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Upstairs Downstairs vs. Downton Abbey

May 8, 2011 by editorbree | Edit

For some bizarre reason, Upstairs Downstairs co-creator Jean Marsh (who also played Rose) found it necessary to kick out at Downton Abbey, hinting (actually, pretty much flat-out saying) that it was a copy of UD:

“I think we were all surprised. The new Upstairs Downstairs had been in the works for about three years. We were trying to sort out…40 years of rights and then it also started—Downton Abbey—in the Edwardian Era, which Upstairs Downstairs did. So it might be a coincidence and I might be the Queen of Belgium.”

I’m slightly confused by what she’s getting at here, since she didn’t invent the Edwardian era or the concept of a story that follows both masters and servants, and one could argue that, by setting the new UD in the 1930’s she’s cribbing off ofDownton scribe Julian Fellowes’s Gosford Park. Her comments did provoke what I think might be one of the greatest Twitter retorts in history, from Downton star Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham):

“I thought Jean Marsh was bigger than that—running down Downton while bigging up UpstairsDownton never downed Up when upping Down.”

Well said, sir! Now, we could just roll our eyes and let sleeping dogs lie, but since Marsh opened that door, I’m going to waltz right through it and put these two programs head to head. Let’s see who really did the better job.

Music: I’m kind of a soundtrack junkie, so the music in any movie or show is important to me. Downton’s lush orchestral score is so memorable I still find myself humming it from time to time, months after I last watched the show. Upstairs, on the other hand, re-used the waltz from the original show in its opening, which I guess appealed to those nostalgic for said original, but I found it so forgettable I couldn’t recall the tune even a day after I watched the show. None of the incidental music for the show was any better, so point goes to Downton.

Score: Downton 1, Upstairs 0

Sets and Costumes: Both shows did an excellent job portraying their eras here, but it’s hard to outdo the Edwardian period for decadent, gorgeous period dress, and as for the sets, there’s really no contest. Downton Abbey was practically another character on the show, and Highclere Castle was insanely perfect to play the old family pile. The sets for Upstairs Downstairs looked like sets to me—there was a flimsiness about some of the rooms. And that Tiffany blue all over the place started to give me a headache after a while. Point to Downton.

Score: Downton 2, Upstairs 0

Integrating History: Historical events drive the stories in both shows: Downton’scrisis starts when the Titanic goes down, and characters in Upstairs grapple with King Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson, the abdication crisis, and Germany stirring shit up. Downton’s way out in the countryside, so most major events, though remarked on, don’t touch them much. The characters in Upstairs are right in London (and Hallam’s actually in the government), so they’re much more intimately involved in what’s going on. Upstairs was also able to cast some real-life people to mingle with the cast, including Wallis Simpson, Von Ribbentropp, and the rarely noticed George, Duke of Kent, which was a nice touch. So, point goes to Upstairs Downstairs.

Score: Downton 2, Upstairs 1

Cast—Topside: Upstairs and Downton both boasted an impressive cast of favorite faces, as well as some newcomers, most of whom did an excellent job in their roles. The roles, however, weren’t always well written. The upstairs folks in Downton really seemed to be a part of that world—they knew their responsibilities and carried them out appropriately. The Upstairs crew, however, didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to be doing most of the time, and they complained endlessly about having to just do their own jobs. Take the ladies of the house, for instance. Despite the handicap of being an American, Cora clearly knew her business. Go back and rewatch the scene after the memorial service, when she’s firing off orders to her daughters to help her corral the guests. She manages the servants (except, maybe, O’Brien, and she won’t be managed, as we all know), deals with her difficult mother-in-law, and is a gracious hostess. Agnes, despite being a member of the British upper class, seems clueless about her duties. She lies around and whines about having to do the littlest thing, and she maddeningly lets her mother-in-law take over and then complains about it. Her sister, Persie, is confusingly written as being so eager to leave Wales she takes an early train to get to glittering London, where she promptly starts acting like a total pill and decides, rather inexplicably, to become a Nazi. The daughters inDownton were far more complex and interesting to watch, for me at least. Although Hallam got a little more interesting as Upstairs went on, he was still rather weak and his sudden attachment to Lotte was never really explained or shown (maybe leftover from his devotion to his sister Pamela?). Like the daughters, Lord Grantham was far more complex, seemed more real, and ran his household like he was supposed to. The only toss-up is between the two grannies, and we’ll get to them later. Point toDownton.

