Upstairs Downstairs vs. Downton Abbey

Image: BBC

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 of Downton 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 Upstairs? Downton 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’s crisis 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 in Downton 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 to Downton.

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 in Upstairs. 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 to Downton.

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 to Downton.

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. In Upstairs, 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!



6 thoughts on “Upstairs Downstairs vs. Downton Abbey

  1. Series One of “DOWNTON ABBEY” was better. But I still enjoyed “UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS” very much. I don’t think either series lost in the end. And the view on the second series of “DOWNTON ABBEY” isn’t that hot.

  2. No one cares which one you think is better. Jean Marsh is upset because Downton Abbey clearly copies much of Upstairs, Downstairs’ storylines and she has every right to be because it clearly does. What if you wrote something and someone else was profiting from copying it and everyone just told you to shut up. I bet you wouldn’t be very happy.

    1. Well, Jennifer, clearly you care or you wouldn’t have bothered to comment. And Downton didn’t really copy much of anything that hadn’t been done long before Upstairs, Downstairs and has been done frequently since. If Marsh was going to get so upset, why not complain about Gosford Park? Or even Remains of the Day? Both of those dealt extensively with relationships and country house politics above and below stairs. While, yes, both series featured a pivotal death on the Titanic (though one was the catalyst for the entire show and the other was a way of gracefully writing out an actress who wanted to leave–something Fellowes hasn’t quite mastered yet), Downton’s plotlines were quite different from Upstairs, Downstairs’. Downton’s more of a soap opera, really. I don’t recall visiting dignitaries dying in someone’s bed or a limping valet or a storyline focused around an entail and a middle class character trying to find his way in the upper classes in any Upstairs, Downstairs episodes, but maybe I missed those. Those storylines were the crux of Downton. Also, in this post I was clearly commenting on the new Upstairs, Downstairs (sorry, Upstairs Downstairs, commas are now uncool, I guess), which obviously was a very different (mostly terrible) beast from the original series.

  3. I adored Upstairs Downstairs and the spin-off Thomas and Sarah. I am watching Downton Abbey because it reminds me of Upstairs Downstairs. Although beautifully filmed it isn’t a patch on Upstairs Downstairs. It’s just too predictable.

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