Is Upstairs Downstairs the daftest drama on TV Jan Moir loved Downton, and adored Call the Midwife, but is left cold by BBC's big budget drama
Unconvincing: Keeley Hawes and Ed Stoppard in BBC period drama Upstairs Downstairs
Bad news on the Upstairs Downstairs front, I’m afraid. The BBC’s big budget period drama, the showstopper that was meant to give Downton Abbey a run for its money, appears to be sliding down the bannister of no return.
New figures reveal that viewers are turning off in droves, bored by lacklustre plots and a confusing array of ‘stilted and stiff’ characters.
I know what they mean. The pivotal character Sir Hallam Holland, as played by Ed Stoppard, has about as much patrician gravitas as a clockwork mouse. The show is supposed to follow the intertwined fortunes of a diplomat’s family and their servants in a grand London townhouse.
Yet Sir H is more like a Brilliantined squeaky schoolboy, not a political hotshot, nor lord of the manor and master of all he surveys.
With the incredible success of ITV’s Downton Abbey over the past two years, we have become hooked all over again on the kind of master-and-servant dramas where the man of the house is a law unto himself, and woe betide any coal-scuttle maid or lickspittle local who fails to recognise this.
Turn off: New figures reveal that viewers are turning off in droves, bored by lacklustre plots and a confusing array of 'stilted and stiff' characters
But Wee Ed would never own an important house like 165 Eaton Place, complete with a beautiful, status-enhancing wife in the opulent form of Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes).
Keeley is all porcelain cheekbones and ravishing smiles; her magnificent, aristocratic bosoms forever swathed in expensive russet silks (by day) or divine, gem-encrusted gowns (by night).
Ed might just about make the Downstairs cut as an oily under butler, occasionally allowed to polish ma’am’s champagne flute. But most certainly not as the upper-class hero who — as the new series ludicrously insists — appears to be the only man standing between Hitler and Britain.
No wonder that Sunday night’s show, only the second in the new series, lost almost a million viewers at the weekend.
In this episode, various inhabitants of 165 Eaton Place somehow found themselves directly involved in the struggle against the evil rise of fascism.
Of course they did!
Lady Persephone (Claire Foy) was stuck in Nazi Germany while Kristallnacht — a series of co-ordinated attacks carried out on Jews — raged around her. ‘Get me out of here,’ she screamed from a call box in downtown Berlinski-on-Frankfurter as stormtroopers smashed shop fronts at her elbow. Were there even telephone boxes back then And if there were, could you make international calls from them I wonder.
Meanwhile Mr Amanjit (Art Malik in a turban and hamster-weave fake beard), who appeared as Lady Maud’s (Dame Eileen Atkins) archivist in the last series, has suddenly downed files and become an instigator of the Kindertransport, the famous rescue mission that managed to evacuate nearly 10,000 Jewish children to Britain before the start of WWII.
Rivals: The Upstairs Downstairs team must have been hoping for the same upward trajectory that saw ITV's Downton Abbey, pictured, end its second series with an average audience of more than 9 million viewers per episode
Success: The last episode of the recent BBC One ratings hit Call The Midwife ended with 9.2 million viewers
Elsewhere, a teenage JFK came to
dinner at Eaton Place and threw up in the downstairs lavatory for
reasons that are still not clear.
the picture The new Upstairs Downstairs is more far-fetched than a
bag of dodo eggs retrieved from the end of the rainbow in cloud cuckoo
land. It is clunkier than a three-legged pantomime horse.
a handsome 5.8 million viewers did still tune in to see this latest
episode of the highly anticipated remake of the classic Seventies drama
However, these numbers are a pretty poor result in the hallowed, traditional and hugely popular Sunday night period drama slot.
The Upstairs Downstairs team must have been hoping for the same upward trajectory that saw ITV’s Downton Abbey end its second series with an average audience of more than 9 million viewers per episode. And the last episode of the recent BBC One ratings hit Call The Midwife ended with 9.2 million viewers.
A series average of 8.7 million made it the most popular new drama series on the channel for over a decade, which is incredible.
'It is not as if viewers don't want to love Upstairs Downstairs. They do! The original series was one of the biggest television hits of the last century,' says Jan Moir
It is not as if viewers don’t want to love Upstairs Downstairs. They do! The original series was one of the biggest television hits of the last century.
Shown between 1971 and 1975 on ITV, it was viewed by millions in more than 70 countries and made household names of stars such as Gordon Jackson (who played Hudson the butler), John Alderton (Thomas the chauffeur) and Pauline Collins (Sarah the maid).
