Tuesday 16 January 2018

A new set of ups and downs

Upstairs Downstairs begins on February 19
Upstairs Downstairs begins on February 19

Susan Griffin

The promise of saucy antics and shake-ups have already put BBC drama Upstairs Downstairs in the spotlight.

Upstairs Downstairs may boast elegant period costumes and follow the ups and downs of an upper-crust family and their servants, but it's most definitely not an imitation of Julian Fellowes's runaway success Downton Abbey.

So says series writer and creator Heidi Thomas, along with a number of the cast who have gathered to discuss the second series.

"It just hasn't been part of our thinking," says Thomas, sweetly but succinctly in clipped vowels that wouldn't be out of place in any of her period dramas (she also wrote Cranford and Call The Midwife).

In fact, it was Upstairs Downstairs that originally set a precedent for TV period drama when it first aired in 1971.

For four years, viewers avidly tuned in to watch the aristocratic Bellamy family and their servants, who live at 165 Eaton Place, cope with events between 1903 and 1930.

During Christmas 2010, the BBC revived the series with three specials that heralded a glossy new look and glamorous cast led by the diplomat Sir Hallam Holland, played by Brideshead Revisited's Ed Stoppard, 37, and his wife Lady Agnes (Ashes To Ashes actress Keeley Hawes, 36) moving into the grand townhouse in 1936.

Now, as the show returns as a six-part series, it's September 1938 and war is looming.

"Through my research I became captivated by the politics and the Home Front in 1938," says Thomas.

"I hadn't realised how close the people of Britain felt to war. Gas masks were being issued. They were digging trenches and rehearsing the evacuation of children. I found it fascinating and thought the audience would as well."


There have been births and deaths since viewers last saw the owners moving in and returning the house to its former glory.

At the start of the second series, Lady Agnes is extremely frail after giving birth to her second child, while Sir Hallam's mother Lady Holland has passed away (the actress Dame Eileen Atkins decided not to continue).

There's also the arrival of new characters who promise to create all sorts of romance, drama and tension for the inhabitants of Eaton Place.

One is Hallam's aunt, Dr Blanche Mottershead, played by former E.R. star Alex Kingston, who has made herself quite at home despite the funeral having happened weeks before.

"She sort of gradually roots herself into Eaton Place," says the 48-year-old actress who recently appeared in Doctor Who.

"She's what one would have called an adventuress. She's been to university and lived in North Africa, so has come from a free existence and can't see why she needs to conform to this very beautifully-kept world."

Kingston's character has already created headlines with the news that she will "make a connection" with another new character, intellectual novelist Lady Portia Alresford, played by Emilia Fox.

"Blanche's not a fly in the ointment but she certainly stirs things up and has secrets, which are revealed," says Kingston, careful not to give too much away.

Blanche is also instrumental in offering support to Agnes as Hallam becomes ever more involved in the preparations for war.

"Towards the end of the series, she becomes somewhat of an ally to Agnes and is quite instrumental in encouraging her to gain confidence," says Kingston.

She's also the first to comment on the chemistry between her and new arrival Caspar Landry.

"I'm an entrepreneur who comes over and strikes up a relationship with Lady Agnes, which evolves over the six episodes," says American actor Michael Landes, 39, who plays the charismatic Caspar.

"I think I represent something very liberating and refreshing for her - and I balance out her naughty sister's behaviour."

Ah yes, Lady Persie, the younger sister of Lady Agnes, whose actions have always been questionable but in this series reach new heights of deviousness.

"She's as naughty as it's possible to get," says Claire Foy, 27, who garnered critical acclaim for her role in The Promise last year and plays the wayward aristocrat.

"She does what makes her happy and doesn't realise why people have a problem with it. It's because she loves herself. And I love her dearly too - well apart from the fascism."

Persie's always enjoyed dalliances but there's one in this series that looks set to blow the family apart.

"Actually there's a lot of romance this series but you have to remember it's 1938 and so there are moral codes in place," says Thomas.

"It's one of the reasons I like writing period drama because even a kiss can have consequences, even the brush of two hands on the staircase.

"It's not the modern world where you have to be jumping in and out of bed every five minutes to make an impact."

Relations downstairs at 165 Eaton Place are no less tempestuous as the staff welcome spirited new maid Beryl, played by rising star Laura Haddock, 26, most recently seen in The Inbetweeners Movie.

"Beryl's there to save money and then wants to leave to become an apprentice in a salon. That's her dream, but it's never that easy," says Haddock.

Especially when there's potential romance on the horizon in the form of handsome chauffeur Harry Spargo, played by Neil Jackson, 35.

However high emotions run, humour remains a constant among the downstairs staff.

"I think it comes through naturally because there's always banter in a working environment. I often feel they know each other better than the upstairs characters," says Thomas.

"We're more uninhibited downstairs and there's a lot of humour to be got from quarrels," agrees Anne Reid, 76, the former Coronation Street actress who plays cook Mrs Thackeray.

"I always enjoy writing a good row actually, because I'm quite compliant in life and it all comes out when I'm writing," adds Thomas. "They have arguments much better than I ever could."

The butler, Mr Pritchard, is usually at the centre of the quarrels. Following housekeeper Rose Buck's illness (the actress Jean Marsh recently suffered a heart attack but does make a small appearance in the series), Pritchard has stepped up to become head of household staff.

"He has run-ins in practically every episode but bless him it's from the best of motives," says Adrian Scarborough, the 43-year-old Gavin & Stacey actor who plays Pritchard.

"He's a bit of a pompous ass but has quite a strong moral code, and he likes other people to live up to it too."

Even Pritchard enjoys a dalliance with the arrival of Miss Whisset, played by Sarah Lancashire, which just leaves Mrs Thackaray.

Does she get to enjoy a little flirtation? "No, I wish," laughs Reid. "Though Mrs Thackaray does do something outrageous in episode two, it's nothing to do with blokes."

With the series set to end as war breaks out in September 1939, the cast and crew admit to not knowing what's in store for the series.

"I do hope we follow these characters, but that's never a given," says Thomas.

"Though I was in the office the other day and saw there was this big book called The Blitz and I thought, 'Well someone's planning ahead'."

:: The second series of Upstairs Downstairs begins on BBC One on Sunday, February 19

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