Though I am well aware of it, I have never seen the original 1970s series Upstairs, Downstairs. The influential drama set at the London residence 165 Eaton Place in the early 1930s is largely credited as the inspiration for Julian Fellowes for both Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. The success of the latter is quite possibly the main reason the BBC decided to revive the older program two years ago. It seems that audiences are ready to watch dramas featuring well-to-do Brits and their servants. (The title refers to the two levels of a household, which also correspond to social class. The residency is upstairs, the functionary service quarters down.)
While I am confessing, it should also be noted that I did not see the three-part Upstairs Downstairs: Season 1 that sets up much of what is going on in this six-part sequel, Upstairs Downstairs: Season 2. This is an important note, since it did not affect my enjoyment of the drama. I was able to dig in just fine. Plus, from my reading, there was already a bit of a full-stop and a reconnoitering between the two seasons, with the actress playing the house matriarch leaving the show and her character being killed off. Upstairs Downstairs: Season 2 picks up as the surviving members of the household carry on and deal with the new living situation. The cast is joined by Alex Kingston (ER, Doctor Who), playing Dr. Blanche Mottershead, the sister of the now deceased Lady Holland. The downstairs staff also has a new member, Beryl, played by Laura Haddock, whose character was created to fill in for an ailing Jean Marsh, who had played the head maid.
The first episode is set in 1938. Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) has just returned home after giving birth, while her husband, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), is being drawn into the peace negotiations between Nevile Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler's cabinet. Hallam is of the mind that Great Britain is rushing too quickly to appease a dictator, and indeed, as we know from history, that opinion is the correct one. The specter of war looms ever larger as Season 2 progresses, with Blanche and her sister's former right hand man, Amanjit (Art Malick), organizing an effort to take in foreign children persecuted by the Nazis and find them foster homes in Britain. Meanwhile, the family's youngest, Lady Persephone (Claire Foy), has been living in Berlin as a kept woman. The changing political climate forces her back to 165 Eaton, and plenty of complications come with her.
The story here emerges from the inherent separations and crossovers between the two aspects of the household. The staff and their employers are friendly, though there are also regular reminders that they are not one and the same. The staff varies in dedication from the very proper butler Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) and the more liberal minded Beryl, who actually questions some of the business practices and brings more modern thinking into the home. There is, of course, also plenty of soap opera-level drama, some of which stays largely inside the house (complications with Agnes after the child's birth), some of which threaten to cause social upheavals (both Persephone and Blanche have a secret that could be fodder for much gossip; Agnes enjoys a flirtation with an American entrepeneur and begins modeling his hosiery). Again, this balance of interpersonal drama and social obligation will remind contemporary viewers of Downton Abbey, though I will go out on a limb and posit that Upstairs Downstairs is the better program. It's got stronger writing, relying more heavily on complex plotting and nuanced characterization, and not so much on cliché or the ubiquitous Julian Fellowes trick of having all the chatter always overheard by exactly the wrong person at exactly the right time. (It may also be slightly less addictive due to this reserve, mind you.) Creator Heidi Thomas handles the scripting chores here, and she uses the larger historical canvas to her advantage. Likewise, giving the Holland family concerns in the world that extend beyond their place of residence makes them far more identifiable than the Crawley family, who seem mainly in the business of staying rich. Hell, you can tell the difference between the shows in how they are shot: Downton Abbey is all bright polish and sunny climes, whereas Upstairs Downstairs is more artfully lit, with natural looking shadows and the kind of shifting light one finds in the city.
The acting is pretty strong throughout the ensemble cast. While much of each episode requires the stiff-upper-lip routine so regular in a British drama of this kind, the actors have a particular knack for nailing the more tender emotional moments. Adrian Scarborough has a notable romantic subplot go off the rails in ways that are painfully relayed, and there is also a nice romance that develops between Beryl and the chauffeur, Harry (Neil Jackson). There are also brief scenes of levity, which are most effective for showing the rapport of the cast. They get on naturally with one another, making it all the more convincing that they work in such close quarters.
The only real downside to Upstairs Downstairs: Season 2 is that the BBC saw fit to pull the plug on the show after this cycle concluded--thus making the season finale the unplanned series finale. Luckily, there is a sense i\of finality to most of it, with many of the dangling threads being tied up and resolved. The last episode fades out as war is declared, and we can see clearly where each character is going from here. It's just too bad we don't get to see them continue on their way.
The BBC has spread six hour-long episodes over two discs, and they can be watched separately or via a "play all" function. The widescreen image, enhanced for 16x9, is sadly mediocre. Resolution is soft, with lots of hazy edges, and colors are splotchy. It's not terrible, but it is almost more distressing for being so blatantly lazy. A current TV show shouldn't be that hard to put on disc without losing any sharpness. The look here is just bland and average.
The original audio of Upstairs Downstairs: Season 2 is given a 5.1 mix for DVD. (The packaging says its stereo, but my system recognizes it as otherwise.) It sounds decent, with all dialogue coming through clearly and an appropriate balance between the different elements of the soundtrack. There aren't a lot of subtle effects, so the added channels maybe are little bit of overkill.
Subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are provided.
The only extras are a collection of cast and crew interviews. These run about 25 minutes total and were all shot on set. They are edited together as one promotional program.
The discs are packaged in a standard-sized plastic case with a hinged tray, and there is a paper slipcover, as well.
Highly Recommended. Upstairs Downstairs: Season 2 is a solid six-hours of British drama that sadly will serve as the last entry of what is really a fine series. Set in the late 1930s as World War II looms on the horizon, this story of a well-to-do, politically inclined English family and the servants who work in their home delivers strong soap opera narratives, but told smartly and emboldened by an excellent ensemble cast. It may not have a super tight finish, but it's final enough to make it still worth your time.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.