Upstairs Downstairs / Boxing Day, BBC1
Christmas TV: Straight out of the top drawer
Reviewed by Tom Sutcliffe
Monday, 27 December 2010
Heidi Thomas, very sensibly called in by the BBC for the delicate task of reviving Upstairs Downstairs after 35 years of suspension, doesn't think it makes much sense comparing her new series with Downton Abbey. It would be like comparing Life on Mars to a Miss Marple drama on the grounds that they're both detective stories, she said in an interview recently.
If anyone read this and got their hopes up for a bit of genre-bending time-travel behind the green baize door they will have been gravely disappointed. Upstairs Downstairs turns out to be almost identical to Downton Abbey, except in a few essential particulars, which should please Heidi Thomas. To my eyes it's wittier, more intriguing and far more inventive about the intersection between the world at large and the microcosm of an aristocratic establishment. If it's the house that matters, then Downton Abbey wins hands down, since Highclere Castle is pretty much unbeatable as a location. If it's what goes on inside it, then Upstairs Downstairs looks as if it should give ITV's returning series a challenging run for its money.
It began a tiny bit creakily perhaps, that famous theme tune fading away as Lord and Lady Holland disembarked from a transatlantic liner to open up their new London home. "This house is going to see such life!" said Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) as she poked gingerly around the wrecked interior. And then it was off to Buck's of Belgravia, to hire an establishment wholesale from Rose's domestic agency. When she finally mentioned the address, a far-away look came into Rose's eyes and voices from the past echoed on the soundtrack. Mr Hudson's name is still inscribed on the label for the wine cellar key, but, Rose apart, it's an entirely new set of residents and an entirely different period. The Hollands have no children (the occasion for little crestfallen looks when it's mentioned), but they do have upmarket squatters, both Lord Holland's mother (Eileen Atkins) and Lady Agnes's wild sister (Claire Foy) turning up uninvited to install themselves in the house.
Eileen Atkins is – if Thomas will forgive me – playing the Maggie Smith role, bringing the same piquancy to the ensemble as a Lady Mountbattenish type, freshly returned from India with a Sikh secretary and an exotic pet: "A monkey applauds me every morning... I can't tell you how that boosts one's confidence," she explained to the dismayed Lady Agnes. And before long she was messing up Lady Agnes's inaugural cocktail party, having been suckered into inviting Wallis Simpson by the suggestion that the King might be accompanying her. In the event it was Joachim von Ribbentrop who turned up, creating a diplomatic faux pas that was only resolved when the new butler dispatched Johnny the footman to upend a tray of Martinis into his lap.
It's nicely directed too – in particular a teasingly erotic scene in which the daring tweenie shows off bits of herself to Johnny under the bathroom door, including the scarlet-painted toenails that she's preserved as a hidden badge of her rebelliousness. I wasn't entirely persuaded that Lord and Lady Holland would have joined the crowd of policemen and scandalised servants outside Johnny's door after he'd injured a man in a pub brawl – rather than absenting themselves from this distressingly vulgar gathering – but that was only a minor quibble. As an exercise in resurrection it was really exemplary, the body looking remarkably fresh and nimble despite all those years in the vaults.