Monday, April 25, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs, Part Three: "The Cuckoo"

Upstairs Downstairs concluded its all-too-short three hour run on Masterpiece Classic last night with an emotionally charged episode that saw the residents of 165 Eaton Place, both upstairs and down, experience a day of "unimaginable things." Relationships are restored, secrets are laid bare, and decisions are made that will leave an indelible impact on the lives of the Holland family and their servants. Here's the detailed summary of episode three from the PBS website:

A chance encounter with greatness goes to Mrs. Thackeray's head, and in turn annoys Rose, who, fed up with her pretensions, unleashes an insult so great that it sparks a feud. Yet despite the embattled cook and housekeeper, the downstairs staff is united in their love and nurturing of the child Lotte, who appears to need more help than they can provide. With even more than her customary authority, Maud steps up to take charge, whisking the child away for treatment even as she guards a secret of her own.

Preoccupied with the abdication crisis, Hallam attempts to buy some time from the press by hosting a special dinner for the Duke of Kent, placing 165 Eaton Street in the center of the monarchy's storm. Now preoccupied, Agnes has abdicated her responsibility of Persie, who has snapped the long leash her sister provided, and begun engaging in behavior that threatens to taint them all. Only Lotte's absence galvanizes Hallam to bring light into his home, purging it of dishonor and dark secrets that have been hidden for too long. But just as the king charts his fate, a momentous event will change the Holland family forever.
Where part two had a distinctly political feel to it and a sharp upper-class focus, this week brings the entire downstairs staff back into the picture. The episode opens with the news that famed portrait photographer Cecil Beaton (Christopher Harper) is scheduled to come to Eaton Place to photograph Agnes (Keeley Hawes) and Persie (Claire Foy). Beaton's visit integrated a fascinating piece of real-life history into the show. Thanks to his fashion and society portraits, Beaton was quite the stylemaker, with a gift that could make a "lady look like a porcelain goddess, and a servant look like a queen" (as host Laura Linney shared in her episode introduction). It is no surprise that the high-society loving cook Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) is a big fan of Beaton's portraits, and simply can't resist the urge to sneak a peek at his elaborate sets. Thackeray's wildest dreams come true when she meets the famous photographer, who in a flash of inspiration and kind indulgence fulfills all of her wildest dreams by snapping her portrait. I don't know what it was about this scene, but Reid's thrill at meeting Beaton really reminded me of my grandmother (mom's side). She loved talking about the class and glamour of the 1930s, and while Mrs. Thackeray's brush with fame was played for laughs, there was something undeniably poignant about her genuine pleasure meeting a connoisseur of beauty like Beaton and not being found wanting.

Mrs. Thackeray's pride in her brush with fame balloons to epic proportions when she receives a copy of Beaton's portrait in the mail, eager to display it on the mantel in the servants' common area. Rose (Jean Marsh), insists such a display isn't appropriate, and confiscates the portrait, leading Mrs. Thackeray to insult Rose's love of tradition and memory of her service with the Bellamy family. The balance of power, even among the servants, is a delicate one to maintain. And the conflict between Thackeray and Rose brings added to tension to an environment already strained by Hallam's young ward.

The orphaned Lotte Perlmutter (Alexia James) is a source of stress both upstairs and down - a heavy burden for a young child to bear. Since her mother's death the child has continued to refuse to speak, much to housemaid Ivy's (Ellie Kendrick) chagrin - she's taken a deeply personal interest in the girl thanks to her friendship with Lotte's mother Rachel (Helen Bradbury). Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) remains determined to provide for the child, though it becomes clear that, at least in part, his compassion for Lotte stems from memories of his beloved younger sister Pamela, who passed away when he was a child. It's interesting, and a very telling moment, when Hallam's mother Maud (Eileen Atkins) steps in and takes charge of Lotte's future, recognizing that the child's severe psychological trauma needs professional help, more help than the well-intentioned residents of Eaton Place can provide. The voiceover, when Amanjit composes a letter detailing what little is known of Lotte's family and her past as they prepare for her depature just broke my heart. How many children lose their history because they aren't fortunate enough to fall in with people who care enough to document their story?

