Friday, October 19, 2012

Upstairs Downstairs 2.2: "The Love that Pays the Price"

Upstairs Downstairs continued its second-season run on Masterpiece Classic with another thoroughly enjoyable episode this past Sunday. The premiere was a fantastic introduction to just how the threat of war is impacting the residents of 165 Eaton Place, both upstairs and down -- and that pressure, combined with the everyday tensions that come from any gathering of colorful, passionate characters under one roof, threatens to fracture the Holland household beyond repair. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:
The full, formal settings come out as an array of luminaries arrive for a grand evening at 165 Eaton Place. Amidst the jocular conversation, Sir Hallam Holland receives an unexpected and serious offer – one that could significantly alter life for everyone at Eaton Place.

Mrs. Thackeray, the cook, has reconnected with family, opening up the prospect for a different life. And the tug of familial bonds is felt upstairs as well when Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes receive an alarming 2 AM call from Lady Persie, who in the middle of the fiery chaos of Germany, is frantic to come home.

With the pact between England and Germany broken, Sir Hallam discerns that England is on the edge of the abyss. And as darkness encroaches, those upstairs and down unite to intervene, offering hope in fragile times.

Ed Stoppard (Zen), Keeley Hawes, Claire Foy (Little Dorrit) and Anne Reid (Bleak House) star in episode two of Upstairs Downstairs, Season 2.

A major aspect of this episode involves the growth of seeds of tension and discord in the Holland marriage, tensions reflected both upstairs and down, a mirror of the unease bubbling beneath the surface of European politics since the signing of the Munich Pact. The episode opens with Lady Agnes's (Keeley Hawes) tragic discovery that she will not be able to bear further children, thanks to the difficult birth of her second that ended in a Cesarean. To distract herself from this blow (I suspect she's suffering from undiagnosed depression at this juncture), she throws herself into planning an elaborate dinner party hosting Ambassador Kennedy, his wife Rose and son Jack, and a business acquaintance of theirs -- millionaire Casper Landry.

Hallam (Ed Stoppard) meanwhile continues to be deeply troubled by the ramifications of the Munich Pact and his inherent distrust of Hitler and his policies. He's also keeping a secret from Agnes -- the secret that during his time in Munich, his attempts to convince her sister Persie to return to London ended in a kiss, a kiss that he didn't ask for but didn't exactly recoil from, either. Persie (Claire Foy) remains adamant that she plans to remain in Berlin -- but as is her norm a dangerous discontent bubbles beneath the surface of her intentionally carefree demeanor. Her insistence on bringing up their kiss in conversations with Hallam hints that her relocation to Berlin has only served to entrench her less-admirable qualities even more deeply into her persona -- if she has no qualms about sowing discord where she can, even if it involves her only sister's husband.

Meanwhile downstairs, Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) is thrilled that her nephew Tommy (Tom Bennett) has accepted a new position in London, giving her easy access to visit him and his wife Enid (Niamh McGrady) and son Cyril (Joseph Howse). Mrs. Thackeray can be proud, and a little silly at times, but she feels very deeply about family and position and it is glaringly apparent that she loves the chance to spend time with members of her extended family. When she uses Eaton Place kitchen supplies to make some violet macaroons for Tommy, she runs afoul of Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), who is nothing if not a stickler for the rules. There's always been some tension between Pritchard and Mrs. Thackeray -- as the butler he is the defacto ruler of the staff, but as queen of the kitchen Mrs. Thackeray is loathe to cede authority in anything involving food.

Events at 165 Eaton Place reach a crisis the night of the formal dinner for the Kennedys. Knowing Hallam's politics, the idea that he's going to find anything appealing about Ambassador Kennedy's (William Hope) pro-appeasement, pro-Germany policies is a long-shot, if not an outright joke. With war apparently avoided, Kennedy offers Hallam a position in America as his family's foreign affairs advisor. One wonders if Hallam felt a little outnumbered, between the presence of Kennedy and a desire to breach the rift that his anti-German views have caused with his long-time friend the Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson). Or perhaps he's running from Persie, willing to consider America for a chance to start fresh with his family? I don't know why I was so surprised by the appearance of the Kennedys, nevermind the stretch of reconciling Hallam's policies with Joe Kennedy's -- no way was Heidi Thomas going to pass up the chance to have the Kennedys grace the halls of Eaton Place.

Businessman Casper Landry (Michael Landes) was a welcome appearance, even if he is determined to hit on Agnes, simply because I think Landes is ADORABLE. Landry is a charismatic Jewish businessman who made his millions by selling a successful "hangover cure" tablet. Landes made (for me anyways!) an unforgettable appearance in the Marple episode, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, which I rewatch ad nauseum in large part because of his presence. His looks are SO well suited to films set in the '40s and '50s. Very all-American. :)

When Pritchard and Johnny (Nico Mirallegro) overhear Kennedy's job offer, it creates no little stir belowstairs. But nothing compares to the discovery that Jack Kennedy (Robbie Jarvis), sick on oysters, has made his way to the KITCHEN (oh the horrors!). Here I just have to note that while Jarvis had a decent accent, he has to be the least looking Kennedy-esque actor I've ever seen. ANYWAYS...Mrs. Thackeray takes a very motherly interest in his well-being, even calling him DEAR -- and while Jack doesn't object, Pritchard hits the roof as that familiarity crosses all sorts of class boundaries. Fed up with Pritchard's rules (and still not letting go of the whole conscientious objector thing revealed in the premiere), Mrs. Thackeray quits on the spot and takes off for her nephew's house. (This has awkward mother-in-law-type moment written ALL over it, no?)

