Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1930s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1930s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989-2013) – David Suchet starred as Agatha Chrsitie’s most famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in this long-running series that adapted her Poirot novels and short stories.

2. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

3. “Edward & Mrs. Simpson” (1978) – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris starred the 1978 adaptation of the events leading to the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII of Great Britain. The seven-part miniseries was based upon Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography.

4. “Mildred Pierce” – Todd Haynes directed and co-wrote this television adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1940 novel about a middle-class divorcee, who struggles to maintain her family’s position during the Great Depression and earn her narcissist older daughter’s respect. Emmy winners Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Emmy nominee Evan Rachel Wood starred.

5. “Upstairs, Downstairs” (2010-2012) – Heidi Thomas created this continuation of the 1971-1975 series about the Hollands and their servants, the new inhabitants at old Bellamy residence at 105 Eaton Place. Jean Marsh, Keely Hawes, Ed Stoppard and Claire Foy starred.

6. “And Then There Were None” (2015) – Sarah Phelps produced and wrote this television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel. Craig Viveiros directed.

7. “The Last Tycoon” (2016-2017) – Billy Ray created this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about a Hollywood producer during the mid-1930s. Matt Bomer starred.

8. “Indian Summers” (2015-2016) – Paul Rutman created this series about the British community’s summer residence at Simla during the British Raj of the 1930s. The series starred Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Julie Walters.

9. “Damnation” (2017-2018) Tony Tost created this series about the labor conflicts in the Midwest, during the Great Depression. Killian Scott and Logan Marshall-Green starred.

10. “The Lot” (1999-2001) – This series centered around a fictional movie studio called Sylver Screen Pictures during the late 1930s. The series was created by Rick Mitz.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” – Series Two (2012) Retrospective

 

 

 

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” – SERIES TWO (2012) Retrospective

Poor “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. Poor Jean Marsh. I am saying this out of pure pity and disappointment. Poor “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. This revival of the old 1970s series really got the shaft from not only the viewers, but critics and one member from its Series One cast. And I feel that it did not deserve its fate. 

What fate am I referring to? After the BBC aired the third episode from Series Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, it announced the cancellation of the series after two seasons. Why? Poor ratings and poor reviews. How did it come to this? One could blame Jean Marsh and Heidi Thomas for producing and writing a poorly conceived second season. The problem for me is that I do not view Season Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” as poorly conceived and written. In fact, I consider this second season superior to the first. I also consider it equal to the first season of “DOWNTON ABBEY” and better than its second one (I have yet to see Series Three). But I doubt that the BBC or anyone else would agree with me or care over what I have to say. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” got cancelled and there is nothing I can do about it, but accept its fate.

Series Two endured a good deal of problems before the cast was ready to shoot its six episodes. One, actress Eileen Atkins publicly expressed her unhappiness with her character, Maud Lady Holland, and her decision not to return for the second season. Both Atkins and Jean Marsh had served as co-creators of both the original series and the recent one. I believe that she had every right to make this decision. Unfortunately, her announcement not only tattered the series’ reputation, but also kept viewers away and ruined her long friendship with Marsh. And in the end, the majority of viewers and critics paid more attention to Atkins, leading toward bad ratings and cancellation by the BBC. When Atkins dropped out of the series, both Marsh and Thomas raced to find a replacement. In the end, they hired Alex Kingston to portray Dr. Blanche Mottershead, Lady Holland’s much younger half-sister and aunt to Sir Hallam Holland. Then disaster struck again when Marsh suffered a minor stroke. The actress recovered long enough for minor appearances as housekeeper Rose Buck in two episodes. Despite these setbacks, Thomas managed to produce six episodes for this second series.

Series Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” focused on the last year before the outbreak of World War II – between September 1938 and September 1939. Sir Hallam Holland’s career with the Foreign Office no longer brings him pleasure, due to the Establishment and the public’s reluctance to consider a war against Nazi Germany. The latter demands control of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Only Hallam and a few others like his superior Sir Anthony Eden are against the idea of appeasing to the Germans in order to avoid another war – including the former’s wife, Lady Agnes Holland. The latter has no problems with supporting her husband’s career, but like many others, support the idea of appeasement. Mind you, Lady Agnes is dealing with the difficult birth of a second child and the news that she can longer carry a baby to full confinement. Lady Agnes’ younger sister, Lady Persephone Towyn, is still living in Germany, socializing with top-ranking Nazi politicians and military officers. But an unwanted pregnancy and the violence of the Kristallnacht forces Lady Persephone to seek help from her sister and brother-in-law to get her back to Britain. Following the death of Maud, Lady Holland; Sir Hallam’s aunt – an archaeologist named Dr. Blanche Mottershead – arrives to deal with her half-sister’s belongings. When she decides to remain with the Hollands to help raise her mentally challenged niece, Lotte Holland; a secret involving a past relationship threatens her reputation within high society. Along with Prince George, Duke of Kent, the series also featured the real life personages of Joseph, Rose and John Kennedy.