The political realities of the time also distract Hallam from the turmoil brewing in his home. The recently crowned Edward VIII is on the verge of abdicating so he can marry the controversial Wallis Simpson, and Hallam is called on by Edward's younger brother Prince George, the Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson) to host an intimate dinner with the goal of convincing a newspaper magnate, who also happens to be a close confidante of Wallis, to keep news of the impending controversial action out of the press a little while longer. I thought it was a brilliant move to make Hallam the close friend and confidant of a member of the royal family - one who, even in the recent film The King's Speech, was out of the limelight enough that any interactions with Hallam are made more plausible by the factor of the relative unknown. It was terrific seeing Ritson back in a Masterpiece production - he's appeared in the most recent (and utterly forgettable) Mansfield Park, as Mr. Elton in Emma, and the superb Holocaust drama God on Trial.

So, now that I've briefly introduced the dramatic threads of this episode, I have to touch on my absolute favorite storyline - chauffer Harry (Neil Jackson) renouncing socialism and getting fed up with Persie's little games. I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, HARRY! :) Yay for reformed fictional would-be socialists! The violent aftermath of the protest in part two, coupled with Rachel's sudden death, seems to have stripped the scales from his eyes and left him genuinely sickened by his involvment in the movement. There's this adorable scene where a still-silent Lotte is hanging out with him in the garage, wearing his chauffer's hat, and it seems to hint at a kindness and patience with the child that I really wish we could've seen more of. Poor Harry...I think he really cared about Persie to some extent. But as much as her rejection may sting, I loved the fact that he was the one to end their little affair, seeming more grieved by the fact that he got sucked into her shallow vortex of doom at all then their parting of ways. YAY FOR A REFRESHINGLY SMART CHAUFFER!!!

Of course Persie is more enamoured than ever with socialism, and as Harry's feelings for her cool she renews her sickening flirtation with Herr Joachim von Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly). Ribbentrop is only too happy to oblige, and Persie's secret relationship with Hitler's emissary casts an unexpectedly dark cloud over the Holland home. Clearly the freedoms and privilege her sister Agnes was so eager to grant her have been very irresponsibly used. *sigh* Persie is a completely loathsome, appalling, wholly selfish character - I could seriously care less that by the end of the episode she's headed directly into the lion's den, returning to Berlin with her Nazi friends. I only hope that she's not completely written out of the show, because as the world moves closer and closer to war I would dearly love to see the selfish twit receive her comeuppance. Till that day, I'll content myself with the moment Hallam confronts her and is left rather shell-shocked by her callous disregard for the family. A harsh wake-up call, but a necessary one.

Another excellent aspect of this episode was the devastatingly emotional way in which Hallam's often-testy relationship with his mother reaches the boiling point. He's infuriated that she whisked Lotte away without so much as a by-your-leave, and after hunting up the asylum address - over Mr. Amanjit's (Art Malik) objections (and seriously, WHAT WAS UP WITH AMANJIT'S HAIR IN THAT SCENE?!) - he takes off, only to discover that Maud has sequestered Lotte at the SAME HOSPITAL AS HIS SISTER (Sarah Gordy)! Is this over-the-top and dramatic? ABSOLUTELY. But I LOVED it. This discovery shakes Hallam to the core, and forces a confrontation with his mother that ultimately brings the two closer together. We live in such a different world now, realizing that children with Down's Syndrome were sent away from their families to live in homes, because "that's just what people did" then is a harsh, heart-breaking reality. The fact that Pamela recognized Hallam, thanks to the fact that her room was covered in photos chronicling his life just tore me to pieces - such a brilliant, emotionally-charged moment, really well-played by Stoppard. Also, I have to give kudos to Ritson for his acting in the conversation with Hallam that precedes his reconciliation with Maud - the whole speech about forgiveness, the line "when there's no forgiveness, love is just...unbearable" - Heidi Thomas, that was a brilliant moment.

Sadly, Agnes's character has been more frustrating than likable for most of this series. Hawes is such a great actress, capable of bringing wonderful emotional depth to a role, and I think this script really under-used her to a large extent. Apparently we're supposed to contribute Agnes's reluctance to tolerate Lotte in her home and basically ceding control of the household to Maud to some combination of pregnancy stress and mother-in-law frustration. Her turn-around by the end of the episode was welcome, but sadly under-developed. I thought it was a nice touch to have her "bond" with Maud over the highly melodramatic birth of her child in the BATHROOM DURING EDWARD'S ABDICATION SPEECH (seriously?!). Crazy over-the-top, but it was a fantastic excuse for the unflappable Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) to reveal some hitherto unknown medical knowledge and gain LOTS of goodwill with the Hollands, resulting in the return of footman Johnny (Nico Mirallegro), who has presumably dried out and maybe taken an anger management class or two.

