Before we get started here, I’m going to give you all a fair warning: I haven’t seen all the episodes of the original Upstairs Downstairs, but from what I’ve seen, I can tell you that I don’t love it. And I know it’s a very beloved show to many people, so if you’re seriously defensive about it, you may not want to read these recaps. I don’t hate it (well, there are a couple of episodes that I can’t believe actually exist, and some characters I just want to see continually punched in the face), but there are some serious issues. And they’re not issues that can be put down to the way things were in the period it’s set in. They’re issues utterly embedded in the show itself. I will be mentioning them. Consider yourselves warned.
It’s November 1903. A young woman walks up to the front door of a tony house in the posh part of London and rings the doorbell. The door’s opened by the butler, Hudson, who immediately directs the girl to the servants’ entrance, which is below street level. This is our first clue that this chick has no idea what the hell she’s doing, because anyone who’d been in service before would know better than to go to the front door. She rings the bell at the servants’ entrance and it’s opened by Rose, the head housemaid. The girl explains that she’s been sent by an agency about a house parlourmaid position. Rose snootily informs her that it’s an under-house parlourmaid job, as Rose is senior. New girl hands over her references and is allowed in to wait in the servants’ hall while Rose goes to fetch Hudson. New Girl sees a kitchenmaid peeking at her from the adjoining kitchen and she makes a face at her until the kitchenmaid dodges away. Nice. The kitchenmaid, Emily, hurts her finger and immediately starts wailing to the cook, Mrs Bridges, that her finger’s half severed. Oh, please, drama queen, can we take it down a notch or ten? This sort of nonsense would have been trounced out of her long ago in most households, because they just did not have time for whiny lowlies, and a new kitchenmaid could be found easily and cheaply, so they tended to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. Bridges snaps at her to get on with her work.
New Girl, Sara, comes into the kitchen just because while the lady’s maid comes down to wail about something or other and Alfred, the footman, swirls through. Sara claims her name is Clemence, which Mrs Bridges immediately dismisses as too foreign a name for their household. Also, she doesn’t give a shit who this girl is, she just wants her out of her kitchen so she can get the lunch done or whatever. And now here comes the coachman to smack Sara on the bottom with a riding crop and to be yelled at by Bridges. Emily pouts that she’s going to bleed to death and the maid handwrings about a missing buttonhook.
Rose reappears and scolds Sara for wandering about and to take her upstairs to meet with Hudson. Topside, Sara stares at the opulent surroundings as Hudson magisterially comes down the stairs and Rose stands at attention. He subtly looks Sara up and down before picking up a silver tray with her reference letter on it and going into the morning room, leaving Sara waiting outside. Rose smirks and returns downstairs. Sara peeks into the room and can just see Lady Marjorie Bellamy take the references. A moment later, Hudson reappears and gestures for her to come in.
Lady Marjorie reads the letter and asks Sara’s name. Wouldn’t that be in the letter? Sara claims it’s Clemence Dumas and, when asked, says she’s half French. Marjorie notes that the author of the letter is, herself, French but unknown to Marjorie. She asks why Sara left her previous place and Sara says her mother was sick, but she’s better now. It should be noted that Sara, who claims now to be half French and to have just been working in France, has a total lower-class British accent, so already her story’s pretty suspect. Nevertheless, Marjorie humours her, assuming that the agency has checked Sara’s reference, so it should be kosher. First mistake, Marjorie.
Belowstairs, everyone agrees that Sara’s no good for the job, since she clearly doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. A bell rings for the morning room and Hudson goes up. Emily whinily says she hopes Sara gets to stay, because she liked her. Why? The only thing you saw was her making a nasty face at you. What’s to like? Bridges yells at her for letting the fire in the range go out and Emily shifts the blame to Alfred for letting the coal get wet.
In the morning room, Marjorie tells Hudson she’s going to hire Sara and reassigns her the name of Sara, since Clemence is no name for a servant. This was actually very common practice, for both male and female servants. Footmen were often renamed James or William while names like Daisy and, well, Sara were common for maids. It saved their employers the trouble of actually having to learn their names and individualise them as human beings. Sara whines about it (and fair enough, because it kind of sucks to have someone just assign you a new name like that) but Hudson tells her to button it and hustles her back downstairs.
He shows her into the servants’ hall and tells Emily to lay another place for lunch. Everyone kind of freezes up but Sara takes her seat beside Rose and Hudson leads them in a prayer that essentially starts off:
‘Hey, we’re totally lowly in the world, which is as God intended, so may he remind us every moment to be grateful for that!’ We’ll come to see that this is practically the thesis for this series.
