JULY / AUG 2011: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
Even during the greatest times of need and want, it is true that some pieces of the world can flourish, thriving in wealth and splendor. This was true of the fictional Eaton Place, nestled in London during the depression and the years that follow, as markers of the war that is to come begin to show in the streets. 165 Eaton Place has once seen grand parties and other social gatherings under its previous owners, but now stands empty and ready be renovated by Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes Holland.
The new season of Upstairs Downstairs, released this year by Masterpiece Theatre, follows the Hollands as they establish a home and a new rhythm of life as stable as possible during changing times.
On close examination, being among the elite appears to be more of a tightrope walk than one might anticipate. Lady Agnes must hire the appropriate staff to help Eaton Place run smoothly, as well as manage the difficulties that arise when her mother-in-law challenges her role in the family. Sir Hallam must learn how to keep his social status and family from the appearance of any dishonor when his sister-in-law joins the family, her new-fashioned viewpoints causing many family difficulties. His job of keeping their name in good standing in society grows more difficult as talk of war grows greater, and socializing with the politically correct persons gains importance.
Meanwhile, another level of complexity is added to the social plot in the form of the staff that live below, as suggested from the title which speaks of the aristocratic life upstairs and the lives of servants downstairs. This series gives an inside look at how the newly-hired servants think, feel, work and live as they grow accustomed to each other and the ways of Eaton Place, as well as the importance of their lives outside of serving the Holland family: their romantic relationships, political ties, prejudices, and mores. As the times are changing, so does the separation between servants and aristocrats grow more ambiguous. But something both the “upstairs” aristocrats and the “downstairs” servants cannot avoid are the light whispers of the second world war to come, which makes its way into homes through radios, telephone, and newspapers. There are meetings and riots in the streets, swastika symbols strangely absent from Nazi flags and armbands. This is possibly more a sign of modern Britain and its censorship than the era presented in the show.
One of the most interesting aspects of Upstairs Downstairs is the anachronisms inherent throughout. One gets the sense that the upper-class characters are constantly striving to retain their nobility in a world that threatens to flip all their personal views. Do they really care about the changing going on in the world around them or are they merely attempting to preserve the life that has always been? How can aristocrats balance their sense of old-money privilege and power while at the same time selflessly caring for those below them, such as a helpless Jewish girl that ends up in the care of the Hollands?
Sir and Lady Holland seem to have different perspectives of the unique responsibility that comes with their positions. How can care for one’s country triumph over pomp and circumstance? Is it better to host a bigger party or have fewer offensive guests in attendance? These and other questions are those that must shape the decision-making and consciences of their lives.
Due to its complexities Upstairs Downstairs has been a widely popular series, stemming from its status as the originator of this unique method of storytelling. This recent series is a continuation of a successful multiple-season series from the 70’s. However, its status as the only one of its kind was recently challenged by Downton Abbey, which has a similar concept in that it follows the lives of masters and servants, but takes place during the early 1900’s just prior to the first world war. Both series conclude with the announcement that war now threatens the upheaval of the worlds in which the characters live and breathe. Is the new Upstairs Downstairs unique enough to survive the similarities between these two shows that have gained so many loyal and dedicated viewers? The answer seems to come in a promise from the BBC to release a second season in 2012. Perhaps viewers recognize that although both worlds of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs take place in different eras on the brink of massive change, where characters suffer through similar struggles, such as the clash of class, it is the similarity rather than differences that cause us to love them so. ■