The series was created by two young actresses, Eileen Atkins (now the very same Dame) and Jean Marsh (who reprises her role as maid-turned-housekeeper Rose Buck, although illness has kept her away from the new series).
Atkins and Marsh conceived Upstairs, Downstairs in response to the popularity of The Forsyte Saga, then a phenomenal hit for the BBC. They wanted to make something that had more emphasis on the servants downstairs and, in the original series, this worked brilliantly.
Even now, viewers cannot get enough of period dramas, on the big or small screen.
The legacy of the original U,D is that Downton and Midwife have dominated Sunday night television recently and also that films such as War Horse, The Artist and The Iron Lady have all been big hits in the cinema.
Which all proves that when it comes to the sight of any of the following — ball gowns, wimples, a Fifties doctor’s case, scratchy needles being dropped on to wind-up gramophone records, pencil moustaches (on men) pussy-bow blouses and elbow length gloves — we are insatiable. We are undone.
We want more of the same, with period-perfect knobs on.
Why Audiences have always been keen on bonnet-driven drama, but now the need is more acute. In these shaky times of world turmoil and global financial instability, we crave the comfort of the familiar like never before.
We need to believe in merit and valour again, even if only in a historical context, even if only depicted by someone wearing spats and a waxed moustache.
Whether it is below stairs or in the grand salons of the rich, the sense that life was easier and simpler back then — whenever ‘then’ might be — is a soothing one. Even if it might not be true.
For millions, there remains a hankering for the certainties of the Edwardian age, for the hope and good cheer of the Sixties, for the peerless nobility of those strong but silent Austen heroes of a bygone era.
There is something enduring and alluring about a time when choices were simple, expectations were manageable and everyone knew their place, lived by the rules and did their duty.
And fans want to see all of this on a Sunday night, please, as they prepare to face the rigours of another week ahead. Preferably with feet up, kettle on and rose-tinted specs firmly in place.
The agreeable escapism of watching Lady Twit-Blancmange scamper around Downton Abbey carrying a parasol, or rookie Nurse Ham-Fists successfully deliver quintuplets with only the aid of a tin of Brasso and a potato masher in Call The Midwife, means one thing and one thing only. Monday can wait.
So with an audience practically begging for more of the same, how did Upstairs Downstairs get it so wrong It seems absurd, particularly as it was written by Heidi Thomas, who was not just responsible for Call The Midwife, but also wrote the scripts for the much acclaimed Cranford series as well.
Yet here she has come unstuck, sucked into a quagmire of dissociated scenes.
The new adaptation buckles under the weight of too many bolted-on historical set-pieces and the strain of attempting to be politically correct and a bit edgy in a less enlightened and more formal age. It lacks both warmth and heart, with characters and events included just to prove a point, not to move the drama on.
There is Mr Amanjit, of course, embarrassingly still there as Lady Maud’s secretary, even though she has mysteriously died. In real life, original co-creator Atkins has left the show amid rumours of disagreements over scripts and general storyline developments. Perhaps because there aren’t any!
Cor lumme, even her character’s pet monkey has gorn and died, accidentally suffocated in a prototype covered pram meant to protect babies from gas attack. Don’t ask. It wasn’t even interesting first time around.
Elsewhere there’s Sir Hallam’s sister with Down’s syndrome who’s been locked up in a sanatorium, a Spartist chauffeur (is there any other kind) and depressing macaroon-obsessed cook Mrs Thackeray (Anne Reid) who walks out in a huff and goes on the bus to live with her nephew in Pimlico — no, not exactly the plot line of the century.
Indeed, instead of being a great and classic costume drama, Upstairs Downstairs is more like EastEnders with great frocks. You half-expect to see Nasty Nick Cotton sloping along Eaton Place, puffing on a cig and planning to be dead rotten to his dear old ma.
And next week in WestEnders, watch out for feisty free spirit Dr Blanche Mottershead (Alex Kingston) who will fire up another of her cheroots (costume drama semaphore for lesbian) and get ready for some ratings boosting sex scenes with her lover Emilia Fox.
Apart from a tremendous performance by Adrian Scarborough as Mr Pritchard the butler and beautiful drawing room walls painted a kind of swimming-pool green, there is not much to recommend here.
After initial promise, this new series has gone from murky to turkey in two episodes flat.
Yes, Sir Mouse of Hallam. Europe is indeed inching towards catastrophe — but so is the new Upstairs Downstairs.