mon 28/07/2014

Upstairs Downstairs, Series Two, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews

Upstairs Downstairs, Series Two, BBC One

The BBC's answer to Downton Abbey limps back without its two creators, and this time it's war (almost)

Put out fewer flags: Claire Foy and Ed Stoppard in the return of 'Upstairs Downstairs'

You remember Upstairs Downstairs – the lavish 2010 period drama-cum-soap based around servants and their masters that had the misfortune of not being named Downton Abbey. Making its entrance some three months after ITV’s series despite being filmed first, Upstairs played like the indignant, overshadowed elder sibling to Downton’s effervescent, effortlessly successful young upstart. After all, in a drama war between the BBC and ITV, there can’t be many who were betting on the latter coming out on top in either ratings or critical terms, especially given the 40-year-old pedigree of the Upstairs Downstairs brand.

To add insult to injury, this second series limps onto our screens sans two of its central cast members – who also happen to be the women who created the series back in 1970. Actress Jean Marsh, who’s picked up an Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations over the years for her portrait of feisty maid Rose, suffered a stroke in October and will be absent until the fourth episode. Meanwhile Dame Eileen Atkins, aka the formidable Lady Maud Holland, declined to return for the second series. Her absence is explained by an off-screen death, while Alex Kingston has a go at filling her shoes as Lady Maud’s younger half-sister Dr Blanche Mottershead.

But it’s not just behind the scenes where things are looking grim. The new series finds us in 1938, the threat of war looming large over upstairs and downstairs alike. Diplomat Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) is having a particularly rough time of it: he’s wrapped up in peace negotiations with Germany, his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes, pictured right with Stoppard) is looking distinctly peaky after a near-miscarriage, and his aforementioned aunt (Kingston) is outstaying her welcome and showing a staggering lack of respect for his mother’s memory.

Unsurprisingly, it’s downstairs that provides the most compelling storyline, though in this episode there’s scant competition. After he takes the blame for the endearingly gormless Johnny’s (Nico Mirallegro) inadvertent monkey murder, it emerges that Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) has a sizeable skeleton in his closet: he spent time in prison during World War One for refusing to fight. This makes for some reasonably well-executed tension with the rest of the servants – in particular Mr Amanjit (Art Malik, pictured below) – and Scarborough’s understated turn remains one of the series’ strongest assets.

There are no bad performances as such, but there’s a curiously stilted quality that the show just can’t seem to shake, while the dialogue meanders between uninspired and dimly cringe-inducing (Blanche’s “As we are in England, I suggest you make some tea” is a forced low point.) There are two promising additions to the downstairs contingent in the form of guileless kitchen maid Eunice (Ami Metcalf) and opinionated nursery maid Beryl (Laura Haddock), both of whom make more of an impression with their limited screen time than much of the longer-standing cast. That said, Hallam’s reunion in Germany with his wife’s reckless, newly Nazi-sympathising sister Lady Persephone (Claire Foy) left ajar one or two semi-intriguing doors.

There’s a pervasive atmosphere of dread thanks to the pre-wartime setting, which gives this second outing something of an advantage over the first – the everyday realities of collecting gas masks, or the gas-proof pram that looks unsettlingly like a coffin, leave a genuine chill. But writer Heidi Thomas seems to be leaning rather too heavily on the appeal of dramatic irony. This episode ends with a stay of execution in the form of an apparent peace announcement, and Eunice asks “Is it over?” Blanche responds with cryptic loftiness, “This is history, Eunice. It’s never over.” It’s the kind of portentous line that encompasses why Upstairs will remain the runner-up – in contrast to Downton’s twinkle-in-the-eye appeal, this is a series that remains determinedly blank-eyed and po-faced.