Score: Downton 3, Upstairs 1

Cast—Downstairs: Aside from Pritchard, the world’s most awesome butler, and Amanjit, the downstairs cast in Upstairs sucked. They were childish, easily distracted, goofy, didn’t seem to know their jobs, and made me roll my eyes more than that made-for-TV William & Kate movie, which is really saying something. If it was a face-off between butlers, Pritchard would take it, mostly because Carson got on my nerves with his adoration of horrible Mary and his inability to deal with thieving Thomas, but looking at the whole cast, Downton wins hands down. These people knew their jobs, and they weren’t annoying about it. Even little scullery maid Daisy had more spine than Ivy the Weeper. And the stories going on belowstairs seemed much more real than anything going on in Upstairs’ kitchen, which also suffered from too many silly, unlikely moments.

Score: Downton 4, Upstairs 1

Sudden Death: Overnight guest Pamouk died randomly while having sex with Mary in Downton, and housemaid Rachel dropped dead after protesting a Nazi rally inUpstairs. Who did it better? Both deaths were somewhat out of left field, and they both drove quite a bit of the rest of the story, but Rachel’s death was at least foreshadowed by her asthma attacks and persistent ill health. Pamouk’s was so random even other characters commented on how odd it was. Point to Upstairs.

Score: Downton 4, Upstairs 2

Belowstairs Romance: Anna and Bates vs. Ivy and Johnny? No contest. Point toDownton.

Score: Downton 5, Upstairs 2

Meddling Matriarch: Maggie Smith vs. Eileen Atkins? Tough call. Really. Both ladies portrayed characters who were, by turns, maddening and loveable, and they both got all the best lines, but while Maggie Smith’s Violet was firmly entrenched in the Victorian period, Eileen Atkins’s Maude was more progressive, more worldly, and kept herself better educated, which made her more interesting. She also came with Soloman, the cherry-loving monkey, and the dignified Amanjit, so you could argue that she was better accessorized. Point to Upstairs.

Score: Downton 5, Upstairs 3

Politically Active Chauffeur with a Crush: Branson on Downton was an Irishman interested in gradual reform, which made sense: growing up in Ireland at the time, lots of people wanted change, and in some cases, they resorted to violence to get it. Branson was more interested in the diplomatic approach, and he kept himself educated on all the political goings-on and bonded with Lady Sybil over their shared interest in reforming the country. Although he was interested in her, realistically the relationship never advanced, though they had some cute moments. Spargo in Upstairs was, for reasons never really explained, interested in becoming a Nazi, and it seemed like Lady Persie decided to get into Nazism because he was into it and she was bored. Spargo, unlike Branson, was a dick about his beliefs, showing up at the dinner table all dressed up because (I suspect) he knew it would upset Rachel. It upset everyone, but he refused to budge. Branson was much more easygoing and didn’t force his ideas on anyone. Spargo turned out to have no conviction—after one rally didn’t go amazingly well, he stopped being a Nazi just as easily as he started, and he dumped Persie just as suddenly too. Branson kept on going, hoping to work his way to a better place for himself and his country. For giving us a more believable character who wasn’t a frigging Nazi, I give the point toDownton.

Score: Downton 6, Upstairs 3

Manservant with a Mysterious Past: Carson’s mysterious past was played for laughs and then largely forgotten on Downton; the real mystery was with Bates. InUpstairs, we had Johnny, who seemed too young to have done anything terribly bad, but sometimes things just happen. Bates’s past was drawn out a little too long and got silly after a while, as did his continuous refusal to fork over the hateful Thomas for theft. We got Johnny’s full story in the first episode of Upstairs, and it came full circle with his return in the last episode. Both served time for their crimes, but Johnny was actually guilty, whereas it seems Bates just took the fall for his wife, meaning we could continue to look on him as a sweet, shining example of manhood.Upstairs took a slightly darker route with Johnny, which is gutsier, so the point goes to them.

Final Score: Downton 6, Upstairs 4

Sorry, Jean, looks like Upstairs couldn’t quite stamp out Down, although it put up a good effort. Better luck with series two!

