Masterpiece Classics: Upstairs Downstairs, Part II

E:  So, I kind of liked this episode better, mostly because of a fantastic new character, Rachel, a Jewish refugee working as a maid.

C: Except – spoiler alert! – this show apparently has no interest in letting us get attached to anybody, because Rachel kicks the bucket before this fifty-minute episode is even done!

E: Yeah, that pretty much bit.

C: What a lame death, too. Off-screen, unexplained, she dies of what–asthma? Being scared? Not liking to work for a spoiled little fascist brat? A pathetic fate for a character whose introduction brought new interest to the show and life to several of the other characters (she bonds with bratty housemaid, who apparently has a nicer side, and turns the Indian manservant who barely said a word in Part I into quite the charming gentleman).

E: Oh, I know.  She made everyone else more interesting.  Bah. I loved the relationship between her and Mr. Amanjit.  I loved the quick way she saw division and inequality and maturely but steadfastly defied it.  I loved that she was a professor driven out of Germany by the Nazis (so Eva Ibbotson!) and had a secret family.

C: Yes, right out of A Countess Below Stairs or Tovarich!

E: She was so brave and true.  I don’t know, maybe she was just too good a character/person to live. But why couldn’t they make any of the others so bold and involving?

C: I am beginning to see why people considered Keeley Hawes wrong for the part of Lady Agnes. When you first said that, E, my thought was: “How could she be wrong for a part? She could do anything!” But it’s really more that she’s wasted here. It took me a while to notice, because Hawes brings layers to any part, but Lady Agnes isn’t being written with any layers. She’s just self-absorbed and dippy. It’s really too bad, because the possibility for depth is there in her situation. Instead we get ditzy, destructive shallowness.

E: It makes me feel old and crotchety and unnatural when I start siding with the interfering mother-in-law over the wife, but I have to say, I do.  How can she not notice when Hallam gets upset?  Heck, how can she buy a pram at two months pregnant after her previous, loosely described loss?

C: Yes, that was where the writing of her character just popped like a balloon. One minute she’s this anxious mother-to-be who can barely stand to hope, and the next minute she’s a gloating brooding hen, with all the human realness sucked right out of her. “Pregnant women are smug” doesn’t begin to cover it.

E: There’s her whole “but we drink champagne every night!” let them eat cake moment, when she just doesn’t understand that the champagne ought to be going downstairs, so the whole household can celebrate.  And don’t even get me started on her heartless treatment of Rachel’s little daughter.  Ugh.

C: Indeed. And speaking of heartless — considering how much I liked Claire Foy in Little Dorrit, too, it’s almost impressive how unrelatable she is here.

E: I’m not sure, if I hadn’t seen her before, that I would think Foy could act.  She’s such an unbelievable brat and idiot, so thoroughly unlikable, that  I’d be inclined to include the actress in my dislike for the role.

C: Quite. Lady Persie wasn’t appealing last week while slapping the maid, and she isn’t any more likable now that she’d started a steamy affair with the chauffeur. You’d think that would be romantic, but it’s amazing what a gloomy pall Fascist zealotry casts over a love story!

E: Funny how being a Blackshirt can take the glow off romance, yes.  When Spargo comes to dinner in uniform!  And the moment where Persie tells Hallam that she likes Rachel, of course, without seeing that she’s condemning Rachel’s entire race to genocide…  I’m not sure it’s possible for us to see someone freely embrace Fascism and still like them.

C: It’s isn’t, but if you wanted try anyhow, this one-dimensional portrayal wouldn’t be the way. And isn’t it funny that if you’re going to have a cross-class romance – and obviously you must have at least one, in this kind of story – the chauffeur is apparently the upper-class woman’s catnip? But when the sweet youngest daughter in Downton Abbey bonds with the family’s driver over Socialism, it’s somehow much more winning!

E: Yep.  Socialism is more conducive to romance.  And really I think that the chauffeur in Downton Abbey is such a fresh-faced, thoughtful, well-intended chap, that it made me initially sympathetic toward Spargo.  I think I transferred my affection from one to the other as if they were the same character. They’re both politically active! Unafraid of the upstairs folk!  But no.  The Blackshirt thing is just too much. I don’t understand why Hallam didn’t fire him in the first place. I mean, clearly Spargo tried to do the right thing about Persie “stealing” the car, but that ideology is just beyond our ability to sympathize with.  I know it was popular in Britain at the time, even amongst some of the intelligentsia, but good Lord.

C: Yeah, it would help if they actually let us hear snatches of these talks they keep going to, to understand what ideology and goals they’re connecting with. From this end of WWII, my only association with the word Fascism is “totalitarian rule,” and without some help I can’t make the mental leap to why a bunch of British working men would think that sounded appealing.

E: Yeah, you’d really need more time to make any kind of case for why someone would go there.

C: Time is a problem. The series, which is really more like a long film in length (at under three hours), has been oddly structured; it doesn’t build enough from episode to episode to work as one piece, yet the individual sections don’t pack as much wallop on their own as they should.

E: It’s true.  Even more than the casting or writing, the problem with this series is the lack of time.  Time to develop stories, to develop characters, to make us care.  And blast them, I really wanted to!

C: You know, I want to give them that much credit, but I can’t. You can watch a two-hour film and care passionately about the characters. I’ve seen one-hour TV pilots that have me – if not deeply invested, at least ready to be. It wouldn’t matter if Upstairs Downstairs had twelve hours; the writing just isn’t here.

