I knew the minute the bickering started, we were in for quite a show. Last spring, both the BBC and ITV announced their intention to air independent productions based on the social class systems in the early part of the 1900’s — ITV premiered its seven hour Downton Abbey in the autumn and the BBC has unveiled the new series of Upstairs Downstairs this past week. Naturally, there are bound to be comparisons… and finger pointing… and accusations… I just did not think the stars of the individual projects would become involved. Jean Marsh started it by accusing Downton of robbing plot ideas from the original servant / upper class series she starred in, in the 1970’s. Eileen Atkins chimed in, stating that in her opinion, Downton was rather “boring.” (Which makes me think she is suffering from a case of professional jealousy, because the series is anything but dull!) Then Hugh Bonneville tweeted his disgust at Jean Marsh for dissing their series, intimating it was not up to her usual graces… and then the critics took sides. Some are lavishing praise on the BBC production, others are saying it’s a dour experience after the genius of Downton.
So what do I think? Well, that is complicated but I will do my best. I think it is inevitable that comparisons be drawn, because many of the plot points are strikingly similar and I can see why the BBC would be miffed… they usually set the standard in film productions and now to come in second on the heels of a tremendously successful series that impressed everyone who saw it, they no longer can claim superior production skills. I have seen Upstairs Downstairs, and here are my conclusions.
To succeed at anything, you must do two things for your audience — entertain them and as such, make them like your characters (or in the case of Thomas in Downton, enjoy hating them), and make the plot complicated enough to peak their interest but not so much so that they become confused. Downton succeeds at this, Upstairs does not. One hour into the latter, I loved several of the characters, liked several more, and hated two in particular. That set the stage for increasing emotion as the story wove on and I became involved with their lives. One hour into Upstairs, I semi-liked several of the characters and felt nothing for the rest. Having never seen the original series, the nostalgia they indulged in with Jean Marsh’s character was completely lost on me and I felt nothing for her. Not good. Fortunately, the issue of liking or not liking characters is somewhat resolved in the second hour, when someone truly likable enters the house — a Jewish woman working as a maid after losing her home in Germany. Her friendship with the Indian servant set my screen on fire, because it seemed as if something important and interesting were happening at last! This contrasted beautifully with the continued flame between Persephone and the chauffeur, and his political involvement, and made the second episode outstanding. The third is rather bland in comparison in my opinion, although it does contain a particularly rousing final twenty minutes.
But here’s the thing… in television, many audiences are not going to stick around if you don’t hook them in the first hour. Had Upstairs began with episode two, I think it would have earned far less criticism and far stronger numbers in the ratings, as well as set it apart from Downton in its decision to go in a much different direction.
Then there is the problem of politics. Upstairs does not handle this aspect very well — in fact, if you do not have an intimate knowledge of British politics leading up to WWII, surrounding the death of one king, the pronouncement of another, then his abdication, and so forth, as well as a grasp of Nazi sympathizers in England, you are going to be totally lost. The series never bothers to explain anything, just continues in it in the hope that the audience will know what is happening. Their introduction of a monarch is not well expressed, and left me wondering just which of the royal princes we were dealing with (turns out after some research, it was the youngest!). I believe in giving your audience a certain amount of trust, but you also need to help them along a bit here and there. Never assume anything — either that your audience knows or doesn’t know, just give enough information to support the plot. Downton on the other hand, skimmed the politics of the time just enough so that we were aware of all the issues England was facing and even involved in them here and there, but were never lost, confused, or bored by them. The sinking of the Titanic changes everything for the Crawley family forever — and it is no more than a passing mention, a delicious whisper that peaks our fascination. I suppose my conclusion would be, if you are going to go heavy into politics, make sure anyone can follow it, or they’ll become confused and shut it off. No book or film should force their reader or viewer to implement Google midway through.
One might assume I don’t care for Upstairs at all, but this is not the truth: the first episode left me underwhelmed and the second was marvelous, even though the direction it went is somewhat shocking — Persephone has the makings of a Fascist, or in plain terms, a Nazi sympathizer, and that is a bit difficult to swallow, particularly if she does not reform at some point. (We may or may not discover what comes of her, based on if the BBC has enough nerve to continue with a second installment.) The third episode was a bit trite but had some remarkably good moments — delivering a baby in a bathroom (by a mother in law and a servant, no less), the discovery of the dark secret in the family, and Persephone heading off to Germany. Interestingly, a lot of comparisons have been rightly drawn between the two series in this regard, as both feature upper class young women becoming interested in political movements in which the family chauffeur is involved: Persephone in Upstairs, and Sybil in Downton. There are a few notable differences, even though both are ultimately socialist in nature — Persephone comes from an impoverished background, or as she complains to the chauffeur, “everyone I own someone else has bought for me.” Sybil by comparison is a Lady and has grown up in the midst of wealth. Persephone actively becomes involved with the Fascists, while Sybil is merely curious about the Socialists; Persephone becomes intimate with the chauffeur, whereas we only have vague hints that perhaps one day Sybil might have romantic feelings for the chauffeur. I might also venture to add that the chauffeur in Upstairs, Spargo, I disliked until late in the third episode, whereas I had a soft spot for Branson in Downton from the start.
If you can avoid comparing the two series, you will ultimately be much better off — each has its strengths and its downfalls, and while I do pick somewhat on Upstairs, that is not to say Downton is completely perfect either (some of its plot points could have come in sooner, and others go nowhere at all). Both are entertaining, engaging, and have tremendous talent in them. Each has a plot driven forward by politics and personal dramas, and each has characters you do become fond of, and marvelous little moments of interaction that are just plain charming. Downton has astounding characterization and that is its strength, whereas the strength in Upstairs lies in its more surprising instances — the bird in the linen cupboard, for one. And I imagine that each will continue to improve in my estimation with repeat viewings – Upstairs in particular will seem more whole in one setting than spread out over several nights, but that still will not eradicate its fault of attempting to accomplish far too much in a meager amount of time.
When I first heard that the BBC was pulling its funding for costume dramas in favor of dramas centered around the two world wars, I let out a sigh of disappointment — but if this is any indication of what in the pipeline for future drama, it’s a decent start. I’m becoming fond of the automobiles and furs and satin gowns. But as to which of the two miniseries is better, I will leave for you to decide!
PBS starts Downton Abbey Jan 9th and will premiere Upstairs Downstairs on April 10th.