Top Ten Onscreen Royal Romances

April 29, 2011 by editorbree

Now that the great romance of Prince William and Catherine Middleton has reached its crazy climax with this morning’s royal wedding, we can all sit back and reflect on royal romances present, past, and fictional. Everyone loves a good love story, and if it comes with tiaras, so much the better, so it’s no wonder royal romances have shown up onscreen in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of films and made-for-TV movies. Below are my top ten:

 10. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth), Victoria and Albert

One of the most famous royal marriages of all time didn’t start off all bright and shiny, as this film shows. Although Victoria fell in love with Albert from the get-go (after a rocky first meeting before she came to the throne), he kind of went along with it because his family wanted the match, and found himself floundering in England, a useless consort with no real responsibilities. Eventually, Victoria started to bend and allow him to use his brain for something more than reorganizing the household, and Albert began to fall in love with his wife. The romance unfolds slowly, and believably, with the two of them occasionally squabbling like any old married couple, and ultimately coming together. I’ve watched this plenty of times, and I still cry when Albert dies and Victoria totally loses it. Like George and Charlotte (see below), this was less of a crazy passionate and more of a touching royal romance.

9. Princess Ann and Joe Bradley (Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), Roman Holiday

Ok, so Audrey Hepburn played a princess from an unnamed (probably fake) European country, but she’s still a princess, so it counts. And the relationship between her and newspaperman Joe Bradley is adorable, even if he is just using her for a story—initially. We’ve all seen the film or some variation of it, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you he doesn’t end up writing his story, and instead enjoys his day and his all too brief with the sweet, innocent Princess Ann.

8. Jane Grey and Guilford Dudley (Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Elwes), Lady Jane

The love story in this film is historically inaccurate—in reality, Jane and Guilford were not well suited to each other, but that doesn’t make for a fun movie, does it? The arranged marriage starts off rocky, but the two finally manage to meet in the middle, fall in love, and get to be happy for all of about a week before the rug gets pulled out from under them. Thanks, dads.

7. King Charles II and Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwynn, and Catherine of Braganza (Rufus Sewell, Helen McCrory, Emma Pierson, and Shirley Henderson), The Last King (Charles II: The Power and the Passion)

Quite a lot was lost in the translation from the British to the American version of this film, but what remained were Charles’s fascinating relationships with these three very different women. We got to see the unbridled lust, conniving, and instability of Barbara Villiers, the laid-back, earthy fun of Nell Gwynn, and the tenderness and earnestness of Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s tolerant queen, with whom he gradually, and rather sweetly, falls in love.

6. Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley (Cate Blanchett and Joseph Fiennes), Elizabeth

The relationship (and a lot of the movie) might not have been historically accurate, but it sure was hot. That dancing scene at the beginning set the mood spectacularly, and that mood remained straight through the film. Beautifully shot and excellently executed by the two actors, this is, for me, one of the more memorable royal love stories.

5. Queen Juana of Castile and Felipe, Archduke of Austria (Pilar López de Ayala and Daniele Liotti), Juana La Loca (Mad Love)

Queen Juana of Castile (Katherine of Aragon’s big sister) was known for being obsessively in love with her handsome husband, Felipe, and for going batshit crazy when he died at the age of 28 (although both her passion and her madness are now matters for debate). This film went the “obsessive love” route, and did it very well. Both Juana and Felipe are pretty smitten with each other from the get-go, but Felipe’s infidelity makes things difficult. Still, every scene between them is crackling with chemistry, earning them a definite spot on this list.

4. Bertie, Duke of York (King George VI) and Elizabeth, Duchess of York (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter), The King’s Speech

Colin Firth got most of the attention for his performance as poor, put-upon Bertie (and rightly so), but the relationship between the future king and his sprightly wife was very important, and beautifully portrayed. The Duchess of York was her husband’s rock, and her strength helped him do what he had to do to become a good king. Their scenes together were sweet, warm, and touching, just as I always imagined the real Bertie and Elizabeth were together.

3. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn), The Lion in Winter

Calling it a romance might be a stretch, since these two spend most of the film squabbling and plotting to kill each other, but there was definitely a lot of passion there, as there was in the real-life marriage. And the two even manage to come to an accord by the end (it is Christmas, after all), and part as friends, promising to keep trying to kick each others’ asses all the while. Sparks flew, and the chemistry between these two actors (really, between the whole damn cast) was outstanding.

2. King George and Queen Charlotte (Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren),The Madness of King George

Few arranged marriages are really successful; historically, this one was one of the exceptions. George and Charlotte truly loved each other (and had about a billion children), and the closeness and warmth between “Mr. and Mrs. King” is made touchingly apparent in this film. It’s also kind of tragic for those of us who know that, eventually, King George lost his mind altogether, so the happy ending of the film is pretty bittersweet. Still, Charlotte’s love for her husband is strong and steadfast, even withstanding his insanity, which drives him to constantly sexually assault her lady-in-waiting. She never wavers in her devotion, and even manages to bring him back to lucidity a few times, very sweetly.

1. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold), Anne of the Thousand Days

Hot damn, but you could warm your hands on the sparks flying off of these two. I’ve heard that originally Elizabeth Taylor was supposed to play Anne, but she couldn’t (or maybe the powers that be were afraid of another Cleopatra debacle. She did have a brief non-speaking role, though.). French actress Genevieve Bujold stepped in, and the chemistry between her and Burton was amazing. You really could get a sense of how these people became so obsessed with each other, and how that obsession led the relationship to crash and burn in such a short period. Richard Burton is my favorite Henry VIII of all time, too, which definitely helps. Still, that scene at the end where she lets him have it when he visits her in her jail cell is amazing. I could watch it over and over, and I have. The relationship between these two never gets old, and I find myself watching this again and again, just to watch the sparks fly.

The Quotable Downton Abbey

January 31, 2011 by editorbree | Edit

Apparently, Downton Abbey’s cool enough for even the ultra-hip New York Magazine to do a piece on it. Last week, they did an online article that listed Maggie Smith’s best quotes from the series. While she definitely got the best lines, I think there are others worth quoting. Here are my favorites; feel free to add any I’ve forgotten in the comments!

Mrs Patmore (after seeing Daisy dancing with Thomas): “Daisy! Stop that nonsense before you put your joints out!”

O’Brien (talking about Cora): “I’d like to give her the old heave ho–in a dark alley somewhere.”

Mary: “Seems like a lot of trouble for a cousin.”
Edith: “But not a fiance.”
Mary: “He wasn’t a fiance. Not a real one, anyway.”

Robert: “Don’t be so dramatic, Carson, you’re not playing Sydney Carton.”

Evelyn Napier (to Mary, apologizing for all the trouble Pamouk’s death caused): “I brought him here; if it’s not my fault, whose was it?”

Mary: “Poor darling. I heard she had to walk for miles. I don’t think I would have gotten down no matter how lame the horse.”
Edith: “No, I don’t believe you would.”

Violet: “Oh, the flower show? I thought I was in for another ribbing about the hospital.”
Isobel: “No, this time it’s the flower show.”

Sybil: “Dragon! If you don’t move right now, I’ll have you boiled for glue!”

Doctor (about using a new treatment for dropsy): “I wish I was more familiar with the treatment.”
Isobel: “Will that be your excuse when he dies?”

Cora: “No one ever tells you about raising daughters. You think it’ll be like Little Women, and instead they’re at each others’ throats.”

Robert: “My dear fellow, I brought you here to interfere.”

Robert (about Matthew wanting to get rid of Molesley): “Is that quite fair, to deprive a man of his livelihood when he’s done nothing wrong? Your mother derives some satisfaction from her work at the hospital, I think, some sense of self worth? Would you really deny the same to poor old Molesley? And when you are master here, is the butler to be dismissed? Or the footmen? How many maids or kitchen staff will be allowed to stay, or must every one be driven out? We all have different parts to play, and we must all be allowed to play them.”

Bates: “Even Mr. Carson wasn’t born standing at attention.”
Thomas: “I hope not, for his mother’s sake.”

Isabel (re: Evelyn Napier): “Presumably he’s to be flung at Mary.”
Matthew: “I can assure you, cousin Mary is perfectly capable of doing her own flinging.”

Evelyn Napier (to Cora): “I’m not a vain man, I do not consider myself to be a very interesting person, but I do hope my future wife should think me so. A woman who finds me boring could never love me and I believe a marriage should be based on love. At least at the start.”

Bates and Mrs. Hughes: “Good riddence!”

Bates (to Thomas): “You listen to me, you filthy little rat: if you don’t lay off I will punch your shining teeth straight through the back of your skull.”

Cora (to Mary): “The point is, when you refused Matthew, you were an earl’s daughter with an unsullied reputation. Now, you are damaged goods.”

Robert: “Mary can be such a child. She thinks that if you put a toy down, it’ll still be sitting there when you want to play with it again.”

Anna: “I love you, Mr. Bates! And I know it’s not ladylike to say so, but I’m not a lady and I don’t pretend to be.”
Bates: “You are a lady to me, and I never knew a finer one.”



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