Hudson announces that Sara’s been taken on on a trial basis and Rose will be training her. Rose obediently introduces everyone (for the record, the coachman is Pierce and the lady’s maid is Roberts). Once everyone’s served, they’re allowed to speak and Pierce immediately bitches about having mutton again, only to be smacked down by the others, who remind him to be GRATEFUL, dammit! Hudson calls on Sara, who doesn’t yet respond to the new name and asks to be called Clemence amongst the servants. That is roundly rejected, with a bit of biblical judgment from Alfred. Emily, of course, thinks it’s a lovely name and asks Sara if she used to live in France. Sara claims she used to be the grand lady of a chateau and the others immediately call that out as a lie because, seriously. She piles onto that by saying her mother was a Gypsy. A French gypsy noblewoman? The hell? How can she possibly think this lie’ll hold up? Oh, she says her mother was a gypsy princess who hooked up with a count and died giving birth to Sara, and then the count remarried a wicked stepmother who treated Sara like a servant and then threw her out, but it’s ok, she’s got lawyers fighting for her. Right. Is one of them named Rumplestiltzkin? Because clearly these are lawyers based in FairyTown. Emily coos that it’s like a story from a book. Yes, Emily, it is. Several stories, in fact.
Rose calls on Sara to prove herself by speaking French, but she redirects by offering to read everyone’s futures after dinner. Rose thinks that’s wicked and Alfred agrees, because it’s against the will of God. Great, he’s a religious nut. Rose keeps pushing her to speak French and Pierce tells her to lay off. She doesn’t, and finally Sara starts singing a song in French. Well, that’s something. Rose looks kind of put in her place.
Very early the next morning, Alfred creeps around the bedroom Rose and Sara are sharing, staring at the two shapes under the comforter creepily for a bit, and then loudly waking them up. It’s half past five, time to start the day! Sara whines about the early hour and how cold it is and slooowly starts to get herself dressed. Rose scolds her to hurry it up and quizzes her on her daily duties. Accurate to the period, her day sounds super busy. None of the Downton sitting about in the Bellamy household. Rose warns her to stay out of Mr Bellamy’s way and fires off a few more last-minute instructions, handing her a list of duties, so she doesn’t forget. And that’s when we realize (but Rose does not) that Sara can’t read.
Emily’s unsuccessfully trying to light the range, which is smoking like crazy as Sara comes down. Emily dashes upstairs with a cup of tea for Bridges as the servants’ doorbell rings. Sara opens the door to find a tramp woman standing there. Emily reappears, recognizes the woman, and tells her Bridges will be down soon, before sending Sara to lay the table for the servants’ breakfast. The homeless woman is allowed in as Bridges comes down, complaining about her tea, and then goes into the larder to grab a few provisions for the homeless woman, Mattie. She packs them into a basket and sends Mattie on her way, as Sara observes. Rose comes down and yells at her for dragging her feet.
Later, Bellamy heads downstairs, passing Sara as she scrubs the steps, which was kind of a no-no. Servants were supposed to have their front-of-house work done before the family got up.
Rose helps Sara into her afternoon uniform and tells her that Rose will be taking Lady Marjorie her tea.
She does so, serving it to her in the morning room. Marjorie asks her how Sara’s settling in and Rose says she’s quite satisfactory. Marjorie tells her that Sara claims to be something of a seamstress, so she’s given her an old, delicate tapestry to repair. That seems a bit reckless, and clearly Rose agrees with me.
Belowstairs, Emily fantasizes about what she’d do if she were rich: live in the country with a passel of kids. Sara sneers that that’s a boring dream. Rose comes down and asks her why she’s not working on that cushion. Sara’s already finished it, and done a good job. Rose tells her to take it up to Marjorie, who declares the work beautiful and asks where she learned such work. Sara claims it was in a convent in France, and then goes on about some of the punishments the nuns inflicted. She also tells Marjorie she can read fortunes and tea leaves and offers to do so for Marjorie. Marjorie clearly doesn’t believe her, but, bemused, invites her to read her tea leaves. Sara says Marjorie has lots of friends, most of whom mean her well, but she has one false friend. Also, a man is getting closer to her. Marjorie says that’s just her husband and dismisses the whole thing as superstitious nonsense.
At dressing time, Roberts comes running downstairs to be in a tizzy, as always, as Hudson sends Alfred upstairs with Bellamy’s waistcoat. It’s bustling downstairs, but upstairs all is calm as the Bellamys head out to dine with friends. Once they’re gone, Sara grabs her hat and coat and shortly informs Emily she’s going out, and Emily’s not to say anything to Hudson, or Sara will cast a horrible gypsy curse on her. And of course Emily believes her.
