Note: I wrote this last year. But I have just heard that the Beeb is about to show a whole series of the new Upstairs Downstairs, complete with gay sex and an obsession with the Nazis. I don’t propose to watch any of these. I saw enough the Christmas before last. SIG
The Revived Upstairs, Downstairs:
Entertainment as Ruling Class Propaganda
by Sean Gabb
On Boxing Night and the two next evenings, the BBC broadcast three episodes of a revived Upstairs, Downstairs. For those not aware of it, this was originally a costume drama made by London Weekend Television and shown between 1971 and 1975. Set in a grand London house, it showed the linked but separate lives of both the family “upstairs” and of the servants “downstairs” through the Edwardian age, the Great War, and then through the 1920s. Though made on the cheap, it has been generally regarded, on account of its writing and acting, as either the best or one of the best things of its kind ever made. It has been rebroadcast many times. It inspired at least one other series, Thomas and Sarah. Because it ends in 1930, and its world continued another nine years, room was left for a continuation, and many have always hoped that one would be made.
The problem, though, with sequels to a classic is that they will be judged with unreasonable harshness. I admit that most sequels are worthless in themselves, and only come to notice because of what they follow. But many have real merits that are overlooked in recollections of the original. I mention Thomas and Sarah again. This was no worse than many other light costume dramas. I think it sank so utterly and without lament because it was too closely identified with a classic that it could never match. It is with this in mind that I have waited a week before reviewing the revived Upstairs, Downstairs. Different actors playing different characters, the different tone of the late 1930s, different production values from those of the original – these and much else must be taken into account. The revival must be judged both in terms of what it continues and in its own terms.
I have done my best to be just. I have waited seven days. I have kept all the above in mind. I have made every possible allowance. But I am still forced to say that the revived Upstairs, Downstairs is very nearly as bad as it could possibly be. It is dull. It is badly written and over-acted. It is technically incompetent. Its whole purpose appears to have been to serve as legitimation propaganda for the present order of things.
In making this last charge, I think it will help to distinguish propaganda from bias. All historical fiction – all art, indeed – is biased one way or another. Materials must be selected. They must be arranged. Selection and arrangement will reflect a particular vision of the past, which is connected with the values of the writer. The bias of the original Upstairs, Downstairs is broadly whiggish. The past is admitted to have been a jolly enough time upstairs, and life downstairs often had its advantages. The overall message, though, is that the disintegration of the old order that accelerated after 1914 is not to be regretted. But, if I do not share this optimistic view of our modern history, I cannot denounce it as propaganda. It is a bias, but the resulting vision is honest enough to allow more than one perspective. Certainly, it has no visible bearing on how the characters are developed.
The most central character in the series is Hudson, the butler. He ties together the two different worlds of the household. He is an extreme conservative – indeed, a convinced and eloquent reactionary – always ready to call on God Almighty in defence of the established order. But he is never shown as unpleasant or as more ludicrous than everyone occasionally is. He can always be relied on to do the right thing. Or there is Lady Marjorie. So far as she understands its promise, she hates the twentieth century, and makes her opinion plain in episode after episode. She too is never shown as other than decent; and she is given a very noble death on The Titanic. In contrast, her daughter, Elizabeth, becomes a socialist and a suffragette, and she and her friends talk much about equality. This does not save her from becoming a sad and ultimately a pathetic character. We are invited to share the whiggish view of life in and around 165 Eaton Place. At no point are we presented with a choice between accepting that vision in full and switching channel.