Part three ends on a heart-warming Christmas note, with the entire household, sans Persie, gathered to celebrate the holidays. I am seriously saddened to see this show end, and I'm already looking forward to the new series, anticipated for 2012. I seem to recall a rumor that the 2nd series will be six hours long - this should go a long way toward rectifying the "rushed" feel of series one. So much story was crammed into so little time - while I loved every second of it, I can't help but wish we'd been given more time to get to know the residents of 165 Eaton Place, and for the intricate personal and political dramas woven throughout the story to have unfolded a more liesurely pace.

While I was thrilled to see Lotte recovered, the series would've benefited from a brief explanation of how she came to return to Eaton Place so quickly. It was absolutely wonderful to see her interact with Hallam - I love the fact that he's stepping up into the role of surrogate father, and now that Agnes has had her baby, she seems much nicer - so there's hope there too. I also loved the fact that Hallam has brought his sister Pamela into his home - one hopes that we'll see more of their relationship in future episodes.

It would be easy to focus on what Upstairs Downstairs is not, but I for one am happy the show possessed such lofty story-telling goals. I admit it, every once in a while I just want to be entertained by a fast-paced, compelling and addictive melodrama - and on that score, Upstairs Downstairs delivers in spades. The historical background of this series fascinates me, and I love the way the script has our characters interact with real-life historical figures. It makes the story, and the consequences of one's actions, that much more compelling to watch unfold. I'm really looking forward to revisiting this show on DVD. If you made it through all three installments, I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Kristin said...

Your use of capital letters in this post cracked me up. :)

Thank you so much for clearing up what was going on with Mr. Elton. I was trying to finish homework while watching this, so I was a bit distracted, and I could never figure out who he was or what he was doing. But now I know. :)

Even though I, for some reason, seemed to have a hard time really getting into this mini-series, I did love the ending!


Elizabeth said...

First time here. I loved the series, but am somewhat ambivalent.

The series seems to have divided the British into US vs. THEM. The US are kind and good, with never a thought of antisemitism. The cook's snobbery is seen as comic and quaint. The THEM are narcissists, vicious, without intelligence or human virtue. (Lady Persie is a Fascist without antisemitism: she says she doesn't mind Lotte.) In fact, both racism and Fascism were viruses. Anti-Semites came from both right and left, G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells. Both W. B. Yeats and Shaw showed sympathy for the Italian experiment.

Jennifer said...

I'm so glad I read this post so that I could learn that there will be another season next year! Yay! This one was much too short, and very melodramatic...but I really liked it.

Loved your use of capitals. Yes, Mr. Amanjit's hair in that one scene was quite shocking. :)

Unknown said...

@Kristin - LOL, thanks! I couldn't seem to help myself. :)

I confess, I was confused about Elton/the Duke while watching the ep, and the fog didn't clear until I did some online research for this post. :)

Glad you enjoyed the wrap-up of this series, even if the whole thing didn't quite hook you. :)

@Elizabeth - Thank you so much for stopping by & taking the time to comment!

You bring up a very valid issue...for the sake of the drama, I guess, or rather suspect, the US vs. THEM mentality was a bit simplified? I think - hope - that if the script had been given 3 more hours to work with we might have seen more in-depth character shading, if you will. Prejudice or radical views can definitely exist in both extremes.

I tend to view Lady Persie as a rather ignorant Fascist...if she continues down this path, I wouldn't be surprised if she starts to exhibit more prejudical qualities. She seems to "like" this ideology at the moment without an conception of its poisonous, long-term impact.

@Jennifer - Yay, glad you are looking forward to a new season too! :) The IMDB page doesn't have a lot of info yet, hopefully that will be updated soon. So glad you enjoyed it as well.

And you know, seriously, the amount of hair product Mr. Amanjit must have had to use to tame THAT unruly mane...I can hardly fathom it. ;)

Heidenkind said...

Rushed is the word. I felt like I spent half the series going, "Okay, which dark-haired guy in a suit is THIS one?" Honestly, everyone looked the same, and by the third episode all the events felt so completely random. I'm glad a new series starts next week.

