It was an uneven series, but the finicky butler kept me glued to the screen, says Laura Pledger
Tonight we bade farewell to the residents of 165 Eaton Place as the second, decidedly patchy, series of Upstairs Downstairs came to an end. Two strong closing episodes went some way towards making up for a lacklustre start, not to mention a build-up to the Second World War that felt as interminable as the conflict itself must surely have seemed to those living through it.
There were times I didn’t think I’d make it to the end. But never mind the Enigma machine or the bouncing bombs: Upstairs Downstairs has its own secret weapon – deployed to devastating effect, on this viewer at least – namely, a stuffed shirt called Warwick Pritchard.
Pritchard ought to be a hard man to like. He’s pompous, prickly and priggish. Actor Adrian Scarborough, who plays him, must have phenomenal muscle tone by the time filming wraps because everything about Pritchard is so clenched – even his vowels.
The butler’s sense of duty and unquestioning subservience to those society deems “superior” go against everything that I, a fierce believer in individualism, stand for. And yet I can’t help myself: I’m incredibly fond of the man.
It helps, of course, that Scarborough is clearly laughing up his immaculately pressed sleeve as he steers his po-faced character through stormy waters, making his over-the-top dedication and apparent humourlessness all the funnier. (Called upon to deliver a panicky Lady Agnes’s baby when she unexpectedly went into labour in the bathroom, the fastidious butler nevertheless found time to straighten the towels before getting down to business.)
But it’s not just his drollness that’s appealing. The flip side of Pritchard’s sense of duty is unflinching loyalty to his friends. He not only persuaded Sir Hallam to reinstate footman Johnny after his spell in borstal, he also took the blame when the unfortunate youth inadvertently killed the family’s pet monkey. So much of this pair’s relationship goes unspoken, the moment in the final episode where Johnny castigated his father figure for turning to drink is all the more powerful.
Even more shocking than the revelation that Pritchard was a recovering alcoholic (come on, was anybody really fooled by the “mastoid disorder” line?) was the discovery that he’d been a conscientious objector during the First World War.
You got a real sense of just how difficult it must have been for this man, so wedded to the idea of duty, to choose not to fight. He paid a high price for his decision then and it returned to haunt him with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Not only was he shunned for a time by his colleagues, it also put paid to his slow-burn romance with Miss Whisset (Sarah Lancashire). The look on Pritchard’s face, as it slowly dawned on him that what he thought was a discussion about the pros and cons of fighting for one’s country was actually her way of telling him she could now never love him, was heartbreaking.
If Pritchard had disappeared into the sunset with his beloved lady’s maid – or stepped out in front of a car in episode two – I wouldn’t have kept watching Upstairs Downstairs. So if anyone asks what kept me tuning in week after week, this is what I’ll tell them: the butler did it.
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