Completely oblivious to the turmoil in the kitchen, the Hollands and their guests decide to visit a Soho jazz club. There was something almost intoxicating about the rarefied atmosphere in the club...such wealth, such privilege, such heady dissipation. The whole scene was really beautifully staged -- I do so love this show's attention to period detail.The more Hallam drinks, the more he seems amenable to the idea of moving to America -- and as Caspar flirts endlessly with Agnes, it's clear she finds the possibility of the move and its accompanying prestige intoxicating.

As Hallam and Agnes head home, they share a really lovely moment, even if it is underscored with a desperation born of some inherent knowledge that they are at a pivot point -- and all their future happiness depends on which fork in the road they take. (Of course I'm yelling "run from Persie, but not all the way to America, Hallam you idiot!") When this couple works it's a beautiful thing, and the simple romance of a midnight stroll, taking in the stars while laying on a playground spinning wheel (what the heck are those things called? and more importantly, how sad is it that I can't remember? :P).

Their romantic moment is ruined, however, by a late-night phone call from Persie, begging for help. It is Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass, and she is caught in the middle of the terrifying violence that is seeing Jewish businesses, homes, and synogogues destroyed, with thousands of German Jews arrested. I'd like to think that the senseless violence would make Persie realize who and what she's aligned herself with by her reckless embrace of Nazi socialism, but I fear she's too far gone for even the possibility of redemption. News of the violence abruptly awakens Hallam from the fantasy of leaving London -- he's determined to bring Persie to safety and prepare for the coming conflict -- Kristallnacht is irrefutable evidence that Germany is far from dedicated to the promise of peace.

For those paying attention to the pulse of world events, Kristallnacht is a terrifying signal that time is running out for Germany's Jewish population, as Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik) discovers when he's sent to Lotte's (Alexia James) boarding school. Lotte, if you remember, was the daughter of Rachel, who fled persecution in Germany and took a position as maid in the Holland household. Following her tragic death, Hallam made Lotte his ward, determined to provide for her future. Given the poignant friendship that developed between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit, I loved the fact that he wanted to visit Lotte's school for a report on her progress. As a Sikh, he more than anyone can empathize with being an "other" in society -- as he tells the headmistress, no matter how much Lotte wants to shed her German roots, she will always be a Jewess, of another race, and events in Germany are stark reminders that some are never willing to forget the difference.

It turns out that Mrs. Fuller (Lucy Cohu), the headmistress of Lotte's school, knowing Hallam's compassion for Lotte's situation hopes to use his connections to allow her to help foster more Jewish children, whose lives are in increasing peril since Kristallnacht. I was thrilled to see Cohu make an appearance in this show as I think she is such a classy actress, and her looks and demeanor are perfect for a '40s-era period piece. Cohu was just seen on Masterpiece Mystery in the Inspector Lewis episode Fearful Symmetry. Mr. Amanjit takes this idea and runs with it, which is fortuitous since after last week I was wondering what he was still doing on this show. :P

So now that this episode has given Mr. Amanjit fresh purpose, he passes the favor on to Hallam's Aunt Blanche (Alex Kingston), who thus far has served little purpose other than appropriating the rooms formerly occupied by her half-sister Maud. Mr. Amanjit recognizes Blanche's academic background and rather brusque, no-nonsense manner as just the sort of personality traits needed to help organize local efforts to get Jewish children to safety. The reality of what those children faced, and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of funds, support, and organizational logistics that those who wanted to do something were tasked with overcoming is just heart-breaking to watch play out on-screen. Even Hallam, an outspoken advocate for anti-German policies, struggles to find the hope, the belief that England's strict immigration policies can be changed in time to make a difference.

But persevere they must and do, organizing the Refugee Children Movement -- also referred to as the Kindertransport -- which ended up saving thousands of Jewish children from the Nazi menace. Buoyed by a hefty donation from Casper Landry (thanks to a coy appeal from Agnes -- seriously what is WITH Casper's obsession with the rumba? LOL), the first wave of refugees are scheduled to arrive. They're met at the station by Mr. Amanjit and Blanche, and over the strains of a children's choir singing "I Vow to Thee, My Country" -- and at this point I nearly lose it. The thought of what those children endured, the loss of family, history, a "normal" childhood -- it just breaks my heart. And then to think of those family members they'd left makes me want to weep. This was an incredibly moving sequence, and I loved seeing the characters get involved in this effort.

