It is a widely held belief that Upstairs Downstairs was television at its finest, and the most popular tv drama in the world. But why precisely is so good? It is almost entirely studio bound and looks like it should be just another worthy but squeaky clean period drama. This is why it is very hard to convince anyone unfamiliar with the series of why it is so special. But John Hawkesworth, the producer, believed television was electronic theatre, not second rate film, and this allows the stories to concentrate on words, emotions and intense acting. The grittiness of the series, the performances and its skill at depicting human emotions were its chief assets. Gordon Jackson's magnificent character performance as Hudson is a display of a modest, warm actor who made a character who stood for all he disliked totally loveable. David Langton's charming, liberal Richard Bellamy was a far less snobbish and severe man than his butler, but his first wife, the statuesque Lady Marjorie certainly made up for him. Simon Williams' portrayal of Lord Lucan lookalike James Bellamy showed real development over the years, the haughty, caddish son who is changed forever by the war and plays his final episode "All The King's Horses" nothing short of brilliantly. Lesley Anne-Down and Jacqueline Tong's introduction, the Christmas story "Goodwill To All Men" in many ways sums the series up, combining a devastating look at the London poor with the escapist charm of a traditional Edwardian Christmas, leading to a bittersweet conclusion offering an idyllic scene of Georgina being giving her presents as the snow falls outside, just after her grandmother's wise observation that her outing to help the needy was more out of a need for adventure than real charity. If the first season was the series finding its feet and the second was it settling down to more of the same, the third season is the oddest of them all. It reflects a period of change both in pre-war Britain and behind the scenes, as Elizabeth and Lady Marjorie were both written out at the actors' requests. This leaves the upstairs structure of the house unsettled, and the series is dark and sombre, as James' doomed marriage and Richard's bereavement make the house seem a far cry from the high society gatherings and royal dinners of the early seasons.
Although the fourth series, which depicts the war years so powerfully is considered the best, I would personally dispute this. Good as it is, what is most interestiung is the fifth series, as Britain's social structure is collapsing, and the full impact of the war is felt. The roarring twenties try to blot out the horrors of the trenches but leave James and many like him haunted, directionless, forgotten and despairing. The fifth series also introduces a new wife for Richard in the form of the delectable Hannah Gordon. Her interpretation of Virginia is a joy to watch; beautiful, witty and poetic. The daring storylines provide all the characters with moments to shine in, from Lady Marjorie's adultery in the excellent "Magic Casements" which deals unconventionally with an age-old theme, to the heartbreaking "I Dies From Love" which details the suicide of a kitchen maid. The sexual attitudes of the day were explored in "A Suitable Marriage", the bleak "A Cry For Help" and the astonishing "Whom God Hath Joined." Some of the wildest plotlines should not have worked but did, such as Hudson's hopeless affair with a parlour maid in "Disillusion" and Mrs Bridges' breakdown in "Why Is Her Door Locked?" There are really only two unsuccessful episodes of the entire sixty eight, but many masterpieces. "The Glorious Dead" and "Another Year" are devastating essays on the tragedies of the war, and "Distant Thunder" is a superbly claustrophobic episode, as war looms both in the household and in Europe. "The Sudden Storm" ends the third season with war declared, Daisy crying with the fear of what is to come while the rest of the world seems to be celebrating. The final episode, "Wither Shall I Wander" ended the series marvellously, with a perfect mixture of the happy and the sad. The pomp of Georgina's wedding allows a diversion from the sale of the house and the loss of James. Hudson delivers a tremendous speech to Edward on the tradition of service now dying out, and one can't help but be swept along with the fever of the episode. The final scene, as Rose is left alone in the house with the ghosts of the past echoing around her, is both a fine depictuion of the sentimentality of leaving a lifestyle behind and a cunning wallow in nostalgia. The like of Upstairs Downstairs will never be seen again. This type of television, like the England it depicted, is gone forvever.
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