the most famous address in Masterpiece history, come to life once more. Here's the summary of episode one, entitled "The Fledgling," from the PBS website:

It's 1936, and 165 Eaton Place sees its first stirrings of life after years of neglect when the house's new master, Sir Hallam Holland, and his wife, Lady Agnes, cross the threshold. Though dust shrouds every surface, Lady Agnes is stirred to proclaim, "This house is going to see such life!" And with relish, she sets about an extravagant restoration and enlists the help of the staffing agency Bucks of Belgravia and its owner, former longtime 165 Eaton Place housemaid, Rose Buck.

Rose brings her cherished memories and high standards to the project, assembling a motley staff ranging from seasoned snobs to fledgling teens. Upstairs, the unexpected arrival of Hallam's mother, Lady Maud — returning from India with a Sikh secretary and a monkey in tow — introduces both eccentricity and tension as she interferes with Agnes's management of the house. Somewhat in over her head in her new position, Agnes is further tested upon the arrival of her devil-may-care younger sister, Lady Persie. As King George is dying, and against a backdrop of uncertainty, the residents of 165 Eaton Place host an elegant party to launch the Hollands in London society, and together attempt to field obstacles, both comical and sinister, that come their way.
Are you ready? This is going to be a long post, people. :) It's interesting to get two lavish dramas in the same year centering around aristocratic households on the cusp of great change - first with Downton Abbey and the advent of World War I, and now with 165 Eaton Place witnessing the tumultuous years leading up to World War II. I absolutely love studying World War II history and the 1930s and 40s, so the world of the Holland family and their servants is immediately fascinating to me, and every detail, from the furnishings to the clothes, is a veritable feast for the eyes. An added bonus is that this series dovetails nicely with the recent film The King's Speech - where that film was a royal view of events leading up to World War II, this series gives us a more "everyman" perspective on Edward's coronation and subsequent succession crisis leading up to the crowning of George VI and the advent of war.

Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) serves in the Foreign Office, and upon his father's death has returned to England with his lovely wife the Agnes (Keeley Hawes), who is determined to make her mark on London society. Their new home, 165 Eaton Place, has been closed up for years and is in dire need of renovation - but the state of the house is no deterrent to Agnes, who sees nothing but potential. The house is like some sort of decrepit fairy tale castle - through the dust sheets and cobwebs, the filmmakers capture the potential, and hint at the former grandeur and life that once inhabited the walls. In order to establish her household, Agnes seeks out the assistance of Bucks of Belgravia, an employment agency run by Rose Buck (Jean Marsh). When Rose discovers that Lady Agnes is reopening 165 Eaton Place, the house she called home for forty years, when she was in service to the Bellamy family, her face lights up, and suddenly the film is infused with this almost magical sense of anticipation and poignancy. Rose finds the opportunity oversee the resurrection of her old home impossible to resist, bringing her love of the home and tradition to the task, and finds herself tested by the changing times along with the new residents of Eaton Place.

I know I've only observed Hallam and Agnes for an hour, but I'm already a big fan of their marriage - Stoppard and Hawes bring a real warmth and chemistry to their roles. I'm not too familiar with Stoppard's work - he's appeared in Miss Marple and Nanny McPhee Returns, and later this year we'll get the opportunity to see him when Masterpiece Mystery debuts the new Zen series. He's easy on the eyes, no? :) I'm anxious to see how Hallam's work with the Foreign Office impacts his character as the show progresses. He strikes me as conscientious and dedicated, though at present a little overwhelmed by the establishment of his new household and the family drama that ensues when his mother appears. I'm a huge fan of Keeley Hawes, and was looking forward to this series based on her presence alone. Hawes just exudes class, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine a more perfect actress in the role of the up-and-coming, eager to impress society Agnes (and let's face it, Hawes rocks the 1930s clothes!). A Masterpiece veteran, Hawes has appeared in programs like Our Mutual Friend, Wives and Daughters, Under the Greenwood Tree, and Miss Marple (and to top it all off, she's one of the luckiest women alive, married to Matthew Macfadyen...I am so jealous :P). Agnes comes from an aristocratic background, though her family has never been well off, and she's so anxious to impress I'm anticipating her eagerness for social success to cause some strain in her marriage.