Back-tracking a bit, I'd like to touch on Mrs. Thackeray and the hole her absence leaves in the lives of the Eaton Place downstairs staff. Mrs. Thackeray throws herself whole-heartedly into preparing gourmet meals for her nephew and his family, putting everything "on account" -- which causes no end of stress for her nephew's working wife. I thought the tension here was a really poignant illustration of the cost of a life in service -- Mrs. Thackeray clearly values family, but her time serving the wealthy has impeded her ability to relate to a working family's lifestyle and financial limitations. In many respects one could argue that the price of a life in service was the sacrifice of a normal family life with those they serve becoming a surrogate family.

Pritchard and Johnny have found themselves on kitchen duty in Mrs. Thackeray's absence, which leads to Johnny making a very telling comment to the effect that "everyone is out of their proper place." Of course he's referring to the staffing situation, but it hints at the social upheaval to come with the war's impact on social classes and the roles of women in the workforce. Much like Downton Abbey during the war, this is another rarefied world on the cusp of great change. Happily for Pritchard's stress levels (and the stomachs of everyone in the household), he devises a sensitive way of wooing Mrs. Thackeray back to the Holland kitchens. Placing an advertisement in the paper, he has it delivered by Spargo -- and realizing that continuing to live with her nephew is straining good relations with what remains of her small family, Mrs. Thackeray packs up and returns to work. And both she and Pritchard hold fast to their dignity, with a gentle nod to the new spirit of peaceful agreement between them.

Speaking of Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson), there was not NEARLY enough of him and Beryl (Laura Haddock) in this episode to suit me. I did think the scene early in the episode, when Beryl was shucking oysters and feeds one to Harry was ADORABLE. But poor Harry, when he jokes about how she needs to be careful feeding him aphrodisiacs gets a thorough smackdown when Beryl takes exception to his playful remark. I really don't think he meant anything *too* untoward -- you just have to look at Spargo's face in any of his scenes -- since he kicked his obsession with socialism to the curb there is a wonderful lightness to his expression and demeanor that I just love. Because let's face it, he is ADORABLE (and if Downton proves anything, I apparently have a thing for chauffeurs in period dramas!).

Considering Harry's romantic history with Persie, it was interesting to note the tone of their first meeting in two years, when Hallam takes the car to the airstrip to pick Persie up from her Berlin flight. (Before I forget, I should note it was interesting to see Persie acknowledge that she's been living as a "kept woman," subject to the whims of her lovers, in her last phone call with Hallam prior to getting her out of Germany. I mean what BROUGHT her to the point where she felt this was some way to live? It isn't as if she was wholly without resources or family connections. Silly twit.) Anyways, Persie gets off the plane and is she grateful? NOOOOO. She also makes a rather pointed remark to Spargo about "old times," but thankfully he's moved WAY past her...Hallam with his "white knight" complex, is I am afraid another story.

I really enjoyed this episode, particularly the Mrs. Thackeray storyline as I found it unexpectedly poignant (Anne Reid really reminds me of my maternal grandmother in certain respects), and the accord she reaches with Mr. Pritchard very well done. More than that, though, I continue to adore how Heidi Thomas weaves the political history of the time period throughout the characters' lives. The "living history" aspect of this series is one of its strongest assets. This episode did a fantastic job of establishing more of the characters -- particularly Mrs. Thackeray, but also Blanche and Mr. Amanjit. (I'm starting to feel rather bad for the new kitchen maid Eunice, played by Ami Metcalf, as so far she's been given very little to do other than look quizzical.) Looking forward to seeing the turmoil Persie's return brings to 165 Eaton Place -- and please, for the love, give a girl more scenes with Harry! *wink*

Gratuitous Harry picture, because this episode needed MORE HARRY:

Isn't that better? I think so. :)


Rissi said...

Sounds like two eps. in, this still holds promise. Glad to know! :-)

Anne Mateer said...

I liked this episode, but a couple of things made me laugh because they seemed a bit of a stretch. One was trying to reconcile Hallam's politics to the Kennedy's (like you mentioned). Seriously? Another was the fact that no one upstairs noticed (or seemed concerned) that there was no Mrs. Thackery to cook their breakfast! Wouldn't this have been a huge source of angst for the family?

I did love the story with the Jewish children from Germany. In fact, I bawled my eyes out when those kids got off the train and went with families. All in all, it's coming along nicely and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Unknown said...

@Rissi - I really enjoy this world. Good times! :)

@Anne Mateer - Yeah, the Hallam/Kennedy thing was contrived even by this show's standards. And everyone upstairs did seem a little slow to wake up to the fact that Mrs. Thackeray was AWOL. :)

Rissi said...

Now, I've seen this, I actually know what went on!

Just had to mention that I love what you said about Agnes and Hallam: That scene was magic! Loved it. :)

Unknown said...

@Rissi - Oh good! :) I am hoping to catch up on episodes 3 and 4 this week...