The BBC’s reboot of classic drama Upstairs Downstairs first premiered in 2010 and, despite its famous pedigree, never seemed to quite escape the shadow of another Edwardian costume drama that would go on to worldwide acclaim called Downton Abbey. Whether it was timing, general preference or a combination of the two, Upstairs never seemed to quite catch on the way that the ITV drama did. It was, of course, hampered by the fact that the first series was only comprised of three episodes, and seemed to come to a close just as things finally started getting good. With the six-episode second series set to premiere on Masterpiece Classic starting October 7, now seems as good a time as any to revisit all the drama from Series 1, and give ourselves a little reminder about everything that happened the first time 'round.
Click through for a rewatch of the first episode, “The Fledgling,” and come chat about it with me in the comments. How did you enjoy Upstairs, Downstairs as a series, especially as compared to Downton Abbey? Are you looking forward to Series 2?
This episode is plagued by a lot of set-up problems, which are largely native to any series that’s this sprawling and forced to introduce a lot of characters and set-ups. It has its moments, though!
So, onward to "The Fledgling".
The title of the series’ first episode pulls off referring to so many things within this premiere rather cleverly – of course, we’re talking about the series itself and its first tentative steps on-air again after a hiatus spanning several decades, as well as several characters who are either establishing themselves for the first time or reinventing their lives, and even an actual bird that pops up in this episode. It’s a title that implies baby steps in a grand beginning – that the fledgling that is this new series will eventually spread its wings and fly. That may actually be more poetic than a pilot episode deserves – particularly when it has such a rocky beginning – but at least it does feel by the end of this episode that, now that we’re established, great things may actually be possible. And we hope that ultimately the slog that’s the first thirty minutes will be worth it.
The series begins with Lord Hallam and Lady Agnes Holland (Ed Stoddard and Keeley Hawes) returning to London after a diplomatic trip – post, perhaps, may be more accurate terminology since it appears that they’ve been gone a long while.
Welcome to Eaton Place. While we don’t know Sir Hallam or Lady Agness at all yet, their entrance into the house at 165 Eaton Place is nevertheless quite affecting. Shuttered for years, dark and covered with cobwebs, the house still looks stately and lovely, though possibly in need of a little TLC and an exceptionally good scrubdown. It’s fair to say, I think, that we certainly care more about this house and what it stands for than we do for these people at this moment, and if we’re predisposed to think kindly of them, it’s really because we’d like them to take care of this house and its history.
The idea to have the house dormant until this story begins is a strong one – it leaves us with the impression that there hasn’t really been a story happening in our absence, despite the fact that the Bellamys are now more, that perhaps that it’s just sat there in the dark waiting for the original series to pick back up in some way like this. It’s an effective maneuver – and the fact that this is the Holland’s first proper residence allows us to bask a little in their joy in it, without it being too much.
Hi Again, Rose. Lady Agnes goes to visit Buck’s of Belgravia, an employment agency that finds domestic staff for “discerning households.” It’s run by a familiar face – Rose Buck, a former maid for the Bellamy family that used to live in Eaton Place. She and Lady Agnes discuss the household’s domestic needs and Agness is sort of pointlessly snotty. She really doesn’t have the charm of say, a Cora from Downton, does she? (In fact, I keep accidentally spelling Agnes’ name with extra s’s, as though she’s evil, which I think must be on some level psychological, but I can’t prove it.) Of course, we find out later that a great deal of Agnes’ attitude is likely based on the fact that she has no experience in organizing a household and no idea what she’s doing – and it’s her attempt to cover up her ignorance that makes her come off as unlikeable. This is sort of unfortunate for viewers, as we don’t get a chance to see her be at all likeable or charming until much later in the episode, and by then for some people I feel that it might be too little too late.
Rose goes to visit Eaton Place – both on a nighttime walk where she stares longingly at the house from the street, and then to see Lady Agnes the next day, where we perhaps spend a bit too long on the swelling music and Rose gazing around and imagining the entranceway as it once was. I like what they’re going for here – the connection they’re hammering in with the original – but we’ve officially reached overkill now. I mean, they’re five seconds from a giant flashing reminder that HEY GUYS, JEAN MARSH WAS ON THIS SHOW THE FIRST TIME, DID YOU KNOW. It’s lucky that she is really awesome.
