Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Upstairs Downstairs 2.1: "A Far Away Country About Which We Know Nothing"

The recently re-booted Upstairs Downstairs, which premiered in the spring of 2011, returned to Masterpiece Classic Sunday night for the premiere of its second and final series. I thoroughly enjoyed the all too short three episode first season, and  am looking forward to seeing where the show takes these characters this year, with the ominous spectre of war looming ever-closer on the horizon. Here's a short episode summary from the PBS website:
A new baby has arrived at 165 Eaton Place in the hands of Lady Agnes Holland, who is weakened from giving birth. Meanwhile, Sir Hallam Holland’s aunt, Dr. Blanche Mottershead, is stirring up tension in the house. Mr. Pritchard is doggedly trying to maintain peace and order in the absence of Miss Rose Buck, while also readying for an unnerving prospect – war.

Gas masks are issued and long-buried secrets about the staff are revealed against an increasingly uneasy political backdrop. While the house staff struggles with the juxtaposition of patriotism and conscience, Sir Hallam stands firm in his diplomatic convictions, helping to negotiate what may be the final chance to avert war. But as the possibility of maintaining peace becomes more apparent, will England be able to sleep quietly for long?

Ed Stoppard (Zen), Keeley Hawes, Blake Ritson (Emma, Mansfield Park), Alex Kingston and Adrian Scarborough (Cranford) star in the stirring return of season 2 of Upstairs Downstairs, from Heidi Thomas (Cranford, Return to Cranford).

It's now 1938, and Adolf Hitler is demanding that the Czechoslovakian government turn over the Sudetenland. Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) is one of the only politicians in the foreign office concerned with stopping Hitler's gradual takeover of Europe. But with Neville Chamberlain in office, the policy of appeasement rules the day, and Hallam is forced to weigh the consequences of bucking the establishment (as his wife so helpfully points out later in the episode).

Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes) is recovering from the difficult birth of her second child, born several weeks premature and leaving both mother and child physically weakened. But when war seems imminent, Agnes is determined to face the coming storm from 165 Eaton Place, and returns home, bringing with her crippling fears for the safety of her children.

Much has changed in the two years since we last visited Masterpiece's most famous address. The indomitable Lady Maud (Eileen Atkins) has died, and her position in the household has been filled by her half-sister Blanche (Alex Kingston), an outspoken archaeologist. Atkins's absence is keenly felt in this hour, as her character was one of the highlights of season one. She bowed out of production reportedly due to unhappiness with the direction the scripts were taking. She sadly isn't the only familiar face missing from this season, as co-creator Jean Marsh, who plays Rose, had her role severely curtailed due to her own health problems. Rose is only briefly referred to in this episode -- the character contracted tuberculosis, apparently, and is at a sanatorium. This is a huge blow for the show, as Rose is in many respects the heartbeat of the series, the thread linking the original run with its current incarnation. (To a lesser extent, Ellie Kendrick is also missed as the vivacious young maid, Ivy -- unless I missed something, her absence remains unexplained.) Also, I should probably note that while I think Kingston is a fine actress, with her NEVER-ENDING tenure on Doctor Who I'm suffering from a bit of fatigue, and this episode she doesn't really do anything interesting except upset Mr. Amanjit. So THAT is boring.

In Rose's absence, the running of the household has fallen entirely on the shoulders of Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), the butler, who embraces both that role and his new position as an Air Raid Warden with a fervor that many of his subordinates find a bit grating, to say the least. His passion for wartime preparation reaches new heights when, spurred on by Lady Agnes's concern over a lack of gas masks for babies, tracks down a supposedly "gas-proof" pram. Now, just looking at it, which looks like a miniature portable OVEN, should have been enough of a clue to the family that this invention was a disaster in the making. But it's left to the footman, Johnny (Nico Mirallegro), to prove just how much so in a most unorthodox fashion. Spurred by a short conversation with his mistress after she faints, still ill from her hospital stay and worried over her baby's weak lungs, Johnny decides to test the pram on Lady Maud's beloved pet monkey. Monkey in pram, pram in closed garage, car turned ON...and the poor monkey sacrifices his life for his family. :P

Now, I must admit I was a little bummed to see Maud's pet so quickly dispatched with, as he was the source of much comic relief in the first season. But if he had to go, at least his death saved the Holland baby from suffocation. Given Johnny's past run-ins with the law, he's terrified that he'll lose his position if Sir Hallam learns that he is responsible for the pet's untimely death (especially since it so upsets his younger sister, Pamela, played by Sarah Gordy -- who had been living in a nursing home due to Down's Syndrome until her discovery in the season finale). Mr. Pritchard risks his own standing with Sir Hallam by stepping up and taking responsibility for Johnny's actions -- a sacrifice that leads to an afternoon in jail and the unpleasant revelation of a past that proves most unsavory due to the current political climate.

