Monday, April 11, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs Returns to PBS

Upstairs Downstairs returned to PBS, on last night's Masterpiece Classic (the series formerly known as Mobil Masterpiece Theatre), as if to provide evidence for the widely-held belief that American public broadcasters have not had an idea in 30 years. But at least this had been a good idea originally, in the 1970s, and it withstood the test of time.

Upstairs Downstairs is likeable nostalgia, full of proper people doing the proper thing in the face of those who would do the unthinkable. Though not as good as the original ITV production, or ITV's Downton Abbey, this BBC sequel is still worth watching. Perhaps the broadcast might spark a revival of the classic serial form on American television. First go-round led to a number of American miniseries on commercial networks, many of which were pretty darn good...from ROOTS to NORTH AND SOUTH to WINDS OF WAR.

Ratings were high for the new Up Down in England, when broadcast this past Christmas, and I'm pretty sure PBS enjoyed a nice bump last night, as well. (UPDATE from TV by the numbers: "Arlington, VA, April 12, 2011 – PBS’ MASTERPIECE audience has increased by nearly 45% over last year. In addition,PBS’ most anticipated highlight of MASTERPIECE’s 40th season, 'Upstairs Downstairs,' was watched by an estimated 6.4 million viewers,based on Nielsen data from 53 metered markets.") Perhaps it could give network and cable programmers some ideas.

The theme music was familiar, but the set somewhat different, the cast somewhat different, the plot somewhat different, and the family completely different--the Hallam family, as opposed to the Bellamys. But this Son of The Forsyte Saga continues to draw, even with marked changes.

The current producers are no John Hawkesworth, whose deft and subtle touch was missed. The young leads were a little too gross in their behavior for this now older viewer to enjoy, but the seasoned troupers--Eileen Atkins & Jean Marsh from Upstairs, Downstairs (the original)--were hanging in there, chewing the scenery and providing a jolly good time for one and all. Art Malik makes a nice addition to the rep company, though the addition of Solomon the monkey may be gilding the lily, somewhat.

The little things seem to have been covered. Nice table settings, kitchen equipment, trays, sideboards, teapots, automobiles, and the like; as well as costumes--pornographic details that thrill Anglophile American audiences, and were a mainstay for Masterpiece Theatre.

I certainly felt a tingle of nostalgic longing when the theme music from Upstairs, Downstairs welled up on my television set in last night's production.

The script is not up to the original, but if it had been 13 episodes instead of 3, the writers would have had time to get up to speed. Miniseries tend to evolve over time.

The only off-putting note for this viewer was Laura Linney's introduction, which claimed that Upstairs, Downstairs almost didn't make it on the air at PBS in the 1970s because it dealt with the lives of upper-class and working-class Britons, which were thought not to interest American audiences. Complete rubbish!

Why PBS executives decided to raise their own sorry history, complete with a phony cover story, is beyond me. It detracted from my enjoyment of the show. Alistair Cooke would never have gone along with such a clumsy scheme...

In fact, I wrote about the case of the original Upstairs, Downstairs in my book, Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Quality (Scarecrow Press, 1999). PBS was opposed because they felt the series would be too popular, because it was too commercial. Here are the details:
Mobil bought Upstairs, Downstairs after chairman Rawleigh Warner--to whom the series was reportedly personally recommended by the Duchess of Bedford at a dinner party in London--suggested to [Mobil vp] Herb Schmertz that he consider the series for Masterpiece Theatre. Schmertz looked at it, liked it, and wanted to put it on the air. Frank Marshall, in his role as television consultant, also screened the series. He recalls recommended the series as "brilliant." Yet, Marshall says that getting the program broadcast on PBS was "a lot of work" because public television executives "had no confidence in the program." Richard Price--the salesman who represented London Weekend Television--said he had trouble because "CPB and PBS were extremely worried about the situation that commercial television programing was going to go into Masterpiece Theatre." [Producer] Christopher Sarson of WGBH was one of the doubters. When WGBH balked, Mobil dealt directly with Price and London Weekend Television to get around opposition within the Boston Station.

Herb Schmertz remembers WGBH refused "on principle"--because it would drive up the cost of other imports--to pay LWT [London Weekend Television] salesman Richard Price's asking price of $25,000 an episode. "I took care of Richard," he says. "GBH didn't know that. I took care of Richard because I thought he was getting screwed. That's true, I was willing to pay 25 [thousand], and GBH balked and said, "We can't. That'll screw up a lot of things." For them. Not me. So I said, "OK." But then I took care of Richard. I made a side deal with him."

There's more detail in my book, including copies of original documents from Mobil and PBS.

But aside from the shock of hearing Laura Linney's bright shining lie--which was part of PBS's filler and not really Upstairs Downstairs after all--I enjoyed the production thoroughly...