Lady Maud is Fabulous. Whilst Rose is hosting interviews for maid positions, Sir Hallam’s mother, Lady Maud, suddenly arrives with an urn containing her husband’s ashes, her secretary Mr. Amanjit and her pet monkey, Solomon, in tow. (Fair warning; Dame Eileen Atkins is far and away my favorite part of this series, so if I get a bit gushy, that’s why.) Lady Agnes has never met her mother-in-law before and Hallam hasn’t seen her in what appears to be at least a decade, so everything is immediately incredibly awkward. Lady Maud invites herself to stay with her son and his wife, sets up shop in several spare rooms, and declares her intention to write her memoires. She is incredibly dramatic and awesome. She is, obviously, this series’ version of Downton’s Dowager Countess, but that’s okay, because, well, I can’t really get enough of that sort of character, and I expect I’m not alone in that.
The Pacing of this Episode is Not Great. I realize that the point of a first episode of anything is set-up, plot exposition and getting all the key players identified, together and ready to go. But the first thirty or thirty-five minutes of this episode just drags unendurably because – Lady Maud aside – setting up all of these pieces is boring.
Agnes and Hallam are meant to be the first characters we care about, yet they are incredibly dull. It’s not that they are unsympathetic characters – though Agnes is snottier than is really necessary a lot of the time, and Hallam is so bland he is practically see through. The Hollands are mostly sweet together, but they have practically zero chemistry, which is unfortunate, particularly when I think about how believable Cora and Robert’s marriage is presented – flaws and all – from jump on Downton. These two could be brother and sister, or longtime friends, as easily as they are husband and wife, and, sadly for their characters, the script spends a lot time telling and not showing – explaining how well they know one another and how much they mean to each other, instead of letting those facts become apparent through actions.
This is a problem to a lesser extent for several of the other minor characters – Ivy, Johnny and the cook and the driver whose names I can’t remember are all basic stereotypes (saucy maid, flirtatious driver, bumbling farm boy) with little depth. At least Mr. Pritchard is interesting for being weird. Hopefully now that we’ve settled all the pieces on the chessboard things will be a bit more interesting to watch and the pace will even itself out.
Politics, Politics, Politics. An interesting contrast between this series and Downton Abbey – which I promise I will stop doing eventually, but I think is natural because these series are so similar and aired around the same time – is that Upstairs Downstairs is much more willing to incorporate political storylines, and that it expects you to know quite a great deal about what was going on with the monarchy and the general state of affairs in Europe during the mid-1930s. The death of King George V, the rise of the Nazi Party, King Edward VIII's affair with American Wallis Simpson, these are all historical facts that also directly impact the plot and characters here (some of them *are* characters here, as the Duke of Kent pops up twice). The downside of this is that these behind-the-scenes, politically focused machinations can be hard to follow, particularly if you’re not necessarily up to speed on who these famous historical figures are or why they’re important.
Finally Getting To Know the Characters!. Luckily once we get past the first half hour or so of “The Fledgling,” which is just terribly draggy and far too exposition heavy, things pick up quite considerably. More interesting things are allowed to happen, we’re allowed to see some sense of personality from all our characters – instead of simply filling spaces on a chessboard of types. Rose trying to teach Johnny how to balance and carry a tray. Johnny teaching Ivy to make a bit. Mr. Amanjit raising a baby bird in the linen closet. Agnes getting Rose to smuggle her fish and chips into the house and eating them out of the wrapper. The family having to listen to the King’s first address on the wireless with the servants, complete with Agnes’ increasingly horrified expression as her sister starts yelling and pounding on the front door. These are all small moments that have no real impact at all on the plot of our story, but let us feel like we’re actually starting to get to know this people, and maybe even like them a little bit. Well, except Hallam. Who remains a virtual non-entity.
