Corsets, chauffeurs . . . and lesbian love
By Joe O'Shea
Prime-time period drama is about to be sexed-up in a way that would give Downton's Dowager Countess a fit of the vapours.
BBC chiefs, perhaps jealous of the phenomenal success of ITV's Downton Abbey, plan to take Upstairs Downstairs into a world most Edwardians couldn't have conceived in their wildest fantasies.
And the latest storylines could have Sunday night viewers reaching for the smelling salts as writers push the boundaries on what is seen as acceptable for family audiences.
The Beeb has tasked writer Heidi Thomas, the lady behind the hit BBC drama Call The Midwife, to inject a bit of raunch into the new series of Upstairs Downstairs, the centrepiece of its spring line-up.
And the toffs and servants of 165 Eaton Place will find themselves at the centre of a scandal when Lady Portia Alresford (played by Silent Witness star Emilia Fox) returns to London to resume an affair with Sir Hallam Holland's aunt Blanche (former ER doc Alex Kingston).
The sniping between BBC and ITV had already begun after leaks confirmed that the new series of Upstairs Downstairs would be set against the backdrop of a looming World War, territory clearly marked by Downton.
Upstairs Downstairs writer Heidi Thomas has had to defend herself from accusations of "borrowing" from the ITV rival.
"Downton have had 18 hours of drama now and we are barely out of the starting blocks," she said. Claiming to have only seen "fragments" of Downton and pointing out that her new drama moves Upstairs Downstairs into the mid-1930s, the writer added: "If you are going to pick up the story, you don't have a choice about covering the war."
The Beeb has hit back through Upstairs Downstairs actor Neil Jackson (raunchy chauffeur Harry Spargo), who has labelled Downton "sexless".
Mr Jackson, rather ungallantly, also offered his opinion on the Crawley family ladies, saying: "The women in Downton Abbey don't compare to the women in Upstairs Downstairs. Ours are stunning. We've got beautiful women."
Beeb insiders have been gleefully pointing out that the main storyline about sex in Downton centred on injured war hero Matthew not being able to have any. And when one character, randy Turkish diplomat Mr Pamuk, did attempt to bed Lady Mary he promptly keeled over and died.
Diane Negra, Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture at UCD, believes there are a number of reasons for the resurgence of costume drama, including a "renewed fascination with class structure and the lives of the privileged" in these recessionary times.
"Even though these stories are set at a distant, historical remove, I think they speak to our times and people are looking for ways, in their entertainment, to connect with themes of class differences and inequality," says Professor Negra.
However, she believes the sexing-up of these dramas is partly the result of another recent event -- last year's British royal wedding and in particular, Pippa Middleton's derrière.
"It seems as if we want an increasingly close-up view of the lives of these elite people. We feel entitled to know about their sex lives, whether it is in the real world or in fiction," says Professor Negra.
Of course, while the resurgence of period drama could be down to socio-economic factors and a simple need for escapism, the reasons for sexing-up the genre may come from more straight-forward considerations.
After all, as TV networks know only too well, sex sells. Even if it does involve toffs and layers of complicated clothing.
The new series of Upstairs Downstairs begins Sunday on BBC1