The arresting officer, a Sgt. Ashworth (Kenneth Cranham), is initially inclined to treat Pritchard leniently -- until he discovers in Pritchard's record that he was a conscientious objector during the Great War. Once word of this leaks to the rest of the staff at Eaton Place, it creates a huge rift in the ranks, as the cook Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) and Maud's former secretary Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik) cannot fathom a world in which that choice can be viewed as anything but cowardice. Mrs. Thackeray lost her husband to the war, and Mr. Amanjit fought, so their pain, and the anger at Pritchard exempting himself from their sacrifices and collective suffering threatens to permanently fracture the smooth running of the Holland household. (This is as good a point as any to mention the addition of a new kitchen maid, Eunice, played by Ami Metcalf.)

I thought the script handled Pritchard's history exceptionally well, particularly in how it informs his current drive to do everything in his power as a warden and as butler to see to the safety of his "family" of employers and fellow servants. The painful tensions that his youthful pacifism (born out of a Quaker upbringing) bring to light the sad truth that really their are no victors in war -- no matter what side one allies themselves with, the conflict will leave you irrevocably changed. Slight aside -- Mr. Amanjit completely losing it and shooting up the garden seems to underscore the idea that without Maud's presence, does he really have a place on this show? I mean I get that his overly harsh reaction to Pritchard can be interpreted as grief over a beloved employer's death and fear over uncertainty about the future, but given how much I loved his character in season one the extreme he swings to in this episode is a bit jarring to say the least.

Interestingly enough the simmering conflict below stairs brings out a flash of the best Lady Agnes is capable of -- much needed as this character continues to be troubled by a distinct lack of warmth, of sympathy. I love Hawes, she is one of my favorite actresses, but unfortunately the scripts often paint Lady Agnes as a bit too cold and emotionally -- perhaps brittle is the word I'm looking for. She really steps up when Amanjit's target practice in the garden forces her to lay down the law and remind every member of her household that no matter what they believe, where they've come from, they all call 165 Eaton Place home -- and united they must stand or the war will see them destroyed. That said, given her apparent lack of support for her husband's anti-appeasement views -- well that discord, that tension, is apt to cause problems in their relationship, or so I predict.

With the birth of her second child, a new nursery maid is hired -- the pretty Beryl (Laura Haddock). Her fashion-forward ways are initially frowned on by the oh-so-proper Pritchard, but I love her spirit and spunk. Haddock is a relative newcomer to me, having previously appeared in Miss Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye. The pretty Beryl immediately catches chauffeur Harry Spargo's (Neil Jackson) eye, and I cannot TELL you how happy the promise of a little romance from that quarter makes me. Much of season one was caught up with Spargo's ill-advised "romance" with Lady Persie, Agnes's sister, and his flirtation with socialism, but since Persie fled London for Berlin Spargo has, apparently, gotten his head screwed on straight. He seems so NORMAL now that he's not caught up with socialist shenanigans, which makes me happy, because I think Neil Jackson is adorable. Also, I appreciate the fact that he apparently wants to do right by Sir Hallam's end of season show of faith in giving him a second chance to keep his job.

I love how any Beryl/Spargo flirtation is limited to MEANINGFUL LOOKS in this episode. They have the potential to be such an adorable couple, and after the mess Spargo nearly made of his life with Persie I have high hopes for his future romantic prospects -- particularly since Beryl is so likeable. I loved the scene at the end of the episode, when Harry rather embarrassingly allowed Beryl to basically give him a manicure, since his hands took a beating digging trenches and sandbagging houses in advance of a feared air blitz. Beryl is all "HUSH AND LET ME WORK, peroxide does wonders" and Harry is all "YOU'RE SO SMART (and pretty!!)" and then she drops the bomb that her mother was discovered with her head in the oven, so that's a bit of an emotional burden to carry around, and he's all sympathy and LET US BE FRIENDS, and she's all this job is only a temporary fix until I save enough money to become a proper hairdresser, and *WINK WINK* I LIKE YOU. Warm fuzzies, right? *wink* :)

