Wednesday 21 February 2018

Toff at the top -- why we still love period drama

When it comes to period drama, fans usually divide along traditional lines. Had you asked me at Christmas, I would have said I am an avowed BBC girl. Just take a look at its back catalogue.

For me, as for a whole generation of young women, it all started with the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet.

Before, this kind of television was stilted, performed on a sound stage with no real human feelings. Andrew Davies' adaptations changed all that. Firth and Ehle's Darcy and Elizabeth were as complex on our screens as they were in Austen's book and, despite Davies's reputation for raunch, there was only one -- very chaste -- kiss in the whole thing, which you had to wait a whole six weeks to see, by which time you were ready to go into a faint at the mere thought of it.

Thereafter came such high points as the BBC's adaptation of Dickens' Bleak House and Little Dorrit and Christmas's Great Expectations. Nobody does period drama quite like the BBC . . . except, there was something lacklustre about last week's return of Upstairs, Downstairs.

And let's not forget about the recent adaptation of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, Dickens's unfinished last book, which was screened with little fanfare (and it was easy to see why). The problem with Upstairs, Downstairs is not that it is badly made (on the contrary, it is beautifully made and set in the compelling period of 1938), but that it is so similar to its main rival and competitor, Downton Abbey.

Both shows started in 2010 and while the world was big enough for both shows then, Downton has certainly made up the running with Christmas specials and soap-opera- style plot lines which have enthralled viewers in both Ireland and the UK as well as abroad.

It has won Emmies and Golden Globes in America and was broadcast as far afield as Sweden and Hong Kong. The problem is, the shows are just so similar and Downton, while criticised for taking historical liberties, has all the warmth and comedy that Upstairs, Downstairs appears to be lacking.

Watching Upstairs, Downstairs felt a little like comparing a generic brand pill with a brand name -- the ingredients are exactly the same but somehow they don't have the same effects, follow the same neural pathways or trigger the same response.

Upstairs, Downstairs writer Heidi Thomas has excellent form, having written both series of the wonderful adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford but, while Upstairs, Downstairs is elegant, historically accurate and set in exciting times, it somehow doesn't match Downton's appeal.

Maybe the ineffectual impact of Upstairs, Downstairs can be attributed to the fact that it's been over a year since we last saw it on our screens, and even then it was fleeting as a three-part series. In that time, Downton has raced ahead, establishing relationships with the viewers, putting down roots with sentimental one-off shows and even securing Shirley MacLaine to star in its next series.

The recent popularity of period drama has meant it has become the new schedule filler of choice, but not any old one will do. On the basis of last week's episode, Upstairs, Downstairs feels destined to operate as stop-gap viewing, and suggested to me what I never imagined I would think . . . sometimes you can have too much period drama.

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