The revamped historical drama 'Upstairs Downstairs' is the perfect mix of escapism and gentle drama to keep the Monday blues at bay, says Paul Whitington
Published 19/02/2012 | 06:00
'Upstairs Downstairs' returns to BBC1 tomorrow night, for a six-episode run that the producers are praying will replicate the success of ITV's goldmine period drama 'Downton Abbey'.
'Upstairs Downstairs' was once an ITV drama itself: it was a huge hit for the network back in the early 1970s, and ran on Sunday nights for five very successful seasons.
The show was revived by the BBC for Christmas 2010, and that three-episode run went down well enough to justify this second series.
Based on an idea by actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, the original show was set in a plush Belgravia townhouse in the early years of the 20th century and followed the sometimes painful interactions of staff and gentry.
In 'Upstairs Downstairs', Hudson the butler, Rose the parlour maid and their bosses, the Marquess and Marchioness of Stockbridge, were confronted with the horrors of war and the awkwardness of social change.
The show blended a basic soap-opera format with elements of social history and wistful nostalgia.
In fact, in many ways, it could be called the original template for 'Downton Abbey', and 'Upstairs Downstairs' is also the perfect example of, and perhaps a prototype for, what makes good Sunday- night television.
Way back in the 1960s, programmers began to realise that while gritty crime dramas and grimly realistic soaps were all very well during the week, working folk did not take kindly to being subjected to misery of a Sunday night.
Mainstream audiences wanted escapism, historical escapism preferably, with loveable characters, unthreatening villains, only a mild amount of tension and happy endings for everyone.
This honing of Sunday-night drama happened by trial and error.
Early dramas such as 'Dr Finlay's Casebook' and 'The Onedin Line' were screened midweek or on Saturdays, before programmers realised that these gentle heritage dramas would fare better away from football and game shows, on the safety of Sunday night.
'Dr Finlay's Casebook' ran from 1962 to 1971, and was about as reassuring as television gets. It was set in a rural Scottish medical practice, run by a handsome junior doctor and his crusty senior partner.
Storylines involved poisoned wells, sick babies who always got better and old ladies who'd put their backs out. It was hugely popular, and ran for 178 episodes.
'The Onedin Line' was similarly unthreatening. It starred Peter Gilmore, and followed the rise and fall of a 19th-century Liverpool shipping line. It was only mildly racy, its villains rarely prospered and 'The Onedin Line' ran from 1971 to 1980, by which time it had begun to seem old-fashioned.
'Poldark' was the big Sunday- night hit of the mid-1970s, and much more of a bodice-ripper.
Robin Ellis played Ross Poldark, a dashing 18th-century army officer who returned to Cornwall to try and make a success of his father's ailing tin mines, lost the love of his beautiful fiancée and ended up marrying Demelza, a flame-haired servant with a quick temper.
It was a bit daft but great fun, and the BBC later made a fortune by selling it all over the world.
'All Creatures Great and Small' dominated BBC1's Sunday-evening schedule for more than a decade, and was textbook Sunday drama.
Based on the books of James Herriot, the show starred Christopher Timothy as a north country vet who made a living sticking his arm up the rear ends of cattle and sheep.
Viewers tuned in in their millions, sure that nothing very bad was going to happen to anyone.
Shows like this and the 1990s hit 'Heartbeat' cleverly exploited older viewers' nostalgia for a gentler and more homogeneous Britain in which everyone knew their place and crimes were minor and uncommon.
'Heartbeat' starred ex-'East-Enders' heartthrob Nick Berry as a London cop posted to a small Yorkshire village in the early 1960s.
Although the producers initially fea-tured scenes of do- mestic violence, they soon realised that reality was contrary to the show's appeal, and later series were gentle affairs involving sheep rustling and the theft of prize vegetables.
It seems the past is a safer country, be-cause the most popular Sunday dramas tend to have historical settings.
ITV dramas based on the works of Agatha Christie, have all been aired on a Sunday night, and the BBC has had considerable success with period dramas such as 'The House of Eliott' and 'Cranford'.
And in case all this sounds a little old-fashioned in the age of 'Big Brother' and 'Tallafornia', the BBC has just proved that the old Sunday night formula works a treat.
'Call the Midwife', which started on BBC1 on January 15, is classic Sunday night nostalgia.
A kind of cross between 'All Creatures Great and Small' and the 1980s period medical drama 'The District Nurse', the show is set in a nursing convent in 1950s London that specialises in midwifery.
Comedian Miranda Hart stars as Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley Browne, an unfeasibly posh woman who turns out to have a rare and special gift for midwifery, though her liberal views frequently land her in hot water with the nuns, led by Jenny Agutter's Sister Julienne.
Although the show does occasionally address issues such as the first wave of West Indian immigration and overt racism, 'Call the Midwife' mainly deals in mini-dramas about breach births and problematic pregnancies that tend to turn out for the best.
The characters smoke less than they should given that it's supposed to be the 1950s, but everyone is endlessly polite and the tea and cakes flow as if there's no tomorrow.
It's uplifting television, and very cleverly done.
It's also attracting up to 10 million viewers per episode, easily beating trendier dramas such as 'Sherlock' and 'Birdsong' -- and, only two shows in, the BBC decided to commission a second series.
The omens, meanwhile, are pretty good for the new run of 'Upstairs Downstairs', because it and 'Call the Midwife' share a common author -- Heidi Thomas, a woman who seems to know a thing or two about Sunday-night drama.
The new series of 'Upstairs Downstairs' begins tomorrow night on BBC1 at 9.30pm