"None of that behaviour in my kitchen"... Watching 'Upstairs, Downstairs'

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Series Three
Desirous Of Change



In hindsight (and partly while watching) Desirious For Change is one of those episodes that feels rather disposable and “skippable”. There are two key stories, each of which is neatly resolved by the episode’s end with characters brought in apparently just for this episode to help the arcs play out, before departing within the hour.

Even more curious is that both stories feel a little like reprises of earlier stories.

The story with the fraudsters attempting to dine out on the Bellamys’ riches arguably has echoes of (shudder) The Swedish Tiger. Fortunately, it does improve upon this story considerably while throwing in some ill-fated romance stuff (again, rather familiar from a number of previous episodes).

It’s kind of amusing that Richard’s dalliance with a younger countess proves far less controversial within the household than Hazel’s choice to economise by having cottage pie served for dinner, which sees much eyebrow raising and pearl clutching (and rightly so, given that it’s also the more entertaining storyline of the two).

Incidentally, I’d either not realised or had forgotten that Hazel was now Mrs James Bellamy. There’s a bit of proto-Krystle Carrington stuff with her grappling with arranging menus and managing staff and whatnot, but the “cottage pie for dinner” scene with Hazel’s more ordinary background shining through in the economical-but-efficient touches made me think of Susan Palmer-Hamilton’s cheerful Eighties Dural makeover over in Sons and Daughters. With sarcastic, slightly petulant husband James and supportive, appreciative father-in-law Richard analogous to Wayne and Gordon respectively.

This episode’s downstairs arc has a touch of the familiar with the arrival of the eccentric new under housemaid who has a penchant for making up grandiose and dramatic stories about her past and who quickly gets into trouble for taking items that don’t belong to her. In these regards, Miss Gwyneth Davies is a Welsh version of Sarah.

This story - right down to Gwyneth’s choice to depart abruptly, even after being let off for the thefts and accepted by the downstairs staff after dropping the facade and making herself vulnerable - is effectively a retelling of the original “Sarah leaves” version of On Trial. It’s notable, then, that this is only the second episode Fay Weldon has written since that very first episode.

While my comments on Desirous… could be read as critical or negative, that’s not my overall feeling about it. It was entertaining enough, and Janet Lees Price made Gwyneth herself a really nice tragicomic and quirky character who immediately got a crackling energy going with the other characters who had strong opinions about her. Once again, Rose’s empathy shone through which is always a good thing (even though I wish she still had a bit more of the brittle edge we saw in early episodes).

The humour was especially fun, particularly Gwyneth’s tales of being sexually harassed by her former employer with a wistful dreamy look as she nostalgically described him him undressing her “poor female body” with his eyes: a description that cropped up at least twice, threatening to become one of several catchphrases for Gwyneth (the Welsh accent, period setting and lustful longing reminded me of Rachel "I have my own apartment" Harris from The Magnificent Evans). Despite the rather patchy Welsh accent she could have become a fun regular if written well. I was rather sorry to see her depart.
 
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Series Three
Word Of Honour



Moral dilemmas are frequently hugely worthy of investment and this was no exception. Here, as a result of innocently taking up an investment tip from a fellow MP without knowing the reasons behind it, Richard faces the choice of living with both his political career and the family name in ruins or of breaking his word to reveal his friend’s name.

The situation itself is high stakes and we visit such grandiose environments as Richard’s wood panelled gentlemen’s club and the rooms and halls of the House Of Lords, but it’s the themes of loyalty and integrity which make this one gripping and entirely relatable no matter what the situation.

Once again, Richard is shown to be a man of principle, refusing to - in modern parlance - throw his acquaintance under the bus to save his skin even though (as Hazel points out) said acquaintance has shown no sign of coming forward to support Richard, despite Richard’s disgrace being plastered all over the newspapers.

It’s easy to see why Richard’s refusal to give up the name can be perceived by those around him as bloody-minded or even self-sabotage, but I found myself admiring him for it all the more. He doesn’t bow to pressure or put his own interests first. It’s not even really about the acquaintance. To Richard, his word is sacred, even though it was given before he was fully aware of the implications or full circumstances, his view is that if he goes back on his word then it will never mean anything again. As he says to Hazel, this would be worse for him than prison.

This is one of those assertive, initiative-taking Hazel episodes, where she ropes Hudson into going to the gentlemen’s club to do some sleuthing about the identity of the man who had spoken with Richard (a faulty soda siphon being the Chekov’s Gun of the piece since wetting the man’s trousers was lodged in the mind of someone working at the club).

While assertive Hazel is all good and well, it’s the fallout from her assertiveness that makes it so compelling. Richard is aghast at what he considers her betrayal (and what she considers to be family loyalty) and lets her know in no uncertain terms. He gives the kind of “women should know their place” diatribe which used to be reserved for Marjorie, throwing in how gentlemen’s clubs exist so that women and servants and other people who know no better cannot interfere. It’s all delivered with such passion and sincerity that he quite sells the concept.

