You Can’t Go Upstairs Again

Nor downstairs neither, as the downstairs folk would probably word it.

I hate watching people fight, even when the outcome matters to me, so I set up one computer to a live blog and Twitter feed of the vice-presidential debate and on the other one we downloaded the current episode of the rebooted “Upstairs, Downstairs.” A complete set of the original series is one of the  best Christmas presents I ever got, and I had hopes for the revival; there was an older Jean Marsh, Rose Buck turned head of a domestic service agency, and Eileen Atkins, out from behind the typewriter as the eccentric memsahib who brings her Sikh retainer and her pet monkey to live with her son and daughter-in-law at a reopened Eaton Place. The whole late thirties setting — a moment in history which I have always found fraught and fascinating — should have clinched it. It’s cruel when the last program you would expect jumps the shark.

There’s no sign of Marsh in the second season — Rose is supposedly recovering from illness at a a sanatorium — and Atkins’ character has returned as the contents of an engraved urn reverently placed by the Sikh on a shelf during the first few minutes of the episode. Marsh apparently is really ill, and I gather Atkins saw the direction things were taking and jumped ship; but what’s left behind is a shambles. Not a living soul in the cast is likable, or rather those who have likable moments proceed to do such unlikable things that no real character ever develops; every interaction seemed at best the result of the scriptwriter’s need to grab attention for a plot with no particular direction. The new mistress of Eaton Place has yet to be shown as anything other than a fluttery baby factory. Possibly the most charming character — the late mem-sahib’s monkey — is callously dispatched in a piece of emotional sadism toward the audience that Jean Marsh and her fellow writers would never have countenanced. And we are asked to accept the addition to the cast of an adult mental retardate, revealed in the last season’s finale as having been born to the mem-sahib but secretly kept in a home, which preposterously displays the acuity required to call the police and report the monkey’s death as a “murder.” By the time the whole thing was over — in stark contrast to the old program, where even quarrels reminded you what endearing qualities inhered in each role — nearly every character’s behavior had been so ugly that I would have felt more edified by tuning in to the debate.

Here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s

so I probably should be fretting about what they said and not about the loss of a reliable stream of narrative comfort food. But even Yeats couldn’t stop wanting to hug the pretty girl, while I contend that at times comfort food is the one thing you can rely on. And I can’t afford to eat any more of that mac and cheese.

Maybe I’ll price a set of those old James Herriot shows.


9 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Upstairs Again

  1. Ever watched the original b/w “Forsyte Saga”? You probably have, but I thought I’d mention it just in case. Also recommended: The Grand. Both series are great, but Series I is particularly wonderful. It’s my go-to comfort watch.

  2. I was more of a Monty Python kinda English TV fan. Now I’m forced to watch what they produce over there, or not watch at all (not a problem). Did you ever look up QI? It has to be a show you’d enjoy.

  3. When I saw the title of your post come up, I was sure the story would pertain to domestic feline politics. Never saw that show. I should take it from the library and see what’s what.

  4. I never quite grasped why authors would try to develop further what another author created. Unless they have the same brain, it can not be done and is usually a bummer. Leave the ghosts alone even though Hallow’Een is near.

    • In a few cases, it’s been done and done well (or I wouldn’t have so many delightful and true-to-Doyle Sherlock Holmes pastiches on my bookshelf). I had hopes of this because the original creators of the series were deeply involved, but apparently they didn’t have veto power over bad ideas (or Jean Marsh’s infirmity was exploited by people who thought they were hot stuff). And television is the kind of medium where everything is a group project and situations are often carried forward by new people. Sometimes it just… doesn’t work.

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