In 1970, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins were annoyed by ‘The Forsyte Saga’ and created a period drama that showed the lives of the servants as well as the masters. Forty years on and both women return to the house they co-created. This time, Atkins (now a Dame) is in front of the camera as well, playing a returning Raj widow. Marsh still plays Rose Buck, once the parlourmaid for the house and now running a domestic recruitment agency charged with repopulating Eaton Place for its new owners.
Lord Hallam (Ed Stoppard) is nouveau riche, the diplomat son of an ennobled Raj diplomat, and has married into impoverished old aristocracy. The expectant Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) is expected to run the place with not-quite-enough money and two troublesome houseguests.
Her sulky younger sister, Lady Persephone Towyn (Claire Foy), has been dragged up from Wales and rebels against her new life: told to learn about politics, she falls in with Mosley and Ribbentrop. Lady Agnes’s mother-in-law, Maud (Dame Eileen Atkins), has invited herself to live at Eaton Place and hovers like Banquo’s ghost over every meal, criticising how Agnes runs the house. The set-up creates tension between the upstairs family members without getting into the complicated business of inheritances and entails.
Because it is, of course, very hard not to compare it to ‘Downton Abbey‘ (which I was rather harsh on last year). The first episode focuses on bringing the cast together, which makes it easier to introduce characters than the pre-existing set-up of ‘Downton Abbey’. By being set in a townhouse in the 1930s the ratio of staff to family members is more plausible.
The dramas are human and explicable: what to do with a wayward child being a recurring theme. Not only the sulky Lady Persey. There’s also: Johnny the footman, whose mother arranges the job for him as a second start in life; Iris, the lively girl dumped in an orphanage at birth and now a maid of all work; Lottie, the daughter of the other maid Rachel (both Jewish refegees from Germany). The loss of children is another theme, with Agnes fearing another miscarriage and Maud refusing to mention her lost daughter Pamela.
Throughout there is a sense of reluctant families: the obvious upstairs family with its struggling matriarch runs parallel with the urban family downstairs drawn together by Rose Buck. Rose becomes the housekeeper, in every sense. There’s a lovely moment in the opening episode where Rose pauses on the stairs and her hand on the banister becomes that of the young maid she once was.
Generally, this is a cast that is on fantastic form. Adrian Scarborough is brilliant as the prissy teetotal butler Pritchard, then turns on a sixpence when there’s a crisis, becoming calm and commanding. Art Malik does wonders with the relatively line-free role of Amanjit Singh, Maud’s secretary. There’s the odd touch of “cor blimey, I went to RADA, din’ I?” to some of the working class accents which is annoying. Keeley Hawes is, well, Keeley Hawes – if you liked her as Bolly Knickers in ‘Ashes to Ashes‘ then you’ll have no complaints here.
But the show, rightly, belongs to Marsh and Atkins. Marsh conveys an astonishing vulnerability at times, yet stands up easily to Anne Reid’s cook, Mrs Thackeray. Aitkins is easy to imagine presiding over epic colonial era dinners, even as she floats around a small townhouse with ostentatious orientalism.
The 1936 setting is inspired. It shows the pull of fascism across class barriers, and Hallam’s friendship with one of Edward VIII’s younger brothers enables the abdication crisis to be connected to the house rather than merely something that occurs offstage. Should the series be renewed – and it should – the struggle of Eaton Place during World War 2 would provide a neat parallel to ‘Downton Abbey’s’ World War 1 horrors.