Upstairs, Downstairs - The Complete Series Two Review

After the huge and surprising success of Upstairs, Downstairs - Series One, it was inevitable that this show would run and run. In contrast to the first series, which was somewhat uneven in content, writing and production values (five episodes appeared in black and white due to a technicians' strike), Series Two is a more polished affair, though it follows much the same pattern in creating wry situations to show the workings of the class system in Edwardian England, using the Bellamy family and their servants. Series One galloped through Edward VII's reign in big strides, and this created a problem in that there was scarcely any of it remaining for Series Two. This was solved by having Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) and Lawrence Kirbridge (Ian Ogilvy) return from their honeymoon a year before they departed, so commencing the action in 1908. As before Series Two runs to thirteen episodes, some of which follow the ongoing narrative thread, whilst others are more standalone.


Synopsis

Ep 1. The New man has newly weds Elizabeth and Lawrence setting up house in Greenwich and therefore requiring their own servants. The Bellamy's maid Rose (Jean Marsh) is leant out to them, but they also have a vacancy for a manservant. This is filled by Thomas Watkins (John Alderton), who becomes an important new character as the series progresses, and is arguably its best feature. Thomas is helpful and likeable, but also a Jack-the-lad type, who can't resist making a pass at Rose one night. By contrast his master Lawrence is cold towards Elizabeth, and by degrees starts to live a separate life.

Ep 2. A Pair of Exiles switches the action to ex-maid Sarah (Pauline Collins) and the Bellamy's wayward son James (Simon Williams). Their affair reaches a rocky moment when Sarah is found to be pregnant and James, with a mountain of debts, is in no position to cope. The matter is put in the hands of the family solicitor, Sir Geoffrey Dillon (Raymond Huntley), and he, together with Richard Bellamy (David Langton), concoct a typically harsh Edwardian solution to the problem, with James' mother Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney) protesting as much the couple.

Ep 3. Married Love finds the Kirbridge's marital crisis deepening. It seems that Lawrence simply isn't interested in you-know-what, but in recompense to Elizabeth he recruits his publisher Sir Edwin Partridge (Charles Gray) as a substitute. But the short-lived pleasure doesn't alter things, and in Ep 4. Whom God had Joined… Elizabeth arrives at the Bellamy's house for Christmas without Lawrence and announces she has left him. Again Sir Geoffrey's services are called upon, and in finding grounds to end the marriage the tricky subject of consummation arises…

Elizabeth is to stay at Eaton Place, and her servants are to come with her. Thomas has made a good impression on the Bellamy's, and indeed the downstairs staff - especially the cook Mrs Bridges (Angela Baddeley), to whom he gave an unwanted turkey from the Greenwich house. But butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) doesn't like Thomas, suspecting him of having bad character. The clash between Thomas and Hudson is the classic one of new versus old. Thomas is a new type of servant for a new age: he is good with motorcars and so ideal for the post of chauffeur/mechanic. To Thomas servility is a game, an outward pose he assumes in order to gain advantage, but to Hudson it is the true order of the world, and he sees through Thomas' front with disdain. Nonetheless Thomas gets the new post, complete with rooms in the mews above the garage.

Ep 5. Guest of Honour is a celebrated standalone one, often repeated singly, and is very reminiscent of the banquet sequence in Remains of the Day. The eponymous guest is King Edward VII, and the flurry of preparations has the servants working at fever pitch. The King's visit is set against the unexpected arrival of Sarah to the house, having escaped the country estate to which she was sent and now about to give birth. The two situations collide in a very amusing flourish.

Ep 6. The Property of a Lady has new chauffeur Thomas meeting Sarah, who has lost her baby, and taking an interest. A scruffy Irish rogue comes to the house and is ejected by Hudson but finds an audience in Thomas in the garage. He is in possession of letters written by Lady Marjorie to her former lover, Captain Hammond, and wants a hundred pounds for them. (This affair was dealt with in the Magic Casements episode in Series One.) Thomas agrees to act as a go-between, but also sees it as an opportunity to gain personally. The plot of this episode gyrates wildly, and has 're-write' and stamped all over. In fact it was heavily re-written by script editor Alfred Shaughnessy, to the point where the original writer, Peter Wildeblood, asked for his name to be removed.

