From September 1938 to the outbreak of WWII, the second series of BBC One’s revamped Upstairs Downstairs was always destined to labour under an all-pervading sense of the gathering doom.
Upstairs, there is a major cast change with the loss of Eileen Atkins’ matriarch. In her place we gain her half-sister, Dr Blanche Mottershead, who could not be more different. Brought to life by Doctor Who’s Alex Kingston, she is a plain speaking, cigar smoking archaeologist spinster and brings touch of modernity with her disdain for “petit bourgeois ceremonials”. Blanche shakes up the family status quo, especially when her alternative lifestyle becomes public property.
Jean Marsh’s health problems trigger changes below stairs too, as the household sorely misses the guiding hand of housekeeper Rose Buck and it leaves butler and cook jockeying for position. Marsh does make a couple of limited appearances though, with the character having been despatched to a sanatorium.
Fresh faces appear in the form of housemaids Beryl and Eunice. The latter is a hard working, if not terribly bright, girl. The former, Beryl (Laura Haddock) makes more of an impression. Lacking the necessary deference for service and seeing the role purely as a means to an end, she soon takes umbrage her working conditions. Her spirited presence does not go unnoticed by chauffer Spargo either.
As war looms, Sir Hallam grapples with appeasers in his role at the Foreign Office finding himself on the wrong side of the argument. Meanwhile Lady Agnes, with her husband distracted and her family complete, struggles to find her place. Freed from the domineering mother-in-law, she endeavours to lead the household her own way. She also forms a dangerous friendship with charismatic American businessman Casper Landry.
Special mention must be made of the ill-fated Lady Persephone. Claire Foy gives a terrific, mannered performance as Agnes’ troubled sibling. Her petty jealousies, lies and shifting allegiances run throughout the series. Repeatedly Persie fails to comprehend that she is more ill used than user and the scenes in Episode 3, after she endures a back street abortion, make for compelling and difficult viewing.
Upstairs Downstairs continues the great tradition of weaving soapier elements in and out of the well-known historical moments, throwing in figures such as Chamberlain and JFK for good measure. The show provides a good mix of social commentary with political fact, and it is the implications of war on the downstairs staff that provide the most interest. In one case, they prompt the discovery of a secret that proves to have far reaching implications.
Writer Heidi Thomas, who is also behind BBC One’s other recent period hit Call the Midwife, provides strong stories for both above and below stairs, giving them all a moment to shine. The show retains a fair pace, starting slow but building to cover a great deal of ground in its six hours.
Sadly, it did not perform well as was hoped and it’s been revealed that the BBC will not be making a third series, leaving the characters to an uncertain fate. Given the impending war, it was concivable that a further series might have moved the timescale on again. We remain hopeful that the doors to Eaton Place will be flung open again one day soon.
Released on DVD on Monday 23rd April 2012 by BBC Worldwide.
Watch a clip from Series 2…
What did you think of Series 2? Let us know below…