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Upstairs Downstairs: Journeyman Art

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.


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simply went to Canada and never came back

One of my great-great uncles (I think) pretty much did just that. Lots of people did in the first half of the 20th century. Of course, I doubt the character in Upstairs Downstairs, whether servant or toff, went to work in the shale pits.

In my boarding school, girls could watch TV one or two nights a week, the night chosen by the house mistress. One night there was top of the pops, and another night was Upstairs Downstairs. I could not bear the fuss people made about it: if one tiptoed through the TV room, which was a connecting room between different sides of the house, girls would turn around desperately and say 'shsssss'. It was the frantic shssss which drove me up the wall. I am noisy by nature and never close a door when it can be banged properly shut. It seemed to go on for years, and years, and years, this fanatical attachment to Upstairs, Downstairs. I was in the main school from 1973 to 1977, and the series seemed to run everlastingly through it all.

I never watched it. It looked dull. These days, from your description, it looks like exactly what I would want to watch after teaching for five hours.

It is certainly not as stimulating as The Wire--it doesn't just grab you and not let go. But yeah, you might like it now. If I'd let myself be guided entirely by preference I don't think I'd have finished it, but after about season 3 a sort of compulsion to see it through set in.

Somehow I'm not at all surprised that you didn't like it back then. I remember you saying you hated the old Dr. Who, of around the same time I guess. It *did* go on for years and years. According to Wikipedia it was 1971-75 on the BBC, but maybe there were re-runs, too.

Five hours of teaching?!? You definitely need *something*.

Paul, about the going to Canada: I'll allow myself a semi-spoiler and say it was a toff, and a family member, and what was unconvincing was that the person was hardly ever spoken of again, and there was no explanation of why he/she never came back. I think something close to 20 years pass between that disappearance and the end of the series, and they never seem to hear much news, nobody seems to miss the person especially, or ever talk about why he/she hasn't bothered to come home, or wonder what happened.

I rarely watch tv or movies but I have a sudden urgent need to watch this!

I'm having an attack of conscience thinking that I might lead someone into spending 68 hours of his life watching this. It's worthwhile but maybe not worth that while.

It sounds like visual comfort food. Maybe that is my contemporaries at school so revered it, though I don't know why a 13 year old girl needs that. I find myself buy and even reading all the Elizabeth David cookboys I can buy from abebooks. No one needs more that three Elizabeth David cookbooks. I decided my reading her was 1950s nostalgia.

Yes, it certainly could be that. I'm slightly surprised that 13 year olds liked it that much, too. There's romance in it, but it isn't predominantly that sort of story--not Austen or Bronte stuff by any means.

I don't know who Elizabeth David is. I guess The Twilight Zone and a few detective stories meet my 1950s nostalgia needs. I wouldn't mind seeing a few episodes of Leave It to Beaver.

If I were to spend 68 hours of my life watching this show (which is really unlikely since it would have to be really special for that) I would do so over the course of a couple of years I think which is not too bad as a proportion of time.

No, it didn't seem bad to me, either, till I got close to the end and was thinking about doing this post, and while reading here and there about it noticed the total number of episodes. But, you know...if it hadn't been that it probably would have been something else. It annoys me that I feel like I can't even allow myself that much leisure.

It sounds bad when you tot it up. Don't do that. :D

68 episodes sounds like a lot, but comparatively speaking it really isn't, at least for me. I've watched all of the The Wire and all of Breaking Bad over the past two years, and I'm almost done watching the entire Inspector Morse series (30+ episodes) for the second time. And generally I only watch on average about 3-4 hrs a week (I watch no "live" TV at all).

Today is the last day of term. On Tuesday I wrote my last lecture (for today) and watched my last movie (Hitchcock, I Confess) for my class (today). Last night I watched Cowboys and Aliens. It is delightfully bad.

Rob, I am wondering how to cope before the next and final series of Breaking Bad. What do you think of 'Justified'? I recently bought Series I from amazon - it hasn't come yet. I am currently watching The Reaper, which is funny, but not really hilarious.