It is different with the revived Upstairs. Downstairs. This is nothing but propaganda. It lays down the view that the 1930s were an evil time, and that they were redeemed only by the “Good War” that followed them – the war that is the foundation myth for the politically correct managerial state of the present. No departure from this view is possible. No considerations of honesty or common sense are allowed to stand in its way. Characters are developed and judged according to how they might, after 1939, have welcomed or deplored the emergence of the new order. Moral notions that emerged only recently, and that are maintained as the consensus largely by threats of punishment, are projected backwards. And this is a significant achievement. Contemporary drama – Eastenders for example, or The Bill and most other police serials – have long since been co-opted to the work of revolutionary change through cultural hegemony. Costume drama, though, has generally been left alone. It is not allowed to be openly conservative in spirit. But, so far as a different state of affairs from that of the present must be shown, it is often implicitly conservative. Taking control of a classic like Upstairs, Downstairs is far more important than – say – giving us another black woman police chief, or another exploration of paedophile cannibalism among the self-employed. By showing that what the ruling class would have us believe was accepted by men of good will in earlier ages, another escape has been closed off from the hegemonic discourse. To quote George Orwell, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
Look at the characters in this revival. We now have a Sikh servant in the house. Of course, if not very often, Indian servants had been coming here with their employers for about two centuries. And one of the characters has lived in India. But a Sikh menial who can type and play the piano, and who is fluent in German, and whose regard for his employer’s interests goes beyond mere obedience to her instructions? Is this really an attempt to entertain and inform? Or are the producers pushing against the outer limits of the cultural revolution?
We also have a Jewish parlour maid. Again, I have no doubt that Jews have become servants in gentile households – even German Jewish refugees in the 1930s who had, back home, been university lecturers. And fully assimilated German Jews, married to Communists, might still have a total aversion to pork. This character is a little more likely than our turbaned Renaissance Man, but not much more so. Her only function is to remind us why all the nice characters are already set on war with Germany. She is there to make anti-Nazi speeches and scream abuse at the Mosleyite chauffer, and then to shamble with the Sikh round the edges of the Cable Street riot. Once she has done all this, she is surplus to requirements. There is no need to explore any depths to her character, or give her any further part in the action. After about twenty minutes in the second episode, she is allowed to fall down dead in an asthma attack.
She leaves a secret daughter behind her. Though the girl has never been a member of the household, I have no doubt that Lady Marjorie would have had her brought in, so she could be jollied along with kind words and a pat on the head, and then sent off to be taught needlework and other duties befitting her mother’s last occupation. In this Upstairs, Downstairs, she is brought into the house to live above stairs, and much of the third episode is taken up with competing efforts to settle her future. Unlike her mother’s contribution to the plot, this does lead somewhere. It allows the gentleman of the house to learn that he has a mongol sister shut away in an asylum – and this lets the producers tick another politically correct box.
A box yet to be ticked is the butler. He is almost certainly a homosexual. I did think for a while that he would try for a pass at the pretty footman. But, while some regard was apparent by the third episode, the full sharpness of Cupid’s arrow may have been reserved for a future episode. Instead, he delivers his employer’s baby in a lavatory while everyone else is listening to Edward VIII’s abdication speech. The cook does nothing very reprehensible in the episodes shown last week. But she is a chain smoker, and this surely means that she has to turn nasty in due course – perhaps she will inform on the butler when he tries to kiss the footman.
Staying with the butler and his accomplishments, there is an oddity about his past. He says that he spent 27 years working for Cunard. He then says that he drove an ambulance on the Western Front. Leave aside what gynaecological skills he might have picked up in France – what was he doing there? One of my grandfathers worked in the 1930s on the cross-Channel ferries. On the outbreak of war, he and all his fit colleagues transferred as a matter of course to the Royal Navy. I find it unlikely that any seaman would have served out the Great War on land. This may be an oddity that will drive a future episode. I suspect it is merely evidence of poor character mapping by the writers.
None of the characters is either attractive or credible. Their motivations for what they do are at best too slightly given for us to care one way or the other. We can guess why the chauffer becomes a Mosleyite. We are not properly told why he stops being one. The young lady upstairs is given some motivation for joining him as a fascist. Her jump from here to running off to Berlin to worship Hitler is not explained. Why does Rose – the one surviving character from the original – stop running what looks like a profitable business to go back into service? Does she sell the business? Does she install a manager? Is her salary as housekeeper suitable compensation? We are never told.
