I want to say that Upstairs Downstairs is a cross between Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife, which – seeing as it shares a premise and a writer with each respectively – I suppose it is. But for all the tradition, livery and childcare, there is something missing here. Heidi Thomas’ recreation is a triumph of cultural observation, yet in a genre that’s more competitive than an Olympic ticket ballot, it seemed a bit short on defining characters (Pritchard the camp butler aside).
From the very first scene in which Hallam discussed the upcoming – and now infamous – meeting between Chamberlain and Hitler in all-too-knowing terms, everything about this first episode felt either far too obvious or far too vague. One thing that isn’t apparent is who we should be rooting for because there’s emotional clunkiness everywhere and no defining villain. Pritchard is a joy and worked hard to sacrifice himself alá Bates, but you can’t help but feel he’s enjoying it all. We’ll definitely be cheering him on, but who else? Upstairs Downstairs is approaching the whole thing from a very different angle to its ITV rival, but as enjoyable as it was in parts, it was quite confusing in others.
There was yet more ambiguity in Hallam’s private life and newcomers would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Agnes and Lady Persephone Towyn, with whom he shares a kiss against a Swastika backdrop in the final act. It’s easy for him to keep track because one’s the mother of his child and the other is a fascist, but their similarity still isn’t helpful for us. Meanwhile a spate of other characters were rushed before our eyes, presumably we’ll find out what connects them all in due course. While Hallam was sticking his neck out over the whole German problem, we had a moral undercurrent stirring as everyone rounded on Pritchard for refusing to fight in the First World War. These two strands had potential, yet once again both were handled without much imagination. Attitudes were different back then and people were still feeding off immediate history – we get it.
Thomas proved that she has a real talent for creating character and mood when she knocked out the most successful drama debut in the Beeb’s history ™, but her latest offering might benefit from a more pronounced contrast between the people upstairs and downstairs. Some criticised Downton for being heavy-handed, but it was the overcooked setting and players that allowed the finest drama to come alive. This series opener was a decent enough jaunt, but it won’t live long in the memory and doesn’t have the bucolic charm that saved Cranford from a plodding and irrelevant plot. Yet in other places, the writing couldn’t have been more conspicuous. “But you twisted the master’s arm to take me on after borstal! If it wasn’t for you I’d still be on the streets!” spluttered Johnny Proude after Pritchard took the blame for the monkey he foolishly gassed. I almost expected him to add.. “Your actions will cause a rift in the house, especially given the negative perceptions of conscientious objectors like yourself during this period of English history..” I don’t have a problem with exposition, because it’s often necessary, but at least TRY to blend it.