Back in the 1970’s, my mother regularly watched this British television program. It drove me nuts because it was so godawful boring. I mean, if we’re going to watch British TV, why the hell isn’t it Monty Python? I guess Upstairs Downstairs served its purpose: it entertained my mother and scared me off to do more productive childhood activities.
Now that I have assumed the mantle of middle age, I decided to give it a try. After all, it’s kind of like an outdated Downton Abbey shot on cheap video tape, right? And everyone loves Downton Abbey.
All five seasons of Upstairs Downstairs are available on Netflix now, so I dug in. The first few episodes left me flat. Production quality was very poor (the BBC was suffering a crew strike at the time; some episodes were shot in B&W to save money). But I was beginning to understand what the writers were trying to do.
It was actually quite bold. They were framing a drama against the backdrop of much larger national questions and paradoxes of identity. The more I watched (and the more historical research it led me to), the more brilliant it became. By the end of the second season I was enthralled.
I wasn’t alone. Forty years ago, Upstairs Downstairs garnered seven Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. It has been viewed in 70 countries by over a billion people. How the hell did a tame, calm, very formal serial drama about Edwardian life in a London manor house capture the world’s imagination?
They did it with brilliant writing, lots of love stories and the inexorable march of history building tension about which the on-screen cast remains chillingly oblivious. I mean, why not hop aboard the Titanic? The bloody thing’s unsinkable, what?
Of course, the primary premise of the program was the strong distinction between the servant class (Downstairs) and the landed aristocracy (Upstairs).
The servant class was a peculiar rank in the British class system. While paid less than the working class, life among the sweeping stairways and colonnaded halls of the bourgeoisie placed the servants above the factory workers. It wasn’t money that determined class; it was placement.
But perhaps the most resounding class theme in the program is the glass ceiling that kept the landed aristocracy eternally safe from the grubby mitts of the middle class. When a housemaid finds fame as an actress, no quarter is given. In the midst of childbirth, she is swept under the carpet as King Edward himself was dining at the house that night. Can’t have all that “creating new subjects” piffle interrupt a single puff of His Majesty’s cigar, can we?
The merchant class fares no better. They exist only to serve the house with goods and services. Even the ultra-wealthy Armenian magnate who has an eye for the daughter stands no ground. He is, after all, low born. End of discussion.
What’s most astounding is the inability of anyone to shift. It’s not about the money. What the hell is an uneducated servant girl going to do with a sudden windfall? Join the middle class? Is a successful merchant going to welcome an ex-parlourmaid to the family? Not bloody likely.
This may make you feel great antipathy toward the rich Bellamy family, but they are portrayed very carefully. The patriarch is tempered and wise and seems to have everyone’s best interests at heart. The matriarch is calm and elegant and handles the staff with sympathy. When they do show flashes of snobbery they are forgiven in our hearts.
Yet the nagging reality remains: how can they pay their loyal staff a goddamn pittance while living in such luxury? Now you are starting to see some parallels with modern society…
Finally, as World War 1 closes in on the Bellamy family and all of Britain, a parallel series of breakthroughs occur. Young James comes back from the war a changed man. The sparkling playboy has seen enough. Even he – a conservative Tory – found the war to be stupid, useless and unnecessary. He forsakes all veteran accolades. He is sick of all the bullshit and has finally discovered that life (and death) are not games.
On a macro scale, the shattering of the European monarchical powers opened the floodgates of populist socialism. Revolution consumed Russia while electoral pressure ousted conservative governments. The family patriarch finds himself elevated to Viscount and hurriedly shuffled off to obscurity and powerlessness in the House of Lords.
The servants below, however, will have none of the worker’s rights and strikes. There should be some balance, they reason. There is tradition to uphold. And the masters upstairs have been so kind these many years. No, none of this socialist revolution for them. After all, this is a battle for the working class, and they aren’t the working class!
Of course, the program’s real strength isn’t its subtext but its dramatic appeal. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better troupe of actors or more tightly woven scripts. Despite the stifling nature of Victorian mores, the program (and real life) is full of irrepressible joys and tearful losses. The house has its share of surprising deaths whose stark aftermath is handled in the Victorian fashion only by the Scottish butler, a true stoic. The rest of the family and staff soften their upper lips often enough to break your heart.
That’s the driving force here: the humanity. While great affairs swirl around the world, their impact is made visceral only when distilled in the context of family and community.
And here is where I make my final point: in Upstairs Downstairs, the events that befall the classes are ultimately shared among the classes because they are largely thrown together despite the glass ceilings. In modern America, the classes are utterly isolated from each other. The moneyed class no longer sends its sons to war; that agony is left solely to the lower classes. When recession grips the nation, the moneyed class maintains its wealth with ease while the rest of us suffer. When the shit comes down, we don’t console each other or look out for each other. We turn on the TV and fume.
It isn’t Victorian morals that we’ve lost. It’s the technological isolation of our communities that has driven these wedges. We are more likely than the cast of Upstairs Downstairs to suffer in Victorian silence. They had each other, even when the stock market crashed and everything fell apart. One would think that in “class-free” America that we’d be more integrated socially. But we’re not.
Yes, we still have Leslie Anne Down. For that we should be eternally grateful.