The second series also began with the arrival of a new servant in the Holland household named Beryl Ballard. Chauffeur Harry Spargo becomes attracted to her and commences upon a difficult campaign to win her love. Meanwhile, Rose Buck, the Hollands’ housekeeper, is confined to a sanatorium after contracting tuberculosis. Her absence creates a hole in the servants’ hierarchy and a clash of wills between the butler Warwick Pritchard and the cook Claire Thackeray. Their clash will temporarily lead Mrs. Thackeray to consider leaving service and expose a secret of Mr. Pritchard regarding his World War I experiences, which will affect his private life before the end of the series. Lady Holland’s secretary, Amanjit Singh struggles to establish a livelihood, following his employer’s death. Footman Johnny Proude is encouraged by Harry to consider a minor career as an amateur boxer and the household’s maids – Eunice McCabe and Beryl – struggle to deal with Lady Agnes’ demands.

I still believe that this second series was better than the first. But it was not perfect. I did not mind that some of the series’ story arcs did not last longer than one episode. A good example of this was Mrs. Thackeray’s decision to leave her employment at 165 Eaton Place to live with her nephew. It was a pleasant, yet interesting story. But I was not disappointed that it merely lasted one episode. There were two story arcs that could have lasted beyond one episode. One of them, “A Perfect Specimen of Womanhood” centered around the revelation of Blanche Mottershead’s lesbian relationship with Lady Portia Alresford. Unfortunately, the following episodes merely revealed Blanche’s banishment from “Society” through dialogue. The audience never really got to experience her social downfall on the screen. In the fourth episode, “All the Things You Are”, Mr. Amanjit meets with the teacher of the late Rachel Perlmutter’s daughter, Lotte, in a London tea shop. Although a waitress led them to a decent table, a snotty maitre’d coolly asks them to move to another table near the back of the tea shop. Aside from the Hollands’ servants initial cool response to Mr. Amanjit in Series One, the Indian-born secretary had never encountered any on-screen racism . . . until this scene. It felt . . . out of the blue. Nor was it ever fully explored or referred to again. I feel that Heidi Thomas could have done a lot more in portraying any racism that Mr. Amanjit may have encountered during the television series’ two season run.

Many of the fans had complained about the adulterous affair between Sir Hallam Holland and his fascist sister-in-law Lady Persephone (“Persie”) Towyn. When I first heard about it, I found the idea of an affair between them hard to believe. But after viewing Series Two, I realized that I had only one complaint about the affair – namely that it did not last long enough. After spending two episodes of developing a close and friendly relationship, Hallam and Persie finally dived into a sexual affair by the end of “All Things You Are”. The affair spanned nearly all of the fifth episode, “The Last Waltz”, until Hallam stumbled across a revelation that Persie might be using him for nefarious reasons at the end of that episode. Frankly, I wish their affair had lasted a little longer than one episode. I feel this expansion in running time would have served the story arc a little better. The episode also featured one death – a suicide. And to be honest, I thought Heidi Thomas’ direction of the moment seemed more anti-climatic than dramatic.

One of the aspects of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” that I like more than “DOWNTON ABBEY” is the portrayal of the relationship between the Hollands and their servants. Yes, the series featured at least two servants that seemed blindingly loyal to the Hollands – Mr. Pritchard and Rose Buck. But Rose spent most of this series in a tuberculosis sanatorium. In an odd way, the series benefited from Rose’s absence and focused even more on the other servants. Both Beryl Ballard and Eunice McCabe were constantly switching roles as Lady Agnes’ personal maid and nurse maid to the Hollands’ children. And both discovered that the socialite could be very demanding in regard to tasks and lack of any real appreciation for their hard work. In the end, Beryl resorted to recruiting help for their situation from the Girls’ Friendly Society, an employment service that upper-class women use to find female servants. Mr. Amanjit also clashed with Blanche over the deceased Lady Holland’s belongings early in the series, until both learned to work together, while helping with refugees from Nazi Germany. The most interesting clash between servant and employer manifested between Sir Hallam and Harry Spago. This clash came from Harry and Beryl’s matrimony plans and desire to emigrate to the United States. Sir Hallam expressed outrage over Harry’s desire to leave Britain, instead of face military service in the upcoming world war. Angry over Hallam’s self-righteous refusal to help him emigrate, Harry blackmailed his employer with his knowledge about the latter’s affair with Lady Persie. Even Beryl’s conflict with Lady Agnes played a role in the two men’s conflict.