Speaking of the infamous Lady Persie -- with rumors of war abounding, Lady Agnes is desperate to see her wayward sister safely home in England once again. So when Hallam is sent to Berlin to accompany Chamberlain for the talks with Hitler (that result in the infamous "peace for our time" comment), he looks up his wayward sister-in-law. Oh, this reminds me -- this episode sees the return of Hallam's friend the Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson), a friendship that is sorely tested by Hallam's commitment to anti-appeasement -- I thought their exchange about the letter from the king, appealing to Hitler to avoid another war, was very interesting. Anyways, back to Persie (Claire Foy) -- she's as shocking and unrepentant as ever, or so it seems when Hallam meets her for drinks in her shocking red dress (cliched sign of a fallen woman? irregardless the dress is TO DIE FOR).

Apparently Persie still likes hanging out with Nazis and has no intention of easing her poor sister's mind by returning to the safety of hearth and home. Hallam does NOT take this well, as he's already depressed about Chamberlain's capitulation to Hitler's demands vis-a-vis the Sudeten, and if last season is any indication this is a man who likes SAVING PEOPLE. And Persie is a prime candidate, because appearances or no that woman is a hot MESS. Before leaving Persie for the evening, the two share an unexpected kiss -- a slip that I have no doubt will haunt Hallam for the rest of the season (because really, he is too smart -- well he has the POTENTIAL, anyway -- to be with a woman as flaky as Persie). At least Spargo has moved on, that is this episode's saving grace let me tell you! :P

This is a very solid start to the new slate of episodes, which has the potential to prove overall more satisfying than the previous season since it covers a six hour runtime versus last year's three. I love, love, LOVE the look of this show -- the bold colors, the gorgeous sets, the colorful characters. But most of all I am addicted to how screenwriter Heidi Thomas has crafted her drama against the backdrop of pre-war London. With Hallam so involved in the Foreign Office, the impact of the coming conflict can never fail to reach his home and it is fascinating to see the effects play out on characters both upstairs and down.


Rissi said...

I am quite curious about this second (and last) series of 'Upstairs' but don't appreciate Heidi caving with PC plot lines. Still... from this review, E1 sounds FABULOUS, Ruth!

Like you, I'll be THRILLED if Spargo is given a wholesome love interest this series because I actually started liking him better by the end of S1 but at the same time I am super annoyed that Hallam would even THINK about carrying on an affair with Persie - they HATED each other, after all. ;-D

With six eps. this time vs. three last time, they'll be lots more time to work with, which may or may not help...

Unknown said...

@Rissi - I quite enjoyed this episode, so I'm curious to see how things play out. Re: Hallam and Persie -- the thing is, I am not condoning their affair, however that plays out -- but in the context of the show, based on where I see Hallam/Agnes/Persie from this episode, it makes sense...Thomas is setting it up believably -- it remains to be seen if their are consequences, no?

Rissi said...

I really liked Hallam and Agnes in S1 together though it wasn't a "romance" in the traditional sense of say, Mary and Matthew but they had a sweet chemistry that was subtle. Seeing him with Persie this series doesn't thrill me but I do know that he and Agnes aren't getting along in S2 (not that it's an excuse). I'll be curious to see where things go and like you suggest, I suspect there will be consequences.

Usually I LOVE Thomas' writing so knowing she is in charge could be very good. :-)

Anne Mateer said...

I enjoyed this episode so much. I think part of it was the whole Johnny/Prtichard thing. It was a good, solid storyline and not just shocking melodrama. I've become fascinated over the years with how the one generations experience of The Great War affected them during WWII. I also love how the political movement toward war is so naturally woven into the story line. That isn't always easy to do. All in all, I liked this episode better than I did S1. Maybe it was tighter and more focused somehow, I don't know. I just know I'm looking forward to more.

Renee (BlacknGoldGirlsBookSpot) said...

Alex is playing Blanche an archaeologist? Hmmm I guess we know what River Song was doing in the 30s then besides fighting Weeping Angels & trying to kill Hitler.... Sorry I couldn't resist. :-P

Unknown said...

@Rissi - Oh I loved Hallam and Agnes last season as well, make no mistake about that! :) I have faith that Thomas will see them properly reconciled by the end of the season...here's hoping she doesn't prove me wrong! ;)

@Anne - I'm so glad you enjoyed this episode too! I agree with you about the Pritchard/Johnny storyline -- it felt very real and authentic. And I do think Thomas has done a pretty good job weaving the politics of the time period into the scripts!

@Renee - Bwaahaa I didn't think about it that way but I think you're onto something there! :)