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Series set among skirmishes in the class war

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This week Vision TV started airing the original Upstairs, Downstairs, an historical saga of servants and masters that ran for five seasons in the early 1970s. At first I thought this was just a cynical bid to cash in on the pop-culture buzz generated by Downton Abbey. But once I started watching I found I liked Upstairs, Downstairs better than its arriviste heir.

Compared to the sumptuous Downton Abbey, the production values on Upstairs, Downstairs are adorably low-budget. (Six episodes in the first season were actually shot in black and white because of a technicians' strike.) But the writing is better -- darker, tougher, more complicated. Best of all, there's a bracing current of class warfare that is entirely missing in the rosy, reactionary aristo-porn of Downton Abbey.

After Downton Abbey swept the Golden Globes, noted British-born historian Simon Schama denounced it as "a servile soap opera" and "silvered tureen of snobbery." Calling the show an act of cultural necrophilia, Schama accused Downton Abbey of fetishizing the artifacts of the port-and-pheasant crowd while blithely ignoring the era's stark social and economic realities.

Not so with Upstairs, Downstairs. First of all, the producers didn't have the money to fetishize anything. Forget Downton's golden haze of nostalgia. At least in the first season, Upstairs, Downstairs' limited sets are thin and flimsy -- sometimes the door to the morning room doesn't quite close -- and the costumes and hairstyles skimp by as best they can, often with a decidedly '70s look. The shooting of many of the scenes was limited to one take, and the cast's trip-ups and slips are left in, to endearing effect.

More importantly, Upstairs, Downstairs takes as its starting point the experiences of the servants. The idea for the series came from actors Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who had family members who had been in service and who felt strongly that working-class people were under-represented on British television. Early suggestions for the show's title included Behind the Green Baize Door, The Servants' Hall and Below Stairs. The "upstairs" characters -- Tory politician Richard Bellamy, his titled wife, Lady Marjorie, and their two grown children -- were added as an afterthought, because the servants needed someone to work for.

Looking at the initial cast, it's clear that many of the tropes of Downton Abbey were developed 40 years ago by Upstairs, Downstairs. In the opening episodes we meet the red-faced, plain-talking cook ("I speak as I find"), the wee, timorous kitchen maid, the footman with hidden kinks, the imperious but kindly butler, the level-headed house parlour maid, and the rebellious aristocratic daughter.

The difference is in the ways these characters are handled. In Downton Abbey, potential conflicts between the social classes are generally smoothed out by the benevolent feudal rule of Lord Grantham. Discontent is ungrateful; ambition is dangerous. The writers on Upstairs, Downstairs, including feisty feminist novelist Fay Weldon, take a more adversarial approach. All the characters inhabit the same house, and their lives are intricately intertwined, but the interests of the upstairs and downstairs "families" are often in sharp conflict.

It's not just the work, though the servants are often seen doing jobs that are exhausting (hauling water, blacking grates, mending by meagre light) or silly (ironing the master's bootlaces). It's the intrusive control of the servants' lives. They are forbidden to lock their bedroom doors or leave the house without permission. It is almost impossible for them to marry. And they live in terror of being dismissed "without a reference," which could mean a slide into utter destitution.

Downton's Lord Grantham is a solver of problems, a chivalrous consoler of housemaids, a staunch defender of valets. The interventions of Mr. Bellamy and Lady Marjorie, while well-intentioned, are usually revealed as paternalistic, patronizing "pats on the head," as one servant calls them. The Bellamy daughter, Miss Elizabeth, sees herself as a radical Fabian -- she hands out socialist leaflets and ladles soup in London's impoverished East End -- but she instantly asserts her class privileges when a servant has the nerve to speak her mind or wear silk instead of cotton.

Upstairs, Downstairs is the unsentimental record of intimacy without equality, which leads to some very peculiar situations indeed. In one episode, the servants -- left to themselves while the employers are up in Scotland murdering grouse -- dress up and savagely impersonate the upper classes, until Mr. James, the son and heir, unexpectedly returns home and turns their charade into an unsettling sexual and political power play. It's positively Pinteresque.

Now that I've seen something of Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey looks very different. The newer series has all the gloss and glamour that contemporary prestige TV can muster. But in terms of themes, it's starting to appear positively old-fashioned.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 G7

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