But the series also featured conflict between servants and conflicts within the Holland family. Thomas wrote an excellent portrayal of Sir Hallam’s disappointment over Britain’s appeasement policy with Germany and Lady Agnes’ current inability to have more children. This disappointment with his country, the Foreign Office and his marriage eventually led to a friendship and later affair with Lady Persie. Many fans complained that the idea of the moderately liberal Hallam and a fascist like Persie having an affair – especially since they did not seem particularly friendly toward one another. But Thomas skillfully conveyed how helping Persie deal with an unwanted pregnancy, along with jealousy over Lady Agnes’ friendship with a wealthy American named Caspar Landry led him to drift into an affair with his volatile sister-in-law. The Hallan-Persie affair also had an effect on Harry and Beryl’s romance and plans for emigration to the U.S., along with Lady Agnes’ friendship with Landry, which had the potential to develop into a healthy romance. Another strong story arc that stood above the others proved to be Mr. Pritchard’s secret regarding his experiences during World War I. The other servants discovered in the first episode, “A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing”, that the butler had opposed military service in the war as conscientious objector. Although this seemed to be a rip off from the Alan Bates story arc from the 2001 movie, “GOSFORD PARK”, Heidi Thomas explored the issue with more depth and skill in “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. Mr. Pritchard’s secret not only created a bitter feud between the butler and Mrs. Thackeray (who had lost a husband) and Mr. Amanjit (a veteran of the war), but would also have a negative impact on his personal life in the last two episodes.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” featured some fine performances from the likes of Art Malik, Alex Kingston, Emilia Fox (as Blanche’s lover), Ellie Kendrick, Nico Mirallegro, Anne Reid, Keeley Hawes and Michael Landes. But there were performances that stood out for me. One came from Blake Ritson’s entertaining performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent. He really was entertaining, especially in the servants’ ball sequence. Another first-rate performance came from Ed Stoppard, who impressed me by his portrayal of Sir Hallam’s emotional crisis. Both Neil Jackson and Laura Haddock really made me care about the fates of Harry Spago and Beryl Ballard, thanks to their poignant performances. And Claire Foy did an excellent job of taking Lady Persie Towyn’s complex character to another level. For me, the best performance came from Adrian Scarborough, who did an excellent job in his portrayal of Warwick Pritchard. He especially stood out in the first, fifth and last episodes.

Looking back on Series Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, it occurred to me that it came off as somewhat darker than the first series. The series found some of the characters socially ostracized – briefly or otherwise, or enduring some kind emotional crisis. Its portrayal of the relationships between employers and servants struck me as somewhat more realistic than similar portrayals in “DOWNTON ABBEY”. The series also featured a poignant wedding, the end of a marriage – at least emotionally – and a suicide. And the series ended with the loud wail of a siren signaling the beginning of a devastating world war. It is a pity that the BBC decided to end the series. I would have given my right arm to learn of the surviving characters’ fates. Both Harry Spago and Johnny Proude found themselves recruited into the army. Sir Hallam resigned from the Foreign Office, due to the political disaster spawned from his affair with Lady Persie and became a royal equerry for the Duke of Kent (who died in a plane crash in 1942). And Lady Agnes said good-bye to Caspar Landry before sending her children and Rose Buck to the country for safety. Oh well. At least the series ended on an artistic note higher than it began. I am a fan of Eileen Atkins and I always will be. But I did not miss her, while watching Series Two.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (2008) Review

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (2008) Review

The year 2008 marked the fourth adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility”. First aired on the BBC, this three-part miniseries had been adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by John Alexander. 

