Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2011
Perhaps you’ve noticed that for some time now I haven’t said much on the subject of movies. Part of the explanation for that is that watching movies is something my wife and I tend to do together, and she’s now in graduate school and has far less free time. (I’m not sure why, but I’ve taken surprisingly little opportunity to empty our Netflix queue of things that I chose and she isn’t likely to enjoy.) The bigger part of the explanation is that the time we have had has been spent on watching the entire five years—sixty-eight episodes!—of Upstairs Downstairs. As those of my age or somewhere close to it may remember, it’s an English television drama which aired in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theater from 1973 till 1977 (and a couple of years earlier on the BBC). It follows the lives of an upper-class English family, the Bellamys—the upstairs people—and their servants—the downstairs people—from 1903 till 1930, a span of time which obviously provides many opportunities for interweaving the affairs of the household with great changes and events in the larger world. I remembered enjoying what I saw of it on that first go-round, and when an updated mini-series was produced last year, I thought the original might be something my wife would like, so we got the first DVD from Netflix, and off we went. That was back in June, and I think it was this past Tuesday night that we reached the end.
We liked it, yes, but it was also very convenient, considering our limited time, to have something that came in neat hour-long episodes. Sixty-eight hours of anything is a lot and I have to admit I was tiring of it by the fourth season, and by the fifth was downright impatient. My interest was renewed toward the end, but still it seemed that the producers and writers had pretty well run out of things to do with the material they had to work with. However, they had done something impressive: created a set of characters who came alive, whom you came to care about, and in whose lives you were interested, so that even if you weren’t really all that taken with a particular episode (and each episode is a self-contained story), you wanted to stick around and find out what was going to happen to the people in the longer run.
In that respect, also, the series is an impressive achievement, which must have been partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of commitment on the part of the principal actors. The only other TV series I know of which attempted the same sort of thing is The X-Files, and it, after a promising start, was not so fortunate: in addition to the usual uncertainty about whether the series would be renewed each year, after the first few seasons the producers apparently never knew whether the two actors who played the crucial main characters were going to return. And although many episodes of The X-Files were self-contained stories, many were not, and that larger narrative fell apart completely. The Wire, which I consider eminently successful, took a smarter approach: individual episodes did not necessarily stand alone as stories, but each season did, so that if there was doubt at the end of a season whether the series would be renewed, or a certain actor would be back, there would still be a reasonably satisfying resolution. The Upstairs Downstairs producers did have to cope with the departure of a few important actors who decided to quit after the first couple of seasons. One of the characters was killed off in a way that was dramatically effective and continued to have effects through the rest of the series; the other, less convincingly, simply went to Canada and never came back. It was an advantage, too, that there was no need to work out in advance exactly what would happen over the five years: if you start with a family and their servants in episode one, you can proceed with the broad plan of following them through the years without needing to know that you are working toward, for instance, an alien invasion in episode forty.
I don’t remember how much of the series I saw at its initial release, but I certainly don’t remember anything of the later episodes. I do remember thinking, after a certain number of episodes, that it was essentially a high-quality soap opera, made to seem better than it was, at least in American eyes, by its classy British tone and subject, helped along by the general popularity of Masterpiece Theater and the mild Anglophilia of what used to be called the middlebrow audience. I remember a reviewer or two saying something similar. And it’s not a completely unfair judgment. This is not great art. But it is good solid work, what you might call journeyman art.
From today’s point of view one can see that the producers were laboring under pretty severe restrictions. Like other Masterpiece Theater productions of its time, it clearly had a pretty limited budget. Especially for the first couple of seasons, a small number of sets provide the setting for almost all the action. It was only later, when the series had become a great success, that the producers were able to shoot on location, or on complex exterior sets, or with crowds. If a visitor arrives in an impressive carriage, we see someone observing and describing it from a window, with some canned clippity-clop on the soundtrack. And I wondered if it was for budgetary reasons that in so many episodes one or more main characters are entirely absent—“gone to Southwold with her ladyship” disposes of two characters in a few words.
But the acting and the writing are almost uniformly excellent. Even when the overall narrative of an episode is weak, the details remain interesting. Anyone who’s ever gotten hooked on the series soon comes to think of Rose and Hudson and Mrs. Bridges (downstairs) and Lord and Lady Bellamy and their children as real people, and I found myself really wanting things to come out all right for them. Partly that’s the acting and writing, of course, but it’s also partly the length of one’s exposure to them, something a long-running series has going for it that a two-hour movie doesn’t.
One comes away from the series feeling that one has really learned something about life in England at the time, of the relations between classes, of English history between 1903 and 1930, and of the effects of events and technological progress on the Edwardian world. Whether what one thinks one has learned is accurate or not, I don’t know, but it is certainly convincing. The series as a whole is essentially a good piece of naturalistic fiction, not as good as Dickens, maybe, but probably as good as many lesser writers in that tradition (I am not naming any because I’m insufficiently familiar with the field). It touches the great philosophical and religious areas of life only glancingly and implicitly, and its strengths of plot and character are not of the same order as those of Dickens. But it does not, like so much art of our time, present trivial or mocking answers to the big questions, and it is never simplistic or sneering—much less, thanks be to God, self-congratulatory—about the social and political questions it inevitably raises. The deep injustices of the class system, for instance, are clear, but so are the stability and sense of order it provides for those who have a place in it. You might call this entertainment, but entertainment as it should be—art of a lesser but far from worthless order.
Judging by the reviews on Netflix and Amazon, Upstairs Downstairs remains popular, as it deserves to do. A recent three-episode revival was, in my view, only so-so, although I'm curious now to see it again. If you're a devotee, there is a great deal of information about the series, old and new, including episode guides, at this site, which appears to be unofficial but pretty thorough. If you're not, but are curious, the site is still worth a look, but be aware that the episode guides may contain plot spoilers.
NOTE: comments here may contain spoilers, too.