Nor, except for advance echoes of the Good War, is there any overall theme to draw all the minor plotlines together. There is a crude attempt at using the Abdication Crisis to do this. But it only involves the family upstairs. And it is very crude. One test of quality for historical fiction is knowing how much information to give out and how much to assume in the audience. The original Upstairs, Downstairs invariably got this balance right. Recall, for example, the approach of the Great War. Most people in the 1970s could be expected to know something of the July Crisis. Therefore, we are given a few passing references to the shootings in Sarajevo and the diplomatic chaos that followed. Otherwise, the various characters continue about their own business in a deepening gloom that they fail to understand. The most telling scene is a card game on an oppressively hot evening in July. No one mentions politics. Instead, we are given an image of a whole civilisation passing out its time between sentence and execution in a mood of grim triviality.
In the revived Upstairs, Downstairs, the characters bob in about out with news like messengers in a Greek tragedy. Anyone who knows about the Abdication is told far too much. When I put everything I did know out of mind, though, I found that all the laboured asides and sobbing telephone conversations did not make a coherent narrative. Matters are hardly clarified by the claim that Mrs Simpson is cheating on Edward with the German Ambassador. If this had allowed us to see more of Herr von Ribbentrop, it might have been an improvement, as he is portrayed as a fine pantomime villain. Sadly, the claim is made only as a crude attempt to centralise every plot round the approaching Redemption by Blood. Needless to say, the Abdication, when it finally does come, falls flat. Because they need to vary the scene with a sudden childbirth – which also lacks human interest – the producers are probably aware of their failure.
In the original Upstairs, Downstairs, the servants’ hall is made into a close community. This allows much light relief, and throws much additional light on the individual characters and how they relate to one another. It also enables moments of great drama. I think, for example, of the episode after Lady Marjorie has died on The Titanic. The household is still in shock. Suddenly one evening, Roberts, who had been presumed lost with her mistress, finds her way back to the house and is taken into the servants’ hall. What follows is something that can be watched over and again without losing its impact. It takes first class writing and first class ensemble acting for those tears and pauses, and the words and images natural to someone of limited understanding, to create a more thrilling account of the sinking than any of the film versions.
In the revived Upstairs, Downstairs, the servants are shown a few times listening together to the wireless. There are a few rows. Beyond this, there are probably more revealing exchanges between shift workers in a branch of McDonald’s. There is no creation of background for future drama. There is no commentary on or counterpoint to whatever is happening upstairs.
Indeed, several of the characters could be lifted out of the action for much of the time without any loss to the plot. The most obvious case of this redundancy is the housekeeper Rose, played once again by Jean Marsh. After the first twenty minutes are out of the way, she could be removed from every scene in which she appears without loss. Her only function, it is apparent, is to keep telling the viewers: “Look, everyone – I am Rose. Therefore, this really is Upstairs, Downstairs.” I hope Miss Marsh earned a lot from her appearance. I only wish she had insisted on better actors and more competent writers.
Yes, the writers are incompetent. I say that the original was made on the cheap. You can see this from fluffed lines and actors sometimes plainly lost on set. You can see it in anachronisms of street furniture in all the outside filming. You can also see it in the strange immunity from ageing that all the main characters enjoy during the 27 years covered. These flaws are wholly overbalanced by the quality of the writing and the acting. In the revival, money has been thrown in every direction but the writing of authentic dialogue.
Now, since I have had to give thought to this, I might as well say what I think about dialogue in historical fiction. If, like my friend Richard Blake, you are setting stories in the seventh century, there is no need to try for authenticity of words or speech patterns. The idea is that the narrator is writing in Greek, and the reader has been given a good translation from Greek. Ideas and words derived from the words of our technological civilisation must always be avoided. Therefore, no one should say that the temperature has fallen, or that his anger was fuelled by drink. Nor should he be too specific about times of day, or say that things happened so many seconds apart. No one before the seventeenth century could have used such language. But modern slang and obscenities are appropriate. One of Mr Blake’s reviewers accused him of incompetence for using the word “shite”, which is a moderately recent word. The reviewer misses the point. As said, the idea is that the reader has been given a translation from Greek. This means that whatever effect was created in the original must be so far as possible repeated in the translation.
