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Saturday, February 18, 2012

From Upstairs, Downstairs to Downton Abbey... Some Favorite Domestic Miniseries

For millions around the world, Downton Abbey has become a new obsession and, in the interest of full disclosure, we're part of that group.  We were fortunate to be able to catch up with the entire first season over two nights (thank you Netflix Instant Queue!) and then bought the second season, eager to see what becomes of our favorite characters.  Now, having watched both seasons twice, we are left with at least nine months in which to ponder and speculate.  Will Mary and Matthew get married?  Will Mr. Bates be acquitted?  What hilarious barbs with the Dowager Countess come up with?  And that's just a few of the characters.  There are many more that beg almost as much interest.  I, for one, am convinced that Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are destined for the altar.

In our house, several of us are interested in the goings-on at Downton Abbey.  The first to discover the show was my eighteen year old daughter.  She is very possessive of the programs that she enjoys and, for some time, forbid us to watch it.  This isn't the first show our teen queen has claimed for her own, but we weren't playing along this time.  Although we've seen all of the episodes, she's one for delayed gratification and waits for just the right moment to tune in.  That would be well and good, except for the fact that her eight year old brother has also been watching and delights in taunting her with details that she hasn't actually seen yet.  Some are real but, more amusingly, others are not.  For example, Lady Mary and Mr. Carson aren't really getting married and the Dowager Countess is not in love with Mr. Bates.

My favorite Downton Abbey character - the Dowager
Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith.  Remember her
as "Poor Aunt Charlotte" in A Room With a View?

Downton Abbey isn't the first "domestic" series that I've enjoyed, although it might be the best yet.  I say that even as a devoted viewer of the original Upstairs, Downstairs series.  While it was made just before I was born, I'd heard about it for years before I actually saw it.  My brother and sister, ten and eight years older than me, had loved it and were happy to share it with me.  I now own the entire series and delve into it from time to time.  I still love the stories of Mr. Hudson, Mrs. Bridges and Rose, Lord Bellamy, Lady Marjorie and Elizabeth.  I adored the sets and, for a couple of years, was considering the idea of being a butler.  I think I've alluded to trying to set up a bell system in our rented duplex as a child.  This was, of course, directly related to my fascination with this Edwardian master and servant drama.  Although there was a new Upstairs, Downstairs series on recently, I couldn't watch more than a bit.  The idea of checking in at 165 Eaton Place is more tempting than the reality proved to be.  To be entirely honest, I think the show lost a bit when Lady Marjorie went down with the Titanic, and it never quite got it back.

The original Upstairs, Downstairs cast with
Lord Richard and Lady Marjorie
Bellamy front and center in the front hall
at 165 Eaton Place.  Mr. Hudson, the redoubtable
butler, is in the center of the back row, Mrs. Bridges,
the ideal of an Edwardian cook, to the left in her
pink dress and starched white apron.

My favorite episode of all time had to be Guest of Honour.  In this installment that King himself (Edward VII) was coming to dinner with "la favorita", Alice Keppel.  I think I know the menu by heart and can see Mrs. Bridges meeting with Lady Marjorie to work it all out.  You'll also see one of the loveliest cakes ever in this episode...  I've always wanted to make one that looked like it.  It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Upstairs, Downstairs did nothing but encourage my love of cooking, royalty and Britain in general.  Although it looks a little dated now, especially when compared with Downton Abbey, it still has a charm all its own, and the performances are genuine.  I can't imagine that Gordon Jackson wasn't really Mr. Hudson or that Angela Baddeley wasn't really a gruff but lovable cook dressed in pink and white, slaving over Baron of Lamb for the king, himself.

The Upstairs, Downstairs, theme conducted by
the composer...  Anyone who loves this show will
instantly recognize the tune and remember all
sorts of wonderful moments from the series...

There are, of course, other series and movies that are similar in content to these two, but I don't think any of them have ever approached the level of deserved popularity.  Neither seem to have made the mistake of imposing modern mores and morality on their characters - trying to make their thoughts and actions a means to put across some sort of twenty-first century idea or position.  Rather, we see them as they were.  While we can think that servants and lords and ladies are anachronisms, and to be sure some of the characters see it that way themselves, we can also come to understand why the system worked and worked well at times.  While I'd never want to be in service to a family for all of my life, for some that were there was security and a sense of belonging that they might not have achieved elsewhere. 

Putting all of these high-minded ideals aside, both Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs are delightfully fun to watch.  Through them, we see a vanished way of life where people dressed for tea and again for dinner.  A time when rules of conduct were strict, but clearly laid out, and where everyone had a part to play, however limiting it might have been.  The sets, clothes and music aren't bad either!  In fact, they're all rather dapper and dreamy!

A few favorite moments with the Dowager Countess...

P.S.  If you can ever find the Upstairs, Downstairs novels by John Hawkesworth, among others, pick them up and read them...  They echo the series but give marvelous background on characters like Mr. Bellamy, Mr. Hudson, Rose and others...


  1. I love DA but nothing, NOTHING can compare to the original UD (for me, anyway). The much lower budget in UD is more than compensated by the incredible writing and stellar acting of the cast. And while I do agree that the show suffered from the loss of Lady Marjorie, I disagree that the show never recovered; seasons 4 and 5 are beyond outstanding, they set the gold standard for TV drama. The characters SO embodied their roles, it is almost impossible to see them as mere actors. DA is FUN - lavish sets, and larger-than-life roles - but it isn't even in the same league as the original UD.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comment. You know, as I was watching Downton again the other night, I was thinking along the same lines as you. Some of the situations and plots can seem a little obvious and contrived and are written to highlight that "larger-than-life" aspect of the actors and characters. That is one of the things that makes the show so fun, but I see your point about the subtlety that we get from the Upstairs, Downstairs vs. Downton. The lower budget for UD may have been a blessing. It was more than adequate in terms of sets and costumes, but there had to be a lot more reliance on writing, I think. Gordon Jackson's face told a million stories, didn't it?

      Keep reading and enjoying Dapper and Dreamy... I am going to spend some time watching seasons 4 and 5 of UD this weekend!

      All the best,