Ep 7. Your Obedient Servant is a another standalone, particularly well written by Fay Weldon. It's a tale of two brothers, with Richard Bellamy's brother, Arthur (John Nettleton) coming to stay, and Hudson entertaining his brother, Donald (Andrew Downie) and his family whilst they stop over in town. Donald is a successful engineer, and to keep up appearances Hudson adopts the pose of success himself, hiring gentlemanly clothes, going to the best restaurants, and hiding his lowly status as a butler. Hudson also hides these activities from his master, but arouses suspicion by his odd behaviour and taking off so much time. Arthur, a bit of an amateur sleuth and a prude, suspects Hudson of having a mistress and plots to expose the nefarious butler to Richard, whom he recons is too soft. The denouement leads to a clash on all levels, and uses the mores of the period most effectively.

Ep 8. Out of the Everywhere returns to more familiar ground with the arrival of Elizabeth's baby, and consequently the presence of veteran Nanny Webster (Daphne Heard) to care for the child. Nanny is an old dragon who looks like a cross between Queen Victoria and Nurse Ratched. An extreme disciplinarian, she clashes with Sarah in the area of childcare and even has Hudson shaking in his boots.

Ep 9. An Object of Value sees more tension in the house when Lady Marjorie's mother, Lady Southwold (Cathleen Nesbitt) and her prissy companion Miss Hodges (Nancie Jackson) come to stay. Lady Southwold loses a valuable broach, and Miss Hodges casts suspicion on the Bellamy's servants and demands an enquiry. Hudson and Thomas clash again when Thomas refuses to answer questions about his private life and almost hands in his notice.

Ep 10. A Special Mischief introduces a new character, Julius Karekin (Donald Burton), whom Elizabeth meets by chance when she gets involved in a suffragette demonstration. Karekin is again a 'modern type', a foreigner who has become rich and influential enough to penetrate the circles of power formerly the exclusive domain of the British upper class oligarchy. Elizabeth falls in love with him and they commence an affair. Meanwhile Rose, who also got mixed up with the suffragettes to save her mistress, languishes in prison. Karekin, naturally, sorts it out, and also gives Elizabeth a hat shop. In Ep 11. The Fruits of Love he comes to the rescue of Elizabeth's parents when they face a financial crisis due to death duties. Karekin seems too good to be true, and, of course, he is. When the affair turns sour, his real motives become apparent.

Ep 12. The Wages of Sins returns to Thomas and Sarah, who is now pregnant by Thomas, but hides his identity as father to save his job. The pair concoct a clever scheme to leave the Bellamy's employment and profit at the same time. The situation echoes Thomas's profiteering approach in Ep 6., but is handled more subtly. Lady Marjorie finally recognises him as 'a rascal', and there were grounds to Hudson's distrust all along; but Thomas was never found out, and unlike Hudson he is now 'free'.

Ep 13. A Family Gathering wraps everything up with James and his new fiancée Delia (Phyllis Kingman) coming together with a now single Elizabeth and their parents. Thomas and Sarah turn up uninvited at Lady Marjorie's birthday party, much to Hudson's consternation, and mingle freely with their betters. It's a sign of things to come for then the King dies and the Edwardian era is over. The series ends with the family wondering what the next decade will hold…


The DVD

In contrast to the variable and sometimes poor image quality of Series One, Series Two is far superior, being digitally remastered from the original two inch recordings. Noise, grain and colour distortion are virtually eliminated, and apart from a slight softness and the 4:3 ratio, one could almost be watching a contemporary television transfer.

On the extras front, there is Part Two of the documentary The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs, with Ian Ogilvy, Christopher Beeny and Jenny Tomasin joining Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, Simon Williams, etc., who appeared in Part One. They reminisce over how Upstairs, Downstairs went from being just a success to a national institution, and talk of the film version that never got made. There are very chatty audio commentaries on Episodes 1, 2, 4 and 13, with Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, Simon Williams, Ian Ogilvy and some of the writers, which sometimes have everyone talking at once, but do contain nuggets of insider gossip that will interest fans. Also included is Simon Williams and Alfred Shaughnessy in Conversation, which covers the entire five series and was recorded shortly before Shaughnessy's death.

Conclusion

Series Two works well as a continuation of the saga. Again the writing and the acting succeed in holding interest, with situations, plot twists and characterisations that are far from ordinary and predictable. As a study of class in bygone days, it remains fascinating, which is why Americans love it. John Alderton's performance is particularly good, showing the two faces of the servant in a very wry manner. He and real-life wife Pauline Collins left after this series, but reappeared several years later in the spin-off Thomas and Sarah.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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