Friday, April 27, 2012

Heidi's Highs and Lows

And so the axe has fallen on the BBC's troubled revival of Upstairs Downstairs after a mere nine episodes over two series. Viewers were unimpressed by the second series and switched off in their millions leaving the powers that be with no choice but to close the doors of 165 Eaton Place and leave those of us who kept watching until the bitter end wondering what was is store for the Hollands and their servants as World War Two began. Downton Abbey is mentioned in every article I've read since this announcement was made last week suggesting that Team UP was ultimately trounced by Team DA in the battle for the hearts and minds of period drama enthusiasts in the UK and worldwide. Although this is a lazy over-simplification to my mind, it is almost certain that those who had become accustomed to the instantly-recognisable broad characters and melodramatic, undemanding storytelling of Julian Fellowes found little to interest them in Heidi Thomas's re-imagining of the 1970s classic which was an altogether subtler yet needlessly convoluted, rather humourless and far less entertaining affair.

Upstairs Downstairs was not without its merits, however, and I was as impressed as ever by Heidi Thomas's gift for dialogue and the attention to period detail in the scripts. While Mrs Bates was anachronistically adopting the phrase "As if!" to rebuke her estranged husband in Downton Abbey, the characters in Upstairs Downstairs - although fatally not that engaging - read Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy, talked about Errol Flynn and Olivia deHavilland and danced to the Lambeth Walk as though they were actually living in the late 1930s. Ms Thomas (pictured on the left above with the ladies of Cranford) must be very disappointment by the ultimate failure of her passion project but while she's coming to terms with the news and chalking it all up to experience, she can at least be comforted by the Downton-rivalling success she experienced at the start of the year with BBC's Call the Midwife, her adaptation of Jennifer Worth's memoirs based on her experiences as a newly-qualified midwife in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s.

It is difficult for broadcasters to break new ground when dramatizing the past but Call the Midwife is not based on a world-famous novel and does not feature villagers pulling together in times of strife or, indeed, members of the British aristocracy and their servants. Thomas's characteristic skill at combining grit and heart in the stories she writes for the screen, abundantly evident in the superb Cranford, has proven to be Call the Midwife's masterstroke. What with preparing for the expanded second series and writing the book for a proposed Broadway revival of the musical Gigi, she may not have all that much time to reflect on the one that got away.

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