Se­ries set among skir­mishes in the class war

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - GILLMOR

THIS week Vi­sion TV started air­ing the orig­i­nal Up­stairs, Down­stairs, an his­tor­i­cal saga of ser­vants and masters that ran for five sea­sons in the early 1970s. At first I thought this was just a cyn­i­cal bid to cash in on the pop-cul­ture buzz gen­er­ated by Down­ton Abbey. But once I started watch­ing I found I liked Up­stairs, Down­stairs bet­ter than its ar­riv­iste heir.

Com­pared to the sump­tu­ous Down­ton Abbey, the pro­duc­tion val­ues on Up­stairs, Down­stairs are adorably low­bud­get. (Six episodes in the first sea­son were ac­tu­ally shot in black and white be­cause of a tech­ni­cians’ strike.) But the writ­ing is bet­ter — darker, tougher, more com­pli­cated. Best of all, there’s a brac­ing cur­rent of class war­fare that is en­tirely miss­ing in the rosy, re­ac­tionary aristo-porn of Down­ton Abbey.

Af­ter Down­ton Abbey swept the Golden Globes, noted Bri­tish-born his­to­rian Si­mon Schama de­nounced it as “a servile soap opera” and “sil­vered tureen of snob­bery.” Call­ing the show an act of cul­tural necrophilia, Schama ac­cused Down­ton Abbey of fetishiz­ing the ar­ti­facts of the port-and-pheas­ant crowd while blithely ig­nor­ing the era’s stark so­cial and eco­nomic re­al­i­ties.

Not so with Up­stairs, Down­stairs. First of all, the pro­duc­ers didn’t have the money to fetishize any­thing. For­get Down­ton’s golden haze of nos­tal­gia. At least in the first sea­son, Up­stairs, Down­stairs’ lim­ited sets are thin and flimsy — some­times the door to the morn­ing room doesn’t quite close — and the cos­tumes and hair­styles skimp by as best they can, of­ten with a de­cid­edly ’70s look. The shoot­ing of many of the scenes was lim­ited to one take, and the cast’s trip-ups and slips are left in, to en­dear­ing ef­fect.

More im­por­tantly, Up­stairs, Down­stairs takes as its start­ing point the ex­pe­ri­ences of the ser­vants. The idea for the se­ries came from ac­tors Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who had fam­ily mem­bers who had been in ser­vice and who felt strongly that work­ing-class peo­ple were un­der­rep­re­sented on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion. Early sug­ges­tions for the show’s ti­tle in­cluded Be­hind the Green Baize Door, The Ser­vants’ Hall and Be­low Stairs. The “up­stairs” char­ac­ters — Tory politi­cian Richard Bellamy, his ti­tled wife, Lady Mar­jorie, and their two grown chil­dren — were added as an af­ter­thought, be­cause the ser­vants needed some­one to work for.

Look­ing at the ini­tial cast, it’s clear that many of the tropes of Down­ton Abbey were de­vel­oped 40 years ago by Up­stairs, Down­stairs. In the opening episodes we meet the red-faced, plain-talk­ing cook (“I speak as I find”), the wee, ti­morous kitchen maid, the foot­man with hid­den kinks, the im­pe­ri­ous but kindly but­ler, the level-headed house par­lour maid, and the re­bel­lious aris­to­cratic daugh­ter.

The dif­fer­ence is in the ways th­ese char­ac­ters are han­dled. In Down­ton Abbey, po­ten­tial con­flicts be­tween the so­cial classes are gen­er­ally smoothed out by the benev­o­lent feu­dal rule of Lord Gran­tham. Dis­con­tent is un­grate­ful; am­bi­tion is dan­ger­ous. The writ­ers on Up­stairs, Down­stairs, in­clud­ing feisty fem­i­nist nov­el­ist Fay Weldon, take a more ad­ver­sar­ial ap­proach. All the char­ac­ters in­habit the same house, and their lives are in­tri­cately in­ter­twined, but the in­ter­ests of the up­stairs and down­stairs “fam­i­lies” are of­ten in sharp con­flict.

It’s not just the work, though the ser­vants are of­ten seen do­ing jobs that are ex­haust­ing (haul­ing wa­ter, black­ing grates, mend­ing by mea­gre light) or silly (iron­ing the master’s boot­laces). It’s the in­tru­sive con­trol of the ser­vants’ lives. They are for­bid­den to lock their bed­room doors or leave the house with­out per­mis­sion. It is al­most im­pos­si­ble for them to marry. And they live in ter­ror of be­ing dis­missed “with­out a ref­er­ence,” which could mean a slide into ut­ter des­ti­tu­tion.

Down­ton’s Lord Gran­tham is a solver of prob­lems, a chival­rous con­soler of house­maids, a staunch de­fender of valets. The in­ter­ven­tions of Mr. Bellamy and Lady Mar­jorie, while well-in­ten­tioned, are usu­ally re­vealed as pa­ter­nal­is­tic, pa­tron­iz­ing “pats on the head,” as one ser­vant calls them. The Bellamy daugh­ter, Miss El­iz­a­beth, sees her­self as a rad­i­cal Fabian — she hands out so­cial­ist leaflets and la­dles soup in Lon­don’s im­pov­er­ished East End — but she in­stantly as­serts her class priv­i­leges when a ser­vant has the nerve to speak her mind or wear silk in­stead of cot­ton.

Up­stairs, Down­stairs is the un­sen­ti­men­tal record of in­ti­macy with­out equal­ity, which leads to some very pe­cu­liar sit­u­a­tions in­deed. In one episode, the ser­vants — left to them­selves while the em­ploy­ers are up in Scot­land mur­der­ing grouse — dress up and sav­agely im­per­son­ate the up­per classes, un­til Mr. James, the son and heir, un­ex­pect­edly re­turns home and turns their cha­rade into an un­set­tling sex­ual and po­lit­i­cal power play. It’s pos­i­tively Pin­teresque.

Now that I’ve seen some­thing of Up­stairs, Down­stairs, Down­ton Abbey looks very dif­fer­ent. The newer se­ries has all the gloss and glam­our that con­tem­po­rary pres­tige TV can muster. But in terms of themes, it’s start­ing to ap­pear pos­i­tively old-fash­ioned.

The cast of Bri­tish se­ries Up­stairs, Down­stairs, which orig­i­nally ran on TV in the early 1970s.

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