Hallam's mother, Lady Maud (Eileen Atkins), is on track to become one of this series' most memorable characters. Atkins is a class act, appearing in everything from Cranford to the most recent adaptation of Robin Hood as Eleanor of Acquitaine. She was also one of the co-creators of the original Upstairs Downstairs, though she never appeared during the show's initial run - so this opportunity, to help anchor the program's return, is really a chance for Atkins to come full circle. Maud's introduction was absolutely hysterical, and sets up a nicely adversarial relationship with her daughter-in-law, whom she's never met, and who unforgettably mistakes her as an applicant for the position of housekeeper. Maud promises to be one of the series' most colorful characters - she's no-nonsense and intelligent, and strikes me as a bit bohemian, especially since Solomon the scene-stealing monkey is her ever-present companion. :)

Maud has brought a Sikh secretary back with her from India to take down her memoirs - Amanjit Singh, played by Art Malik. I am pretty unfamiliar with Malik's work, but it is worth noting that he appeared in Allegory of Love, one of my favorite Inspector Lewis episodes, and he's slated to appear in a Poirot episode, which we'll hopefully see on Masterpiece Mystery this summer. Amanjit promises to be a fascinating character. In his role as secretary, he's "above" the downstairs staff but "below" the family - a bridge between both worlds. He seems extraordinarily kind, especially in his interactions with the younger servants, and he must have the patience of a saint to cope with Lady Maud. :)

Agnes is looking forward to launching her little sister Persephone's society debut. Persephone, played by Claire Foy, should be a very familiar face to long-time blog readers - she played the title character in Masterpiece's stellar adaptation of Little Dorrit. Persie is a disaster waiting to happen. She bitterly resents growing up titled but poor, and she has a fiery, rash disposition that, given the political realities of the time, are guaranteed to get her in trouble. Simply put, she's a self-absorbed twit. I'm also predicting an affair with the chauffer, Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson), as the sparks flew off the screen at their first encounter. (Besides, it's an unwritten rule of these shows that younger women of the household must have an affair with the chauffer). Jackson is GORGEOUS (check out that jawline...just sayin'!), and I must be remembering his appearance in Quantum of Solace as he looked quite familiar last night. Another unwritten rule of these programs is that chauffers must have socialist tendencies, only now, seeing as it's 1936, I do hope Harry wakes up and doesn't fall completely to the dark - a.k.a. Nazi - side.

Jean Marsh's Rose is the heart of the show, a reality I am compelled to acknowledge even though I don't have the history with the show that long-time fans (like my momma) can lay claim to. I found it impossible not to be moved by Rose's emotion on returning to 165 Eaton Place, and subsequently receiving the housekeeper's keys at the end of the episode. Bringing life back to this house is a sort of sacred trust for Rose. She's definitely an "old school" servant, whose devotion to the family she spent most of her life serving is unequalled, and it is a job she holds in honor and respect. I absolutely loved watching Rose's exasperation with Lady Agnes - particularly when she claims that she "doesn't need" a housekeeper, a claim whose fallacy is proven all too quickly. By the end of the episode, when Maud takes matters in hand and reaches out to Rose, offering her the position of housekeeper, I could've cheered. Marsh and Atkins bring their history as friends and co-creators of Upstairs Downstairs to play in that scene, and it's a poignant but heartening moment. The world may be changing at a rapid-fire pace, but there's wisdom in seeking balance between the old and the new as one moves forward. While I'm not as familiar as I'd like to be with Marsh's most famous role, I did enjoy her appearance as Mrs. Ferrars in the 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility.

