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As usual over the holidays, I found myself watching more television than I normally do. Due to the weird sleeping patterns of the eternally cramming student, I found myself watching a lot more television than I normally do and now I am free fromt he shackles of revision and examination stress, I am going to write about them in the usual manner of the opinionated, self important blogger.

One of the nice things was that I got to watch full series' on BBC iplayer (a gift from the gods if ever there was one). It was a bit of a pity, therefore, that it was the brand new and updated 'Upstairs Downstairs'.

So. The new series is set in the mid-30's and you could tell this because there were fiddly strains of jazz in the background and lots of people dressed as though the 20's weren't over already. One of the first lines was from the female lead saying, upon reading the headline of a newspaper proclaiming the death of the King, "Do you think this will... change things?" in a Cut Glass accent, which at least made me snort so hard I almost got a nosebleed. This should have been ample warning but you know, I still love the original series and I thought that the occasional cliched line not withstanding (I mean, it's not as though every episode of the original had a script that could have been written by Bennet) it was going to be an enjoyable experience.

I think what I really loved most was seeing such great actors at work: Anne Reid who I last saw with a pair of shears in her neck in 'Hot Fuzz', Adrian Scarborough, one of those fantastic character actors who seems to be in practially everything and of course Dame Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh.

The things I initially didn't like were mostly due to aesthetics. Having been spoiled by Mad Men, I found the score overbearing and irritating, bordering on amateurish but as I find this with a lot of BBC drama (Dr Who, Dr Who, DR WHO), perhaps I shouldn't be complaining. Tonally, everything seemed too light, especially the servants' quarters. Granted, this was the age of electricity, but it was still much too clean and sharp for my poor, eternally mistreated eyes to appreciate and a bit off for the period.

I liked the attempt to bring in contemporary politics into the Upstairs world - and ho, but Ed Stoppard was good, he was so good - as it highlighted the slightly skewed priorities of pre-WWII Britain, so concerned with keeping the public in the dark over a Royal scandal that it seemed to lose sight of a rather frightening regime gathering strength in Europe... but generally I found the Upstairs folk uninteresting and the Downstairs characters silly - though not for lack of trying on the actors' part. At least I sympathised with them more than I did the Upstairs lot and as that is usually the purpose of these sort of dramas, I'd say the script wasn't all bad. They should have made more of the banter between the cook and the housekeeper, a now grown and aged Rose, which was always quite funny. Wish the footman would be gone though. He almost killed someone after all (one of the servants from a neighbouring household I think) and I think there's only so far class solidarity will go, especially when you're not likely to get any ballads sung about you.

Poor Lady Agnes, however, suffered what most lead female characters suffer these days and that was a lack of strength, particularly for a woman of her class who also happened to be the wife of a politician. Again, perhaps it's the difficulty of the six episode season that we have in the UK. Maybe if we had US style runnings, we'd have less of this 'on the nose' writing and characterisation? I don't know. All I know is that I found Lady Agnes annoying and petty. Was it out of respect for Dame Atkins that we didn't get to see more of a real battle between the wife and the mother-in-law? Watching 'At home with the Georgians' made me realise how much women would have valued having power over their own household/s (and that would include the widowed mother-in-law) which has also made me more aware of how women - particularly in period dramas - tend to be written with a severe deficiency in the back bone and common sense department. That Lady Agnes seemed so clueless as to how to deal with her mother-in-law and then so willing to give up her authority as 'Mistress of the Household', was annoying when I first watched it, then plain weird and rather insulting upon reading up on domestic history (and my how pretentious does that sound? *sigh*). It gets tiring when all one sees in these things is the cliched woman of the past, a weak and silly person, distracted from the real issues (like... anything the men are interested in, bascially) by her houshold (of all things!) and almost morally vacuous at times, blinded by her undoubting belief that appearances are everything. It gets aggravating when it's peddled by enlightened post-feminist, post-socialist types of the 21st century.

[As an aside, it's funny how one can be dissatisfied with something without realising what it is that irritates you until you read or watch or hear something and suddenly, the light has descended! Go Amanda Vickery - may your research have inspired the strong female character of the future period drama!]

The best story was that of Lady Persie played by Claire Foy (who was also in the amazing Sky adaptation of 'Going Postal'). She was the young aristocrat enthralled by facism, first Mosely and then, it was suggested, Hitler. I thought, judging from episode 2 where it was first raised, that this would be the most poorly treated story line but I was so wrong (though maybe that was just in comparison...).

She starts off the usual bored and jealous younger sister of a more beautiful, successful sister, ends up joing the Blackshirts and taking on the chauffeur as a lover then, once he rejects her upon renouncing his fascist ways, goes on to bigger and better things in the form of Ribbentrop. Over the course of six episodes, she grew into a determined young woman (and it made me genuinely sad and horrified that she should waste such potential on an ideollogy so morally bankrupt and evil) and went off into the night to confront her dark destiny, back straight, glamorous fur slung over her shoulder, pillar hat perched on tightly set curls.

That was satisfying. Everything else... meh. There was too much explaining, explaining social mores (they're not mores if you have to explain them), explaining feelings, explaining decisions. The worst thing was that the writing was good enough that I could have understood their motivations, their values and so on, even if I might have found the characters at times shallow or cliched. I didn't need all that expo. It slowed things down and made me feel I was watching a sitcom rather than a 'serious' social drama.

Oh well. At least they tried.

What else was there? Dr Who was the usual disappointment; Edwardian Farm was the usual awesomeness (it basically involves historians and archaeologists living out the life of Edwardian farmers along the Taymor valley which might seem ridiculous but they put so much effort and work into understanding, working with local volunteers and explaining every little niche detail that it's not at all patronising but genuinely fascinating to watch). There were also some pretty good documentaries on the BBC3&4: Moseley doing his thing on Medical History (History of the Mind or Brain I think it was. The sort of thing that reminds us scienc-y types that we are as beholden to the judgement of future generations as those in the past are of us) and the up and coming Nel Hadayat presenting Music Money and  Hip Hop Honeys.

The latter was certainly food for thought...
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