Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Upstairs Downstairs: On Trial

Amidst researching the representative Scots peerage and dealing with other matters historical and parliamentary for my job, some voluntary reviewing and a very little paid freelancing, I've had time to fit in some archive television. While up at my parents', I rewatched the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs from 1971, On Trial. This statement has to be immediately qualified because what now passes for the first episode isn't, but a replacement; and it furthermore comes in two versions. This came from a DVD of the first season branded as 'The Colour Edition', which I'd bought for my mother a long time ago; it was released by VCI, and is now long deleted and superseded by the higher resolution transfers from the master tapes released by Network. As detailed at the principal online authority for the series, UpDown (from whose site I've sourced the picture of Jean Marsh and Pauline Collins adorning this review), the original broadcast version of the episode was in black and white, as were the first few recorded episodes of the series, a result of an industrial dispute affecting colour broadcasts; once the series was successfully established and the dispute was over the first episode was re-recorded in colour with two endings depending on whether the repeat or overseas sales package was to include the following black and white episodes or not. In this version, Sarah (Pauline Collins) rather abruptly walks out on 165 Eaton Place at the end of the episode, whereas in the original (wiped) and the version of episode one used with the black and white episodes, Sarah doesn't leave until the end of episode three.

The resulting episode might seem unusual as the launch of a series to eyes of over forty years later, but Upstairs Downstairs was born in an age where the line between the single play and the series was blurred by cycles such as the BBC's The Six Wives of Henry VIII; the writers drawn to Upstairs Downstairs included names associated with serious long-form drama but also at home with popular series or serials such as Rosemary Anne Sisson or in this case Fay Weldon. The considered and detailed depiction of a historical period was then part of the mainstream; settings relied on a deliberated, documented authenticity. Dialogue contains anachronisms and cultural references which the 1971 audience would have had to comb their memories or ask older relatives to confirm. Uniform changes which a budget-conscious production might have questioned are essential to setting and plot.

On Trial, in this form, is very much Sarah's story, and her departure with so many questions about her background and character unanswered might make some viewers expect that this is to be her series rather than that of the characters who she leaves behind. Even so, Sarah's centrality to the episode is balanced by her unknowability; she keeps several identities in the air at a time and it is never clear how much truth or deception there is in her tales, even when she is humbled and denies everything about her claims to French and Gypsy ancestry. Script and Collins's performance suggest she does not know herself. The regulars are introudced through their reactions to her: the sceptical, mocking but proper Rose who holds back the dire and dishonourable fate of Sarah's predecessor Katie until she can keep it in no more; the superstitious, susceptible, malleable Emily, seeking someone to whom to be loyal; Hudson and Mrs Bridges, in their different ways jealous of their authority below stairs and confronting Sarah's discordant influence in distinct methods. While Sarah has to negotiate a place in the servants' hierarchy between her immediate superior as a house- and parlourmaid, the pragmatic and grounded Rose (the series' cornerstone, from co-creator Jean Marsh), and scullerymaid Emily, the male servants Alfred the footman and Pearce the stableman are threateningly predatory, and as intermediary between the upper world of the Bellamys and below stairs Hudson is at times in this story almost a Gothic supernatural presence. Angela Baddeley as Mrs Bridges is more brusque than ferocious but again her apparent sale of a surplus household chicken to the indigent Matty inhabits one of the grey areas of the servants' moral universe which she and Hudson police.

Of the Bellamys, it's Lady Marjorie who is encountered first; while outwardly sympathetic in tone she is also casually controlling to the point of erasure; it's she who renames Sarah for the purposes of the household as a servant can't have a name like Clemence, the name which Sarah has when she arrives at 165 for interview. This is ruthless, callous and dismissive depersonalisation, and yet it's already been anticipated by the servants who resent anything which might disrupt the accepted order. Sarah is the viewer's route into the story in because she is a 1960s/70s free spirit out of her time, denied any privacy - she shares not just a bedroom but a bed with Rose, and sharing a bed with a workmate or family member was a common experience to most in the working class in the century at some stage in their lives - and who finds it impossible to compromise. Her claims to a personal identity are stripped away by others' demands that she exist for them, not for herself, and its hardly surprising she keeps inventing or revealing new facets, perpetuating in day the dreams from which the demands of service life force her to wake. Emily is her less resilient, less individuated, more dependent counterpart; the episode resists foreshadowing her demise though by the time this version of On Trial was taped I Dies From Love had been recorded.

The need to send Sarah on her way at the end of this version of the episode leads to the suggestion that Rose has in some circumstances unusual influence above stairs not being explored; the version shown with the black-and-white episodes includes Rose explaining that she grew up on Lady Marjorie's father's estate. Rose is native to and acculturated to this environment, even as she sees and has herself tried to break from its limitations. Nevertheless there's a strength in Jean Marsh's performance which makes her more sympathetic than she might have been, and which picks out the concern Rose has for the rootless Sarah, as if she might easily be swept away under the sweep of an opera cape which at first stands in for the master of the house, Richard Bellamy; an appropriate introduction as his position in the household will be revealed in due course as reliant on his successfully performing above his inherited social station. On Trial in this form seems to close doors behind it, as Sarah departs; but it leaves enough mystery in 165 Eaton Place behind it to provide development in future episodes.

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