So upstairs downstairs returns for six full episodes from under the looming shadow that is the hot-air-filled balloon of Downton Abbey. Right away I note with satisfaction that there are no dogs being walked in the grounds of a sunlit stately home garden so we are ahead on points.
There have been some changes at 165 Eaton Place. Lady Maud is deceased (the actress and co-creator not wanting to return) and Ross Buck is absent with tuburcolocious (the actress and co-creator having had a stroke). Oscar Wilde would probably say to loose one co-creator is unfortunate, to loose both is careless.
In their place is Alex “River Song” Kingston playing Sir Hallam Holland’s half sister who has inserted herself into the household. Also present is Sir Hallam’s Downs Syndrome sister Pamela who it appears is going to be a regular character. Kudos to the show creators.
The backdrop to the episode concerns the belief that war with Germany is imminent. Barrage balloons blot out the sky over the park. Civilians are told to collect their gas masks. A reassuring information film informs us that the filter in the gas masks contains blue asbestos. That’s comforting.
Lady Agnes takes her newborn baby home and is concerted that there is no gas mask for the infant. So head butler Prichard goes off and returns with a prototype gas-proof pram, complete with a window for the infant to see out of and be reassured.
The young servant boy Johnny is unsure how effective the pram will be and decides to test it. He puts Lady Maud’s monkey inside and leaves the pram in the garage with the car motor running.
As expected the monkey does not survive the experiment.
Yes, it sounds a bit extreme, but I have to say there was something horribly credible about the whole scenario. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to read that things like that actually happened.
If that’s not bad enough the new nurse maid reveals later in the episode that her mother has died with gas poisoning. But it might not have been suicide she suggests unconvincingly, as her head wasn’t the whole way in the oven. She might have fallen.
But back to the monkey. The young guy wot did it figures he’s for a police cell. But then somewhat unexpectedly Prichard steps forward to claim responsibility.
While in the police station his own past comes to light. He was a contentious objector in the Great War. The police office is not impressed. I left half my toes in France he splutters with indignation at one point. (The image of Wet Matthew from Downton Abbey being paralysed and then ‘getting better’ is happily banished from my mind.)
Art Malek’s character is similarly unimpressed to discover Prichard didn’t fight in he war, to the degree that he takes his bosses gun out to the garden and Shoots Stuff. He looks like a beardy James Bond and I’m reminded that he was in The Living Daylights.
But even Prichard surprises. Early in the episode he is seen in his Air Raid Warden outfit apparently relishing the chance to shout stuff through a megaphone. But later in the episode we discover he wasn’t exactly a coward. He had served with the Red Cross to avoid military service that would be inconsistent with his Quaker beliefs, but when friends were jailed for being contentious objectors he declared himself the same out of solidarity.
Meanwhile Sir Hallam is at the Munich talks. He implores Prime Minister Chamberlain to not water down the agreement to suit Hitler. Chamberlain listens carefully and ignores the advice. He lifts a pen and carefully draws a line through another clause while the German contingent look on impassively.
A despondent Sir Hallam returns to his swastika-bedecked hotel and spots a familiar face in the bar. It’s Agnes’ sister Percie, the centre of male attention. As he walks her back to her house he implores her to come home. But she says she like it in Berlin and then gives him a proper full on snog. He doesn’t protest though. Looks like he’s being caught by her bad girl spell also.
The British contingent return to England where there is a recreation of the ‘peace in out time’ speech, Chamberlain clutching his little bit of worthless paper, Sir Hallam standing behind by the door of the airplane, looking glum.
Back at Eaton place the family and servants listen to the speech on the radio. Everyone is relieved that war has been averted. Only Agnes looks similarly glum as she rips down the blackout curtains and spots a barrage balloon on the horizon.
There’s more gravitas in 5 minutes of ‘Stairs’ than in a whole series of ‘Abbey’
If I have a niggle with the show it may be the inclusion of historic figures. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax I think they can get away with, and thankfully Hitler didn’t make a cameo at the talks, but next week promises a guest appearance by Jack Kennedy if the trailer is to believed.