Two of the Holland family's first hires are Ivy Morris (Ellie Kendrick) as housemaid and Johnny Proude (Nico Mirallegro) as footman. Kendrick made a memorable Masterpiece debut as the title character in the newest production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Flirtatious and strong-willed, the role of Ivy couldn't be a bigger change of pace, and Kendrick handles the change in tone with relish and aplomb. Ivy clearly has a lot of growing up to do, and her spirited personality is guaranteed to get her into trouble - and that is sure to be a lot of fun to watch. The role of Johnny marks Mirallegro's Masterpiece debut, and for such a youthful character the role delivers unexpected depth and poignancy. Working in the Holland household is Johnny's chance to start over, and with a universally likeable personality the world could be his for the taking - if he can conquer his drinking and brawling problem. Oh, the DRAMA! Kendrick and Mirallegro have some wonderful on-screen chemistry, and I look forward to seeing how the show develops their relationship.

Rose rounds out the Holland household by hiring her friend Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) as cook and Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) as butler. Reid is another Masterpiece vet, having played Mrs. Rouncewell in Bleak House and the Gypsy woman in the 2006 version of Jane Eyre. I LOVED Mrs. Thackeray's character. She takes extreme pride in her abilities, speaks her mind, and isn't above being bribed by Rose to accept the position of cook in the Holland household, especially after Rose tempts her again and again with descriptions of the new modern conveniences the Hollands are having installed in their kitchen. Scarborough, interestingly enough, had a brief role in The King's Speech as the BBC radio announcer - but more than that, he should be familiar to fans of Cranford since he played mayor/shop owner Mr. Johnson. Pritchard promises to be an entertaining character. He strikes me as extremely kind, but he's so high-strung he's comical, and he's so vocal about his abstinence from alcohol one has to wonder if he's in a constant state of fighting withdrawal. Clearly a man who thinks on his feet, as he proves during the Hollands' first dinner party, Pritchard promises to be an entertaining, worthy, and capable addition to the household.

As I mentioned earlier, the events in this miniseries dovetail nicely with the history depicted in The King's Speech, especially since the infamous Wallis Simpson (Emma Clifford) makes an unforgettable appearance at Lady Agnes' first party. Mrs. Simpson has promised to bring a "particular friend," whom everyone assumes will be her not-so-secret lover the king. Shockingly this "friend" turns out to be Joachim von Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly), Hitler's unofficial official envoy to London, seeking to network with British aristocrats. What a party crasher, especially for a staunch anti-Nazi official like Sir Hallam, who envisions his career going up in smoke if it's assumed that he sanctions Ribbentrop's views by hosting him in his home. Ditching Ribbentrop provides the household with its first opportunity to band together and unite in a common cause, with hilariously memorable results. Ribbentrop's appearance bodes ill for the Holland family, as Persie seems all too taken with him, and I suspect his presence in London will cause Hallam no end of trouble. I absolutely love this type of intersection of fiction and history, and I'm anxious to see how real-world events impact the lives resident at Eaton Place.

I can already tell my biggest problem with Upstairs Downstairs is going to be that the show is only three hours long. And not even that thanks to the commercials that PBS inserts at the end of the broadcast - I estimate that Part One was trimmed to about fifty minutes total. I'm eagerly anticipating watching the series on DVD when it releases later this month, since the DVD runtime is listed at a full three hours.

While story-wise this program doesn't have the luxury of a six hour runtime like Downton Abbey, I loved the world I was introduced to last night. Major kudos go to scriptwriter Heidi Thomas (also a Cranford alum) who crammed such delicious character quirks and historic detail into what felt like an all-too short hour. Director Euros Lynn, who is a familiar name to anyone as obsessed with Doctor Who and Torchwood as I am keeps the action moving at a brisk pace - I just wish he, and all of the cast and crew members, had more time to work with. But all things considered, for a series to leave me wanting more is a pretty good thing, no? :)

Chock-full of memorable characters and gorgeous settings (seriously, I was enthralled by the clothes, jewelry, furniture, and marvelous colors that brought the show to life last night - a feast for the eyes!), Upstairs Downstairs is another not-to-be-missed entry in Masterpiece Classic's 40th anniversary season. I look forward to witnessing this ensemble "gel" as a new family is established at Eaton Place, building the Holland household from the ground up. Well done, and bring on Part Two! If you watched the show I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Jennifer said...