Welcome to Charm Academy. One of the more fascinating aspects of this particular series is that – unlike Downton – at least half of this particular noble family doesn’t appear to be noble at all. It’s obvious that Lady Agnes and her sister Lady Persephone (Persie, for short) are not from a background that is at quite the same level as the Hollands. They clearly know next to nothing about running a private house, managing servants, or very much about high society. (Agnes is lucky if she doesn’t sprain something from wearing her Trying Too Hard face all the time.). Persie complains about the poverty of her upbringing/current state, doesn’t know how to command the servants or where to ride in a car that has a driver, and gets signed up for charm classes by her sister. It’s a very interesting/different sort of place to start for these characters, especially Agnes. Is she technically a social climber? Is that something that happened during this period? It would be interesting to know a bit more about how Hallam and Agnes met, and how they ended up together.
Awkard Social Situations are Awkward. Lady Maud invites Wallis Simpson to the first formal get together at Eaton Place in the hopes that she’ll bring her special friend – the King – along with her. Instead, Mrs. Simpson shows up with a well-known Nazi diplomat, who seems to take an immediate shine to Persie. Awkwardness is intensified when Hallam informs Agnes that they can’t have a man like that at their party or in their house and that therefore it’s her job to “take charge” as the lady of the house and kick him out because she’s the hostess (way to go, Hallam, really).
Agnes races downstairs to find Rose, tells her about Hallam’s ultimatum and declares in a moment of very human, flustered panic that she doesn’t know what to do. Seeing the cracks in the façade of Agnes’ constantly polished presentation really does go a long way toward making her seem more like a real person, and more like someone whose situation and story we can care about. This is the moment I actually started to root for her, and it was very well done. Rose consults with new butler Mr. Pritchard and they enlist Johnny the footman to spill a tray of drinks on their unwanted German guest. Everyone saves face – except for poor Johnny I guess, but he doesn’t seem to care much – and Agnes gets to keep her party on track and her husband happy without a humiliating confrontation. Well done, Team Downstairs.
Ugh, Hallam. As this episode continues, Hallam actually seems to become more boring as the minutes go by. He doesn’t stand up to his mother or his diplomatic superiors, and dumps everything on Agnes, including getting the house up and running, hiring servants, dealing with all their family members, and playing bouncer at her own party. Shut up, Hallam.
Suddenly, Everything Gets Really Crazy. After a half an hour of virtually nothing happening, the sudden explosion of plot in the last fifteen minutes of this episode feels a little bit like overkill, but okay. After dumping his tray of drinks on the unwanted Nazi at the party, Johnny goes upstairs to change – and, rather out of the blue, ends up sucking the spilled alcohol out of his soiled shirt, as well as finishing all the half-empty drinks on his tray. This both comes out of nowhere and is incredibly disturbing, given that he and his creepily overbearing mother had insisted that he was a perfect vision of restraint when it came to such vices.
Johnny then goes to see Ivy the maid, with whom he has been flirting. They make out for a bit outside the door to her bedroom then Ivy dashes inside and locks the door – for what reason it’s unclear, although her reaction after she re-opens it to find Johnny gone says that that this was just one more method of flirting, and that she didn’t actually expect him to stomp off. To deal with his disappointment, Johnny’s gone off to the pub round the corner to meet some of the other servants and somehow Ivy knows this because she gets all dolled up with fire engine red lipstick to go sit at the bar and star at him/try to make him jealous. This situation escalates and ends with Johnny getting in a barfight with someone and stabbing them in the throat with broken glass. Nope, I am not making that up. (Where did this come from, show? It’s like suddenly they realized they hadn’t met some sort of serious drama quotient in this episode and crammed it all into these five minutes.) It turns out that Johnny’s got some anger issues, is on probation and apparently turns into the Incredible Hulk when he’s drunk. Surprise? No wonder he only had one reference.
Rose Gets the Housekeeper’s Keys, Duh. After an incredibly strange conversation with Hallam, in which it basically seems as though she and her son agree that Agnes is incapable of handling everything that’s required to run a household, Lady Maud and Rose go for a walk to the pond where she shares some wisdom about the two of them being experienced and being what the house needs and offers Rose the running of the house. Later, Agnes goes to Rose’s agency to make her a job offer as well, which Rose says she can’t accept because she’s already had the same one from Lady Maud. Which, duh, of course she says yes, and the final shot of the episode is Rose joyfully hanging up her own personally inscribed Housekeeper Key, just like you always knew she would. Welcome back indeed.
What do you think, gang? Does this interpretation of Upstairs Downstairs work for you? Or do you think it’s missing something? Sound off in the comments.