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” told the story of the two older of three sisters and their financial and romantic travails in early 19th century England. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, along with their mother and young sister, Margaret; found themselves homeless and in financial straits following the death of their father. Their elder half-brother, John Dashwood, had promised their father he would financially compensate them, since the Norland Park estate was entailed to the male heir. Unfortunately, John possessed the backbone of jelly and allowed his venal wife Fanny to convince him into withholding any financial assistance from the Dashwood women. Fanny received a shock when her younger brother, Edward Ferrars, paid a visit and ended up becoming romantically involved with Elinor. Before their romance could flourish; Elinor, her sisters and her mother were forced to leave Norland Park. They settled at a cottage in Devon, owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton.

Upon settling in Devon, the Dashwoods became acquainted with the gregarious Sir John, his chilly wife and his equally extroverted mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings. Marianne attracted the attention of two potential suitors – Sir John’s neighbor and former Army comrade, Colonel Christopher Brandon; and a handsome young blade named John Willoughby. Being seventeen and emotionally volatile, Marianne preferred the handsome Willoughby over the more stoic Colonel Brandon. And Elinor began to wonder if she would ever lay eyes upon Edward Ferrars again.

Unlike Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s 1995 adaptation of Austen’s novel, John Alexander and Andrew Davies had decided to be a little more faithful to Austen’s novel. They included Lady Middleton, the autocratic Mrs. Ferrars and both Steele sisters – Lucy and Anne – to the story. They also included Edward Ferrars’ brief visit to the Dashwoods’ cottage, the dinner party at Mrs. Ferrars’ London house and a contrite Willoughby’s conversation with Elinor. But for me, being faithful to a literary source does not guarantee a superior production. If Alexander and Davies called themselves creating a production more faithful and superior to the 1995 movie, I do not believe they had succeeded. I am not saying that this ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” was a terrible production. On the contrary, I believe it was first-rate. I simply believe that the 1995 movie was a better adaptation.

This three-part miniseries had a lot going for it. Both Davies and Alexander beautifully captured most of the heart of soul of Austen’s tale. And aside from a few scenes, it was wonderfully paced. ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” captured the financial and social dilemma faced by the Dashwood females, upon the family patriarch’s death. The miniseries’ style permeated with warmth, solidity and color. The production designs created by James Merifield did an excellent job in sending viewers back to early 19th century England. But I must give kudos to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who received a well deserved Emmy nomination for his beautiful photography. The Devon, Hertfordshire and Surrey countryside looked rich and lush in color. I also enjoyed Michele Clapton’s colorful costumes, which earned a BAFTA nomination. Were they historically accurate? I do not know. I am not an expert in early 19th century fashion. However, I do have a question. Was ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” set during the decade of 1800-1809? Or was it set between 1810 and 1819? According to the family tree briefly shown in the following photo, the movie was set around 1800-1801:

There were some aspects of ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” that did not appeal to me. As much as I had enjoyed Merifield’s production designs, I found it disappointing that the majority of the London sequences featured interior shots. Which meant that viewers failed to get a truly rich view of early 19th century London. But most of my quibbles were about a few scenes that struck me as unnecessary. The miniseries opened with a young couple making love in the candlelight. Viewers easily surmised the identities of the pair – John Willoughby and Colonel Brandon’s young ward, Eliza. Perhaps this was Davies’ way of foreshadowing Willoughby’s character and his near seduction of Marianne. This was the first scene I found unnecessary and heavy-handed. There are some stories in which the use of foreshadowing as a literary device work very well. This particular scene failed to work for me. Another scene that struck me as unnecessary was Edward Ferrars’ brief visit to Barton Cottage. This scene was lifted from the novel and was used to foreshadow Elinor’s discovery of his engagement to Lucy Steele. Again, the use of foreshadow failed to work for me. I would have preferred that the audience’s knowledge of the Edward-Lucy engagement had been revealed as a complete surprise to them, as well as to Elinor.

Two more scenes also failed to impress me. Austen’s novel had hinted a duel between Willoughby and Brandon over the former’s seduction of young Eliza. Davies’ screenplay included the duel, after Willoughby’s rejection of Marianne and the birth of his and Eliza’s child. This duel would have served better following Willoughby’s seduction. In fact, I wish that Davies had not included it at all. For a brief moment, I found myself confused on whether the duel was fought over Eliza or Marianne. The scene also seemed to be an indication of Davies and Alexander’s attempt to inject some overt masculinity into Austen’s tale. The last scene that Davies carried over from the novel featured Willoughby’s expression of remorse to Elinor, over his treatment of Marianne. I must admit that I found that scene a little contrived and unnecessary. Willoughby’s reasons behind his abandonment of Marianne and his embarrassment at the assembly ball seemed pretty obvious to me. And in the 1995 version, the expression on Greg Wise’s face fully expressed Willoughby’s remorse more effectively than any of Austen’s (or Davies’) words.