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - I really hope South Riding is good! I'm excited about Cutter from Primeval being on my TV again. :)

I'm probably going to do another Upstairs Downstairs post once I watch the whole show on DVD - see if the extra half hour of footage helps the story flow.

Phylly3 said...

Hi Ruth,
I just posted a looong comment with a link and everything and it has disappeared into cyberspace. I am too tired to repeat it. zzzzz!

Unknown said...

@phylly3 - Oh boo! BAD BLOGGER! Sorry about the frustration... *sigh*

Lori said...

So sad that Persie had the most to-die-for clothing b/c she was such a horrible character! And her hair was so perfect too! Argh...but yay for Harry!

I also hope Agnes is further redeemed in the next series. I just don't find the baby drama and dealing with Maud enough of an excuse for her lameness in this series.

And Mr. Amanjit...that hair!!!

Lori said...

Oh, and I must add that Mrs. Thackeray's bit with Cecil Beaton went a long way towards eradicating my horrible memory of "The Mother." Remember...the movie with Daniel Craig??? I'm glad I can now think of her in a much nicer way.

Unknown said...

@Lori - You are so right. Persie had the best clothes and hair and she was HORRIBLE. At least Harry is turning around...

And yeah, Agnes...if baby drama and mother-in-law drama were her biggest worries, they weren't enough of an excuse for her complete self-absorption. Keeley Hawes deserves better.

And thank you (or not, HAHA) for reminding me of THE MOTHER...gosh now I need to go scrub out my brain...LOL!!!

Phylly3 said...

Here I go...second try!
I always enjoy your reviews Ruth. Here's what I noticed from this excellent episode.
Persie reminds me of this real life socialite:
I wonder if they based her character on her? She actually became the wife of Bernard Mosley!
As for Mr. Amanjit -- I thought that the reason they showed his hair in such disarray was to illustrate what a dedicated employee he was. The fact that he hadn't time to put his turban on, means he was surprised at an inconvenient time, but he still managed to come to his employer's aid. As a Sikh, his long hair is a symbol of his faith so it is not allowed to be cut, but during the day he covers it with a turban.

I also didn't clue in that the dinner guest was the future king of England. Although I like the actor, he didn't seem anything like "Bertie". I don't think this reaction had anything to do with Colin Firth's excellent performance either.
I think I may have said a few other things about the chauffeur -- like I thought he was wise to break up with the heartless Persie. But I think he did so out of self-preservation than anything else.
'Nuff said. Thanks Ruth!

Unknown said...

@phylly3 - Thanks so much for coming back & adding your comments to the discussion here - much appreciated! :) (And I'm glad Blogger cooperated this time!)

I think you are on to something with both Persie being based on Diana Mitford and the cultural impact of Mr. Amanjit's hair. Thank you so much for bring that perspective, especially about Sikh beliefs!

The dinner guest - Prince George, Duke of Kent - was actually a younger brother of both Edward and Bertie. I was initially confused by his introduction when I watched the episode Sunday night. This brother died in 1942 apparently - I didn't even realize his existence until I did some digging Monday for this post!

You could also be on to something with Harry breaking things off w/ Persie out of self-preservation - I am sure that played a role. But I do hope he's genuinely changing. I like him. :)

Thanks again for stopping back by!

Jeanne said...

I really enjoyed this short series. Has anyone watched the original? I was a little kid when it was on Masterpiece Theater, and hadn't yet developed my terminal anglophilia (is that a word?). I rented the series a few years ago and just fell in love with it. I especially loved Hudson, the original butler. I had a good old lump-in-the-throat feeling when they took the keys down upon re-entering Eaton Place, and we saw the worn tag on the keychain, "Hudson". *sigh* I love me some nostalgia.
Am looking forward to 2012!

Jeanne said...

OH--I almost forgot--I hated Persie, too. And the actress was so sweet when she was Amy in "Little Dorrit"! ;-) Ruth, I loved the chauffer, too. So glad when he came to his senses at the end. And equally glad when Persie departed!

Unknown said...

@Jeannie - Yay for another Upstairs Downstairs fan!

I confess I have never watched the original series, though my mother adores it. I need to look into renting it.

I have to tell you, even though I have never seen the original, the nostalgia factor that they played up in this series got to me more than once, including the Hudson key scene! Go figure! ;) Very well played BBC.

I look forward to seeing more Harry in Series 2...and Persie getting her comeuppance! :)