My mom and I watched it together and were very intrigued by it. I agree that three less-than-hour-long episodes is not enough. The whole idea, the plot and all, is interesting just because it shows the relationship between the home owners (upstairs) and staff (downstairs).

Rose was also one of my favorite characters right off, and Lady Maud made me laugh in nearly every scene she was in. First I thought she was just a stuffy, controlling mother-in-law, but I liked her more as time went on. Rose is still my favorie though.

I loved the part where everyone banded together to kick von Ribbentrop out! Hilarious!

Now just waiting a whole week to watch the next is the hard part. I've been kind of spoiled watching Masterpiece on DVD whenever I want.

Heidenkind said...

LOL Oh that tiny little drinking and brawling problem. :) I watched the first ep--it was okay. It seemed really short.

Renee said...

I haven't watched this yet. Now I can't wait! I was a fan of the first series so was glad to see JM return. Great pics in this post!

Unknown said...

@Jennifer - I can't remember, did you watch Downton Abbey? That show explores the same upstairs/downstairs dynamic, only in more detail thanks to twice the runtime.

I'm so happy to hear that you & your mom enjoyed the program! I agree - I wasn't sure about Maud as first, but goodness she is a lot of fun. :) And the Ribbentrop episode was classic!

I'm looking forward (already) to rewatching this show on DVD...I'm guessing we'll get 20 minutes or so of footage that PBS cut for ads.

@heidenkind - I know, right? Yeesh. *sigh* :P I agree...the length is gonna hurt this just makes me want MORE. That's a double-edged sword...

@Renee Ann - Please come back and share your thoughts when you do see this! I'm curious what your take on it will be since you're a fan of the original, like my mom (who loved this reboot).

Kristin said...

I liked it a lot. I also felt moved by the connections to the original, though I've never seen it. It seemed like I could just imagine little bits and pieces of what the original must have been like. :)

I'm looking foward to next week, though I'm not sure this series will be as charming as "Downton Abbey." Maybe just because it's half as long.

I also loved the clothes and the whole feel of the era. :) And I had no idea that the actress playing Agnes was married to Matthew Macfadyen!


Unknown said...

@Kristin - I'm so glad you enjoyed Upstairs Downstairs too! :)

I don't expect this series to equal my Downton addiction, but I'm open to being surprised. :) I think length plays a great part in that - just not enough TIME for development. *sigh*

Don't Keeley Hawes and Matthew M. make a lovely couple? :)

Jennifer said...

I haven't seen Downtown Abbey. :( But now I want to!

Unknown said...

@Jennifer - Oh, I hope you give Downton Abbey a shot - I just loved it!

Heather said...

This sounds like such a fascinating show! I hope it gets to netflix soon, that's where I watch a majority of these, and I love the luxury of having the entire program uncut and ready to watch at my whim ;)
Its so interesting to watch these programs that explore class so indepth. We often dont think about the complete and utter drudgery some of our ancestors faced, and spurred them to move on to a better life. Because I know that chances are, my ancestor was the poor scullery maid and not the grand lady of the manor ;)

Unknown said...

@Heather - The DVD is scheduled to release on April put it in your queue asap! :)

I think you are so right about how eye-opening this type of program can be. I know that most of my ancestors were along the lines of hard-working peasant stock than well-off...and imagining what they went through in order to make each subsequent generation's lot in life better? - fascinating food for thought. :)

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

Great review Ruth. I am so glad you like the new series. I did too. It has a great start. Eileen Atkins as the Dowager Lady Holland is my favorite new character so far. Rose will always have a special place in my roister of period drama characters. Jean Marsh is so wonderful.

Thanks for the link.

Unknown said...

@Laurel Ann - You're welcome for the link! :) Thanks for stopping by - I agree, Eileen Atkins is probably my fav character so far. But Jean Marsh is WONDERFUL...I'm gonna have to investigate the original series sometime soon. :)