Yeah, Louise, I wouldn't have, but it was pretty much done for me--since each episode is an hour, once I saw the total number of episodes mentioned somewhere, the fact was inescapable. I managed to escape knowing that about The Wire, though it must be in the same range.

I didn't know there were 30+ Morse episodes. I still really like all those old Mystery series--Morse, Dalgliesh, Poirot, Holmes--I guess most are from the '80s to early '90s. The recent Lewis ones are pretty good, too. I haven't attempted Breaking Bad yet, but from what people say I'm pretty sure I would be hooked.

I want to see Cowboys and Aliens, but one person told me it wasn't even delightfully bad. I sure thought it looked promising.

What did you think of I Confess?

I watched I Confess over the summer, when selecting the movies for this course. I watched again, actually, on Monday night, and in my opinion it is a superb movie. It features Hitchcock's trademark misogyny, or at least his ingrained belief that beautiful blonde women are ambulant minefields. Montgomery Clift's performance is brilliant. I dont think it is really about confession. In my opinion, it is about clerical identity. At the end of the movie, the blonde woman is abruptly made to realise that the man she is infatuated with is a priest, and says to her husband, 'let's go'. The killer asks the priest for forgiveness and he hesitates for a second and then says 'ego te absolvo' - his move into Latin is his reassumption of his clerical persona, after a momentary lapse.

Cowboys and Aliens is probably not even delightfully bad, unless you are exhausted. You have to be prepared for utter dreck, which I was. I had worked all day, finishing my lecture for this afternoon by 6 pm, and then gone to a lecture by
Archbp Dolan. So I was feeling extremely virtuous, and had permission to enjoy complete rubbish. You probably need that feeling to get the full value out of the movie. Having a heart for both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford does not hurt either.

(spoiler) I Confess has already gotten sort of vague in my mind. But I think you're right about that being the real drama. Doesn't it turn out that the relationship between the priest and the woman was not quite what it at first appeared to be?--i.e. not consummated?

"permission to enjoy complete rubbish" I know that feeling. I could use one of those evenings. Unfortunately C&A will probably not be at hand next time I get a chance to have one.

Francesca, I haven't started watching any new series in place of B.B. Mostly I've been catching up on older movies I've either never seen or wanted to see again.

I didn't see Cowboys and Aliens (it looked cheesy to me, frankly), but two smart, enjoyable action movies I saw in the last few months were 'Red,' with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren, and 'Hanna,' with Saiorse Ronan and Eric Bana. The former is more tongue-in-cheek, while the latter is more serious, but both are great fun.

Of course it looked cheesy! It's supposed to be (surely?).

True, but I meant cheese of the unintentional sort (graphics, SFX & such). It just looked too cartoonish for me.

Mac, yes, the relationship is apparently unconsummated.

I had preordered C&A on amazon. I saw the trailer, and I have a high cheese threshold.

Rob, I saw 'Red' in those rent a DVD bins in Martins (our supermarket), but I was unsure how to operate it at the time. It looked good. Now I want to watch 'War in Winter' (I think it is called).

'Red' is a hoot. 'Hanna' was directed by Joe Wright, the guy who did 'Atonement,' which was also excellent but a completely different sort of film. Don't know 'War in Winter.'

I've never even heard of these others...maybe Atonement... Last night my wife and I were in a restaurant which had the almost ubiquitous TVs, and I saw an ad for C&A. Must have been providential--now I have to watch it.

I lent it to a friend here yesterday. I dread to think what he and his wife will say :)

I expect this will be one I'll watch by myself. Questionable whether my wife will even consider it enjoyable rubbish.

Atonement was nominated for several Oscars a few years back -- 2007, I believe -- the same year as "No Country..." and "Michael Clayton." Can't remember if it won any. It's based on an Ian McEwan novel.

Vaguely recall having heard of it, but that's all.

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