It is the same with stories set in England before about 1500. The language of the characters would have been English – but a fairly remote English, and the pretence can be kept up of a translation. It is harder with stories set here during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Care must now be taken to avoid attempts at pastiche, which will probably fail, and might annoy an audience, but also to avoid obvious anachronisms of language. You can say, for example, that something was turned off, but not that it was switched off. I am not sure if you can say that a plot is discovered, since this word, though much used, had a slightly different meaning before the nineteenth century. And, though you will see it commonly used in The State Trials, you will only confuse if you describe someone with dark hair as a black man. Peter Greenaway breaks this rule in his film The Draughtsman’s Contract. The dialogue is often authentic. I think I even recall a reference, never clarified for the viewers, to the Darien project. But I believe that one of the purposes of this film is to show the past as remote and largely incomprehensible. Mr Greenaway breaks the rules for a specific purpose. He does not change them.
Again, in my own Churchill Memorandum, I sometimes use anachronistic words and forms of address. But this is a fantasy set in an alternative 1959, and the anachronisms are deliberate.
For the periods covered by either version of Upstairs, Downstairs, the guiding principle is clear. References to things and persons now obscure, or disused euphemisms – earnest for homosexual, for example, or gay for a prostitute, even perhaps Unionist instead of Conservative – should be avoided. Otherwise, the words and speech patterns of the day should be reproduced as faithfully as possible. And there is hardly anything in the language of the 1930s that can perplex a modern audience.
Yet, in the revived Upstairs, Downstairs, I noticed these anachronisms:
“Everyone will touch their toes.” The use of “their” as a neuter singular pronoun may have a longish history, but it only became widespread after the 1970s. I do not recall hearing it as a very young child. I do not believe it would have been used in this manner in the 1930s.
“British Establishment.” This is a phrase that came into use at the end of the 1950s. Anyone in the 1930s who might have used it must be understood to be talking about some aspect of Church government.
“Workload.” This is an Americanism that was first recorded in 1946.
“Ideology.” This word would not have been used by an Englishmen of ordinary education until the Cold War.
“Under surveillance.” This is another Americanism. I am not sure when it was first used in native English, but I doubt if this was much before the 1980s.
“Resolve the situation.” This is a circumlocution that I do not think was in general use before the 1970s.
I do not think I am being pedantic. The rules I have given are sound. Following them should be a matter of professional pride. Producers who seem to have spent lavishly on getting the frocks right should have insisted on reasonable care about language. Then again, though money was obviously spent, I am not sure how much care was taken with anything. I looked several times at the high quality recording that I made of the series. I am convinced that, in the final episode, I saw three BS1363 power sockets. These were only introduced in 1947. Mrs Gabb is also sure that one of the light fittings contained an energy-saving bulb. Again, in one scene, characters are shown listening to We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again, by Ivor Novello – a song written in 1945!
I might comment on what, apart from three seconds of men in skullcaps when the dead parlour maid is collected, is the total absence of religion from an age when this was still both important and prominent. But I think I have said enough. The revived Upstairs, Downstairs is not just unworthy of the original – it is an artistic disgrace in its own right. It even gives a bad name to propaganda. It shows the sort of contempt for the public that I like to think would have driven Stalin to distraction. That the BBC made it one of the high points of its Christmas coverage is further evidence of the cultural war it is waging against the English people and of how little it regards our intelligence.
I have not read any other reviews. But I hope they are equally hostile. I hope, furthermore, that the three episodes shown last week will have so displeased the viewing public that no more will be made. Beyond this, I will do no more than call once again for the BBC to be shut down on day one of a patriotic government, for its records to be burned, its copyrights disclaimed, and for all those working for it to be kicked into the street without pensions. It is the least these people deserve.