My family was, for various reasons, devoted to the first Upstairs, Downstairs series, back in the day. Mom loved the whole dichotomy of the ‘family’ upstairs, and the servants, working away behind the scenes and below stairs – very likely because her father, my Grandpa Jim was engaged in practically life-long service to a wealthy family living in a magnificent mansion. Dad had a mild guy-crush on Rachael Gurney, who played Lady Marjory Bellamy – she was what Dad apparently considered the perfect upper-class Englishwoman. And I loved it all because it was … England, that very place that three of our four grandparents had come from, and during the two decades that were pictured in the show. The outer world of Upstairs Downstairs was what they would have remembered; the music, the manners, the fashions, habits and social customs, the scandals and events.
So we followed it devotedly, even as we admitted to each other that it was really a high-toned soap opera in period costume. I think primarily the reason that it succeeded on those terms was that it was entirely character-driven. That is, the characters drove the plots, and they were pretty consistent over the arc of the show; there was a womanizing rake – actually two of them, one upstairs and one down – the imperious lady and her devoted sour-tempered maid, the upright lord of the house, several charming ingénues – and their affairs of state and otherwise, personal crises large and small, courtship, marriages, birth, death … the whole enchilada, as it were. And always in the background there was history going on, but it usually took a back seat to personal lives and concerns. Which is how it is for most of us; what we do, the decisions that we take are driven by our characters and our needs. So, dialed up for dramatic purposes, the Bellamy saga managed a high degree of consistency that way.
And now we come to the new Upstairs, Downstairs iteration … and a couple of episodes into the second season, it is not going well, character and plot-wise. It was a good idea, to update Eaton Place to the 1930s, and bring in a whole new upstairs and downstairs family, with the character of Rose Buck to tie them together, but it’s already gone south, between season one and two … which we have easily deduced from the rushed manner in which the transition between the two was made. You mean – now they have two children? And the mother-in-law died? (And they killed the monkey… not a good start, FYI, and it matters little that it was a well-meant accident.) And Sir Hallam will be boinking his sister-in-law, who doubles as a Nazi spy? Hooo-kay, then. There could have been a whole season of character-developing high-toned soap opera worked in, between the end of one and the start of the second, but apparently everyone wanted to rush on to the drama of historical events. Pity, that – what they finished up with was plot-driven characters; where the needs of plot drove the characters to do things that radically changed what they had first appeared to be … which is very likely why one of the key originators of the original and the follow-on series departed at speed, while the other had serious health problems.
No, it’s not a bad thing do do plot-driven characters, especially in the confines of a historical narrative, but abruptly contradicting the established character, and rushing over certain developments? Sigh. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the next season of Downton Abbey. At least, they are not doing things in a mad rush … although they did rather hurry through WWI, and muddled the sequence of the end of the war and the great influenza epidemic.