Later that evening, Rose comes into the servants’ hall and Emily starts melodramatically telling her that she’s going to die soon. Rose correctly guesses the ridiculous books she’s reading are putting these ideas in her mind. Emily lets slip that Sara’s made herself scarce, but she goes on and on about how she won’t say where. Rose seems unconcerned as she settles down with some sewing. Bridges goes to fetch a snack but then starts squealing about a bird being missing from the larder. The noise brings Hudson, who wonders where Sara is and almost immediately deduces that she’s the thief. Emily tries to take the blame, but absolutely nobody believes her. Hudson thinks this is a slippery slope: bird today, emeralds tomorrow. And then the young woman in question comes back and is called to the carpet by Hudson. She comes into the servants’ hall with a ton of attitude and is asked to explain herself. She readily confesses to having taken the bird, saying that she should be allowed, since Bridges can. Well, my girl, that’s not quite how things are. See, Bridges is the cook, which means she’s totally in charge of what’s in the larder. How do you know she’s not giving food away to Maddie with the full permission of the mistress or master of the house? And just because you see someone else in a household doing something wrong doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to do so yourself.
The Bellamys return and hand their wraps off to Alfred and Roberts before repairing to the morning room for a nightcap and a post-mortem. Apparently a friend has recently remarried, which brings up Marjorie’s disapproval of divorce and dislike of change. Bellamy starts talking a little politics (he’s a Tory MP, and her father was also very politically active) and then talk turns to servants, with Marjorie wondering if someday they might have to do without them. FORESHADOWING!
Belowstairs, Sara’s suddenly freaking out that they’re going to call the police on her, having apparently had the facts of life in service explained to her. Rose accuses her of making herself out to be better than them, and Sara counters that she just makes herself sound more interesting. Um, thanks for that little slap in their faces, Sara. Dig UP. Rose calls it lying but Sara says they’re not lies, they’re make believe. Sara, make believe is pretending your dolls can talk to you. Telling people you’re a French aristocrat is a lie. This is a fairly basic concept that most adults can grasp quite easily. Bridges yells at Emily for sticking around and tries to send her to bed, but Emily eagerly says she wants to see the police cart Sara off. Wow, she’s changed her allegiance quickly, hasn’t she? Guess that threat Sara made kind of stuck in her craw. Hudson shortly informs her the police won’t be coming, as long as Sara confesses her faults. They all gang up, calling her a liar, a thief, an ordinary person, just like them. She agrees to all of it. Hudson pushes a little further, making her acknowledge that she’s lucky to have found this job at all. Rose says the bosses will have to be told what happened. Sara begs them not to say anything, but Hudson takes the opportunity to set her down with the bible and read Thou Shalt Not Steal. Bridges suggest she be made to write it out over and over, like at school, and Hudson agrees. Sara hesitates and confesses she can’t do it, because SHE CAAAAAAN’T WRIIIIITE (she wails melodramatically). Her tears move the others enough to agree not to tell the Bellamys about the theft. I guess Hudson’s no longer worried she’ll steal other things? Um, ok.
Sara starts to head upstairs to bed, only to be startled by the creepy appearance of Alfred, who asks what all the hullabuloo was downstairs. She says it was nothing, but he knows more than he’s saying. He grabs her hand, talks about filth and degradation and sin and mentions Kate, the under-housemaid who was there before. He adds that the wrath of the lord will be visited upon Sara and she flees in terror. Ooookaaaay.
Up in her and Rose’s room, Sara gets ready for bed. Rose comes in and Sara comments on how unfair it is that there are all those big rooms downstairs and she and Rose are crammed into a little place in the attic. Rose is unconcerned. Sara asks about Kate but Rose will say nothing about her. She threatens to ask Alfred. Rose doesn’t seem to care and asks if Sara’s memorized her list. Sara says she has, and Rose calls her out, because supposedly she can’t read. Sara says she was only making that up to get out of punishment. Rose shoves a book at her and Sara admits she really can’t read and she’s essentially a compulsive liar. Great—just the sort of person you want to work with!
The next morning, she starts packing up to leave, because she hates being in service. She calls it no better than slavery, though the fact that she’s capable of leaving puts paid to that. Rose protests that she hasn’t even given service a chance. Rose finally tells her about Kate: she hooked up with some guardsman who died of scarlet fever, and she had a baby who also died, and now she’s working the streets. Wow, talk about a lot of bad fortune falling on one person. Sara says that won’t happen to her and yells that everyone in that house is dead. At the door, she pauses and says she’s sorry, because Rose did do her best to help her. But, you know, that fake gypsy blood is calling.
Emily meets Sara coming down the stairs and sweeping out the front door. She starts to walk down the street, glances down at the servants’ door, and keeps going. Well, that’s a terrible loss. God, she was annoying.