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10 comments on “Masterpiece Classics: Upstairs Downstairs, Part II

  1. Lady Agnes isn’t being written with any layers. She’s just self-absorbed and dippy.

    I KNOW! I am so disappointed in her character. Nothing much to like there, which is sad because I’m such a fan of Hawes.

    I was very shocked by Rachel’s death — she was so refreshingly INTERESTING. Wah. Such a loss.

    the chauffeur is apparently the upper-class woman’s catnip?

    Hee! I’d forgotten about the chauffeur in DOWNTON. I just finished a Stella Gibbons books (NIGHTINGALE WOOD) in which there’s a chauffeur/upperclass lady romance and it was SO well done. So gripping. I got all excited about the possibilities in this show and was horribly let down.

    I will watch the last episode, but…it would be nice if Lady Persie got hit by an omnibus or something.

  2. the presidentrix says:

    Ugh, you guys! I was cautiously hopeful after the first episode – which I may or may not even have understood in its entirety, because I was trying to grade papers, and something was wrong with PBS at the time; it was showing picture with no sound. :o) So I watched the first episode in silence with the closed captioning on, and tried not to miss too much when I’d look down at my work.

    But I completely missed that I was supposed to be nostalgic about the house because it was the setting of the former series. (I thought it was supposed to be a little mysterious; you could tell Miss Buck had worked in the house at some previous time in her life, and I thought maybe she had been in love with the former butler. Seemed like a generic, ‘haunted by her youth’ type of thing to me). And I was under the impression that the mother-in-law was more self-aware and was going to make a concerted effort to try (at least) not to set herself against Hallam’s wife or be too controlling. (Inviting extra guests to the party is a bit of a slip, but really… if you think you may have landed the king himself? That just rocks!)

    As of this episode, we have learned: 1) if we ever start to like anyone, he or she will be dead by the end of the episode. (I fear terribly for Mr. Amanjit…) 2) Eileen Atkins’ character – and all the Upstairs-types, for that matter – will be content to enact their respective rich, pointless people stereotypes. And 3) I dunno… fascism.

    Claire Foy’s character is grossing me out; Persie has NO APPARENT REDEEMING VALUE, whatsoever. And usually I adore Claire Foy! (She plays Russell Tovey’s girlfriend in the original British Being Human mini, in addition to Little Dorrit, and they’re sweet together there, too).

    Meanwhile, Lady Agnes baffles me. I get that she’s daft and self-absorbed and smug – but somehow it rings really false that she’s so caught up thinking how nothing bad must happen to children that she can’t be bothered to prevent bad things happening to… children… I suppose there have to have been some cruel pregnant women in history, but this woman’s maternal instincts are turned on, full bore. She wants a child so badly. You’d think she’d have a little compassion when confronted with an actual orphaned child. (Having compassion because you project your own child onto somebody else’s isn’t super morally admirable, but it seems… conscionable?) And her response even seemed less, ‘Ew, gross, it smells poor!’ and more, ‘Ehhh, bored now. Send back to Germany! The Nazis will know what to do.’

    I don’t even know what else to say. Just… ugh! So far, so disappointed.

    Come on, Fancy British TV, you can do so much better than this!

    • C says:

      I’m so with you on the whole pointless-rich-people stereotype thing. One thing I’ve always liked about this type of cross-class story is getting a glimpse of the sense of responsibility it was possible for the most genuine servants and wealthy people to have towards each other, when they both feel a stake in the other maintaining their pride. It’s sort of like what’s fun in military or naval stories, in the relationship between officers and men. And it makes for interesting drama when the respect breaks down on one side and it causes problems. But here it’s like the relationship doesn’t really *exist*.

      BTW, I laughed out loud at ‘Ew, gross, it smells poor!’

    • E says:

      Prez! How awesome to hear from you!

      I need to look into Being Human to see that, definitely. The very idea of Russell and Claire together make me feel all wobbly. In a good way.

      Lady Persie, on the other hand – wow, how much more dreadful could she be? Not much.

      Will post v. soon about the most recent ep, interested to hear your thoughts!

  3. Gina says:

    “Socialism is more conducive to romance.”

    Yes, I’ve noticed this. 🙂 And this despite the fact that, once in full flower, socialism would go on to take so many lives, too. I’m thinking of writing a piece on it, actually. As you probably know, there was a significant stretch of the 20th century in which many people thought you had to be either a socialist or a fascist, period, and of course when you look at it like THAT, socialism looks far better! It almost seems as if the BBC has gotten stuck in that period and is reliving that way of thinking. It really seems to be playing out in Persie’s characterization vs. Sybil’s characterization — although, of course, they’re written by different people.

    • C says:

      Yeah, I think people writing this period seem to get so fascinated by the glamorous foreignness of a time when these social movements were untainted in people’s minds by the terrible things they eventually led to, that they forget it’s more important to show characters with consistent *internal* motivation. I’d like to read that piece on socialism; I hope you write it!

      I can’t help comparing the treatment of fascism here to the kind of episodes they did in Foyle’s War – such a more believable and sensitive treatment of how even extreme ideologies can be alluring to particular people in particular moments. (Also, they got way beyond the fascism/socialism binary, which helps.)

      • Gina says:

        I should really check out “Foyle’s War.” People keep telling me how good it is.

        Good point above about the cross-class relationships, too.

        I did start out liking this miniseries, but it went downhill fast. Too rushed and two-dimensional.

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