Despite my misgivings, I must admit that ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” possessed a first-rate cast. Both Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield gave solid performances as the story’s two heroines – Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Morahan nicely portrayed the sober and level-headed aspects of Elinor’s personality. Yet at the same time, she conveyed subtle hints of the character’s emotions behind the mask. I found it difficult to believe that Morahan’s Elinor was 19 to 20 years-old in this story. She looked and behaved like a person who was at least 5 to 10 years older. Morahan had a tendency to utilize this ”deer-in-the-headlights” expression, whenever Elinor was surprised. Wakefield gave a decent performance as the volatile Marianne. She portrayed the character as written by Austen – an emotional and thoughtless adolescent with a kind heart. Were young females in their late teens really expected to behave in a mature manner, consistently? My only problem with Wakefield was there were a few moments when her performance seemed mechanical with hardly any style or true skill.

The miniseries received fine support from the likes of Janet Teer as the emotional Mrs. Dashwood, Mark Williams as the jovial Sir John Middleton, Jean Marsh as Mrs. Ferrars, Mark Gatiss as the vacuous John Dashwood and young Lucy Boynton as Margaret Dashwood. In his first scene, Dan Stevens seemed to hint that his interpretation of Edward Ferrars might prove to be a little livelier than past interpretations. It was a hint that failed to flourish. His Edward proved to be just as mild. At least his performance was adequate. When the miniseries first aired in Britain nearly three years ago, the media had declared Dominic Cooper as the new sex symbol of British costume drama. After seeing his performance as John Willoughby, I found this hard to swallow. But he did give a first-rate performance. But there were performances that failed to impress me. One, I had a problem with the Steele sisters. Anna Madeley’s performance as the subtle, yet catty Lucy Steele seemed perfectly fine with me. But I found Daisy Haggard’s broadly comic take on Anne Steele ridiculously overdone. And I never could understand why one Steele sister spoke with a well-bred accent (Lucy) and the other with a regional accent that strongly hinted of the lower classes. Very inconsistent. I also had a problem with Rosanna Lavelle as Sir John’s cold wife, Lady Middleton. She barely seemed to exist. In fact, I never understood why Davies did not follow Emma Thompson’s example by deleting the character altogether. Linda Bassett gave a friendly performance as Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother. But her portrayal lacked that deliciously meddlesome trait that prevailed in Austen’s novel and the 1995 movie. And I also found Bassett’s accent questionable. I could not tell whether her character was from amongst the upper or middle class.

At least two performances in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” managed to impress me. One of those performances belonged to Claire Skinner, who portrayed the Dashwood sisters’ bitchy sister-in-law, Fanny Ferrars Dashwood. Skinner was truly superb as the venal and manipulative Fanny, who seemed more than determined to not only rule her husband, but also make her sisters-in-law miserable for the sake of her ego. My favorite Fanny scene featured that delicious montage in which she wore down John’s determination to help his sisters and stepmother financially. The other outstanding performance came from David Morrissey’s portrayal of the stoic Colonel Brandon. As much as I admire Morrissey’s skills as an actor, I have found some of his performances a little too theatrical at times. I certainly cannot say the same about his performance in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. He perfectly captured the quiet nuance of his character; and at the same time, expressed Brandon’s passion for Marianne through facial expressions and body language.

”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” may have been marred by scenes that I found unnecessary, and lacked a witty sense of humor and something of an edge; but it still turned out to be an intelligent and solid adaptation of Austen’s novel. And fans of Austen’s novel can thank Andrew Davies’ script, John Alexander’s direction, Sean Bobbitt’s photography and a solid cast lead by Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

 

 

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – SERIES ONE Retrospective

Not long after ITV aired its premiere of Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame’s successful series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, the BBC announced its plans to air an updated version of the old 1970s television classic, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. The news took me by surprise. I had naturally assumed that the series’ creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins decided to revive the series in response to the news about “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Had I been wrong? I do not know. Did it really matter? I do not think so. 