Hazel’s role in things being similar to that Richard’s late wife would have played doesn’t help the feeling that she is an ersatz Marjorie in so many ways, and that doesn’t help me feel any more sure of the character. Things have happened so quickly that I simply haven’t had time to accept Hazel. But this is accounted for in the writing, with Hazel still being in many ways the outsider, and Richard viewing this as a key reason why Hazel needs to quickly learn their ways and lose those ways she had been used to before being a Bellamy. And that degree of conflict can only be a good thing.
 
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Series Three
The Bolter



Or A Change Of Scene II: The Return To Somerby. Episode Two of the “spinoff” was shot back-to-back with the earlier visit (tenth and eleventh by studio shooting numbers this year, with The Bolter’s location scenes shot on the following consecutive two days from A Change Of Scene’s outdoor stuff).

The location work is indeed one of this episode’s strengths. Once again, we’re in the great outdoors, basking in the golden autumnal hues as we roam the grand country estate with the characters on the hunt for an unsuspecting fox to watch ripped apart by their hounds.

Fortunately, there’s not a fox to be seen on screen. As well as the upper class grandiosity represented by the hunting pinks, horses and hounds, the toffs cheerfully enjoying the sport of watching a “lesser” animal suffer is simply a metaphoric extension of this entire episode’s main story in which the nasty, bitchy hooray Henry set from A Change Of Scene find their cruel bloodsport in keeping middle class Hazel firmly in her place through a combination of intellectual snobbery and knowing little remarks paired with the advantage of the bond formed within the clique.

This is demonstrated perfectly by the scene in which James and Hazel arrive while conversation is in full flow. The conversation halts, frosty perfunctory greetings are exchanged, then the conversation immediately becomes codish, full of shorthands and references to people and situations that are completely unfamiliar to Hazel. It’s textbook primary school exclusion: there are concessions to James’s presence and social niceties, but Hazel is as good as sent to Coventry and the “Unwelcome” mat placed at her feet.

The gang’s all here from last time round (plus a couple of new faces downstairs) with the “guest stars” in addition to James and Hazel being Rose and Edward (the latter has what I believe is his first on-screen kiss).

The etiquette proves fascinating from the very opening scene in which Hazel is at Eaton Place running herself through the language James has been teaching her in order not to embarrass herself (and more importantly, it’s implied, him). It’s “hounds”, not “dogs”, she observes. And animals don’t have tails: hounds have “sterns” and foxes have “brushes”. I’ve already forgotten what horses have so I’m sure I wouldn’t fare too well at Somerby Park.

And on top of coping with all this, Hazel has James’s old flame Diana Newbury, blatantly flirting with James and kissing him in front of her (and her own husband, Bunny) in the name of fun, with the implicit, unspoken suggestion that this is upper class etiquette that Hazel is too uneducated to understand. And then there’s the letchy old Major, telling Hazel that Diana and James are playing “bed games” in order to make her vulnerable to his own advances.

The scene where the clique persuades Hazel to “surprise” James by mounting a horse and catching up with the hunt against his “orders” is fascinating. They seem genuine and - taken on face value - even supportive. But they know James, and they surely know that this will cause nothing but trouble for Hazel. Diana goes the extra step of switching Hazel’s planned horse for a wilder, friskier one in order to double Hazel’s shame factor.

I find it really difficult to tell which - if any - of the friends are genuine. Bunny seems rather nice (but that could be my Terry & June watching bias), and there’s some genuine anger towards Diana for the horse-switching. But after spending a great deal of time with these characters, I still don’t know what motivates them and I don’t quite get them. That frustrates me, but in the best way possible. I’m intrigued enough to want to see what they do next, and I’m sure I haven’t seen the last of them.

It’s also enjoyable to see James “lapsing” into his more caddish old ways under the influence of his longtime friends. The friction between he and Hazel is great, and James comes across as quite unlikeable and unsympathetic at times, which I really appreciate.

Hazel, by the way, looked great in her riding gear, complete with black veil which gave her a mysterious and almost gothic air. Given her treatment at the hands of the Somerby set (and James) Hazel has become a more sympathetic and fleshed-out character and I feel more connected to her. This could be the episode that sold me on her.

The “bookend” scenes at Eaton Place and featuring Richard were great. His support of Hazel at episode’s end upon learning of the cruel treatment she’s received created a great energy between Richard, Hazel and James. Even better was the opening scene where Hazel confided her worry that she’d make a fool of herself and let James down and he spoke of his first visits to the Southwold estate, reminding her (and us) of his own middle class background and the anxieties that come from changing social strata and the bizarre new “rules” that accompany such a leap. His bitter remembrance that his Oxford education carried no weight in the billiard room perfectly summed up the closed attitudes that made it very difficult to become part of this world.
 
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