Upstairs Downton

Last year, I was asked to contribute an essay on television to the Faber book Shouting At The Telly. It’s a very good collection of writing actually, with pieces by Boyd Hilton, Rebecca Front, Emma Kennedy and Richard Herring (and some people I have never met). I wrote about Upstairs Downstairs – the original – and I thought I’d republish it here, as the show is back, and it suddenly seems half-relevant. Thanks to editor John Grindrod for allowing me to reprint it. If you’re interested in the book, you can buy it here. Or some other places.

 

WHEN LORD BELLAMY LOOKS AT THE CAMERA

By Andrew Collins

It is October, 1971, a Sunday night. With its familiar fanfare, the LWT ribbon unfurls from left to right across a black screen. A simple title card reads Upstairs Downstairs, under the imperious Alexander Faris theme tune (dah-dah-da-dah-da-daah); further captions inform us that the episode we are about to watch is called On Trial, written by Fay Weldon and set in November, 1903 (this information is accompanied by suitable etchings from Punch). The establishing location shot: we pan across white-painted Victorian townhouses through a foreground horse and cart, as an upright gentleman in a top hat passes a furtive lady in long skirt and bonnet. She tentatively ascends the steps of 165 Eaton Place, a prospective parlourmaid. A butler impatiently redirects her to the servants’ entrance, “downstairs”, thus deftly establishing in a wordless exchange the title’s two-tier, olden-days caste system. A nanny with a pram passes across our field of vision, because it’s television law. A portent of things to come, the downstairs bell rings before the maid has pulled the cord. Later, a bedroom light will go out before she has snuffed out the candle.

Inside, very much on a studio set now, we meet the staff, going about their subservient bustle: Mrs Bridges the huffing and puffing cook, Rose the snooty house parlourmaid, Roberts the crusty lady’s maid, Alfred the Bible-spouting footman, Pearce the bottom-pinching coachman, Emily the dim-witted kitchen maid … the under-stairs hierarchy is quickly mapped out, with the poised and proper, permanently disapproving butler Mr Hudson deferred to at all times. So it jars somewhat when Roberts addresses him as “Mr Hudston” at the dinner table. While ladling out the mutton stew, Mr Hudson (which is his name), announces, “Sarah is joining us as under-house parlourmaid, Miss Roberts.” She replies, clearly and confidently, “Indeed, Mr Hudston,” adding, “On trial, I take it?”

The maid may be on trial, but the actors, it seems, are not. Patsy Smart, who plays Roberts, hasn’t learned her lines properly, has she? Even if she has, she still sloppily muffed the name of a principal character, in the first 15 minutes of the first ever episode of a brand new series. I’m on the sofa, every time, shouting “Cut!” and adding, “Let’s retake that from the top of page 14!” But they never do. I guess we should give Patsy a break: it’s a big cast – lots of pesky names to remember – and the dinner-table scene is pretty complicated, with eight speaking parts and a lot of plate-passing; sufficient for the director to plough on regardless when one of his luvvies arses it up.

This is the cold, hard reality of a medium-budget ITV drama in 1971. The programme – which, to be fair to all concerned, began, unloved, in a graveyard slot and built its audience gradually – was shot like a stage play in the then-traditional manner, with fixed cameras, long takes and little time in a punishing turnaround for endless “pick-ups”. Overdubbing would have been a luxury, hence the endless parade of misreads and muffs, the same kind they let Wilfrid Brambell get away with in Steptoe & Son.

Even Gordon Jackson, who, over five series and 60 episodes, made Angus Hudson (which is his name) one of TV’s all-time great fictional creations, stumbles over his words and corrects himself, mid-sentence. In episode two, he demands, “What has been going on bond … behind my back, Sarah?” And he’s just described his master, Lord Bellamy, as the Undersecretary of State for something called the Admirality. In the words of Mrs Bridges, it’s a right two and eight and no mistake.

Lord Bellamy himself, played with upstanding dignity and humour throughout by David Langton, has a habit of looking at the camera. Well, not exactly, but he’s constantly sort of glancing at it, especially when crossing the morning room for a sherry or to lean on the mantelpiece: he tries to ignore it while actually drawing attention to it. Langton honed his craft on the stage, you see.

Watching Upstairs Downstairs makes me achingly nostalgic – not for the starched collars and shifting attitudes of the Edwardian era, but the two-inch tape glare and shifting sets of the 1970s, when period drama on television was still a case of erect chipboard, run up crinoline, block thesps, point camera and shoot. Upstairs Downstairs may appear slipshod and not a little quaint to eyes more accustomed to the cinematic, location-heavy, deep-focus grandeur of Cranford or Little Dorrit, but what made it great was the storytelling, a skill that transcends the limitations of technicality. Ambitiously chronicling three decades of 20th century English life, dealing with shellshock, suicide, scandal, suffrage and the ultimate collapse of the old class system, its greatest achievement was to defy LWT drama controller Cyril Bennett, who said, “It’s very pretty, but it’s just not commercial television. They’ll switch off in their droves.” It went on to be shown in over 70 countries, and picked up two Baftas, seven Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody.

Now I’ve revisited plenty of TV shows I adored in my youth and beyond that first Proustian rush, the majority really don’t hold up. I may never again know the crushing sense of disappointment of buying Starsky & Hutch on video, or sitting excitedly down to a rerun on UKTV Drama of Shoestring, but Upstairs Downstairs has survived, intact, as compulsive viewing. The goofs are all part of that. Just as they are affectionately logged on Steve Phillips’ impeccable UpDown website, so they form part of the warp and weft of an epic series made before technology, especially digital, turned TV plays into a thing of the past. Now, even Holby City looks like a Hollywood movie. Poirot, still running after 19 years, has lost much of its theatrical, drawing-room charm of late – it’s all beguiling close-ups of his moustache or a daisy that add literally nothing to the unfolding plot, but might get the director his first movie job. In the words of Mrs Bridges: no good will come of it, you mark my words.

Let us, then, celebrate Patsy Smart for calling Mr Hudson “Mr Hudston”. I have nothing but admirality for her.

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6 thoughts on “Upstairs Downton

  1. Of course, they had the time to spin a good yarn in those days. In Ud’s current incarnation we’ve had a new maid introduced, uncovered her Jewish background, her previous career as a university lecturer, her “looked after” child and her asthmatic chest and, to cap it all, she goes and expires on us as well, all within an hour. In “The Good Old Days” her story arc would have taken at least three or four episodes to complete. Such a shame.

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