The new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” picked up six years following the old series’ finale. The London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in the Belgravia neighborhood is no longer occupied by any member of the Bellamy family. A Foreign Office diplomat and his wife – Sir Hallam Holland and Lady Agnes Holland – have returned to Britain and inherited the Eaton Place townhouse. The couple hired former parlourmaid Rose Buck, now running her own agency for domestic servants, to find them staff as they renovate the house to its former glory. The Hollands are forced to deal with the arrivals of Sir Hallam’s mother, Maud, Dowager Lady Holland and her Sikh secretary Amanjt Singh; and Lady Agnes’ sister, Lady Persephone Towyn – all of whom cause major stirs within the new household. The three-episode series spanned the year 1936 – covering the death of King George V, the Battle of Cable Street and King Edward VIII’s abdication.

Because it came on the heels of the critical darling, “DOWNTON ABBEY”“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” received a good share of negative criticism from the media and television viewers. And if they were not comparing it to the series written by Julian Fellowes, they were comparing it to the old “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” from the 1970s. Among the negative press it received was a report of a brief clash between Marsh and Fellowes regarding the two series. If I must be honest, I was just as guilty as the others for I had believed the negative press without having seen the series. But my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch it.

I did have a few problems with “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. It had its moments of over-the-top maudlin, courtesy of screenwriter Heidi Thomas. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Thomas had served as screenwriter for 2007’s“CRANFORD” and its 2009 sequel. And she managed to inject plenty of wince-inducing sentiment into those productions, as well. I also found Rose Buck’s hunt for the Hollands’ new staff rather tiresome. It dominated the first half of Episode One, “The Fledgling” and I nearly gave up on the series. And I also found the cook Clarice Thackeray’s encounter with society photographer Cecil Beaton disgustingly sentimental. But . . . the encounter led to one of the best cat fights I have seen on television, so I was able to tolerate it. I have one last problem – namely the series’ three episode running time. Three episodes? Really? I would have given it at least five or six. Instead, the three episodes forced the first series to pace a lot faster than I would have liked.

For me, the virtues of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” far outweighed the flaws. First of all, I was delighted that Marsh, Atkins and Thomas had decided to set the new series in the 1930s. I have been fascinated with that decade for a long time. It witnessed a great deal of potential change and conflict throughout Europe – including changes within Britain’s Royal Family that had a major impact upon the nation. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” did an excellent job in conveying how these changes affected ordinary Britons and the Holland household in particular. Many had complained about the strong, political overtones that permeated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. I, on the other hand, loved it. The political overtones not only suited the series’ 30s setting but also jibed with the fact that one of the major characters happened to be a diplomat from the Foreign Office, with friendly ties to a member of the Royal Family.

Production wise, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” looked gorgeous. Designer Eve Stewart did a superb job in re-creating London in the mid-1930s for the series. Along with set decorator Julia Castle, she converted 165 Eaton Place into a wealth of Art Deco eye candy. Amy Roberts’ costumes – especially for Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy – were outstanding and contributed to the series’ 1930s look. My only complaint regarding the series’ production is the series’ theme and score. Quite frankly, the only memorable thing about Daniel Pemberton’s work was that I found it too light for my tastes. It suited Heidi Thomas’ occasional forays into sentimentality very well. Unfortunately.

Not being that familiar with the original “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” series from the 70s, I did not find myself comparing the old cast with the new one. First of all, I thought the new cast did just fine – including the recurring characters. Blake Ritson gave a subtle performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest living brother to King Edward VIII. I noticed that Thomas took great care to ensure that Ritson’s Duke of Kent would be critical of Wallis Simpson’s pro-Nazi sympathies. I found this interesting, considering of his past reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Speaking of Mrs. Simpson, I was slightly disappointed by Emma Clifford’s portrayal of the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress portrayed Mrs. Simpson as some kind of negative archetype of American women found in many British productions – gauche and verbose. This portrayal seemed completely opposite of how Mrs. Simpson had been described in the past – cool and tart. Edward Baker-Duly was given a more ambiguous character to portray – namely German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop – which allowed him to give a more subtle performance.

I found the casting for the Holland servants very satisfying. Many have complained that Jean Marsh’s role as Rose Buck seemed woefully reduced in compared to the old production. If her role had been reduced, I did not mind. After all, Rose was a familiar figure and I believe it was time for the lesser-known characters to shine. As much as I had enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s solid yet nervous butler, Mr. Pritchard, and Anne Reid’s tart-tongued cook Clarice Thackeray; I found myself impressed by Neil Jackson’s cool portrayal of the ambiguous chauffeur Harry Spargo. I thought he did a great job in conveying the changing passions of Harry, without resorting to histronics. Ellie Kendrick did an excellent job in her portrayal of the young and very spirited housemaid, Ivy Morris. Although Art Malik seemed a bit noble as the Dowager Lady Holland’s Sikh secretary, Mr. Amanjit, I believe that he managed to come into his own when his character befriended the German-Jewish refugee Rachel Perlmutter in Episode Two, “The Ladybird”. Like Scarborough and Red, Helen Bradbury gave solid performance as Frau Perlmutter. However, there were a few moments when she managed to inject a great deal of pathos into her performance, making it a pity that she only appeared in one episode. Heidi Thomas’ portrayal of the Hollands’ servants really impressed me. She managed to portray them as multi-dimensional characters, instead of the one-dimensional portrayals that marred the characterizations of the servants featured in Series One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”.

Heidi Thomas certainly did a marvelous job with her characterizations of the members of the Holland family. I had noticed that most fans and critics were impressed by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of the Maud, Dowager Lady Holland. I cannot deny that she did a superb job. Atkins was overbearing, intelligent, wise and impetuous. But . . . the Lady Holland character also struck me as a remake of the Dowager Countess of Grantham character from “DOWNTON ABBEY” . . . who struck me as a remake of the Countess of Trentham character from “GOSFORD PARK”. In other words, the Lady Holland character struck me as being a somewhat unoriginal character. One could almost say the same about the Sir Hallam Holland character, portrayed by Ed Stoppard. Many fans have complained about his “noble” personality and penchant for political correctness – especially in his handling of Lotte, the orphaned daughter of Holland maid, Rachel Perlmutter, and his distaste toward the British Fascist movement. However, Stoppard did an excellent job in making Sir Hallam a flesh-and-blood character. And this came about, due to Stoppard’s opportunity to reveal Sir Hallam’s reaction to the conflict between his mother and wife, making him seem like a bit of a pushover.

But for me, the two most interesting characters in the series proved to be Lady Agnes Holland and Lady Persephone Towyn, the two daughters of an impoverished Welsh peer. In their unique ways, the two sisters struck me as very complex and ambiguous. At first glance, Keeley Hawes’ portrayal of Lady Agnes Holland seemed like a cheerful, slightly shallow woman bubbling with excitement over establishing a new home in London. Hawes’ performance, along with Thomas’ script, even managed to inject some pathos into the character after the revelations about Lady Agnes’ past failures to maintain a successful pregnancy. But once her mother-in-law and rebellious sister became a permanent fixture in her house, the cracks in Lady Agnes’ personality began to show. Thanks to Hawes’ superb performance, audiences were allowed glimpses into the darker side of Lady Agnes’ personality. After watching Series One of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, many would view Lady Agnes’ younger sister – Lady Persephone – as the series’ villain. And she seemed so perfect for the role, thanks to Claire Foy’s brilliant performance. Her Lady Persephone was a vain, arrogant and temperamental bitch, who treated the Hollands’ staff like dirt – save for Harry Spago, with whom she conducted an affair. At first, it seemed that Harry managed to bring out Lady Persephone’s softer side, especially in her ability to emphasize with his woes regarding the country’s social system. Harry also introduced her to the British Fascist movement. But whereas he ended up finding it repellent, Lady Persephone became even more involved . . . to the point that she developed a relationship with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, before following him back to Germany.

I am not going to pretend that the new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” is an exceptional series. Because I do not think that it is. Basically, it is simply a continuation of the old series from the 1970s. I thought that its running time was ridiculously short – three episodes. It could have benefited from at least two or three more episodes. And screenwriter Heidi Thomas marred it even further with a good deal of over-the-top sentimentality, especially in the first and third episodes. However, Thomas managed to tone down that same sentimentality in the characters. Nor she follow Julian Fellowes’ mistake in“DOWNTON ABBEY” by portraying the servants as one-dimensional characters. And the cast, led by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, were first rate. But what really worked for me was the 1930s setting that allowed Thomas to inject the political turmoil that made that era so memorable. I only hope that Thomas will continue that setting in the second series.“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” may not have been perfect, but I believe it was a lot better than a good number of critics and fans have deemed it.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie,“GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation. 

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK”(which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that “DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and“GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas’ sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as aswot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that “DOWNTON ABBEY” will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”? I guess we will have to wait and see.