So, the comparisons have been all over the media. “Downton Abbey vs. Upstairs downstairs: who won?” (The Guardian) and “Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs set for ratings war in 2011” (The Telegraph).
But why are the two so fervently pipped against one another?
Well, I’m going to be crude, and begin by looking at the basics! Both take the period drama and create an original series for television. For once, these programmes are not remake after remake of the same old Austen, Brontes’ or Dickens classics. Also, they, for once, include the stories of the servants! Something that is rarely encountered in the period drama classics and which has so much narrative potential.
I guess more similarities lie in the interfering mothering-law in the forms of Dame Maggie SmithDownton Abbey) and (Lady Grantham, Dame Eileen Atkins (Lady Holland, Upstairs Downstairs). Who both played their parts to exquisite precision – could we expect anything less from their years of expertise?
What the two programmes also shared, and, for me, worked remarkably well, was how they inserted the narrative into significant historical events of the time period in which they are set. Downton Abbey begins in 1912 where the Crawley family loose relatives in the wreck of the Titanic. The story then dips its fiction into the plight of the suffragettes and the political movements present at that time, which climaxes in a political rally. Upstairs Downstairs (USDS), like Downton, also features a political rally, this time in the 1930s, archiving the rise of fascism.
By dramatizing history in this way both programmes really enable you to be transported back in time and look at that history from a different perspective. These issues were such an important part of shaping the society we see in Britain today. By inserting the characters actively into history it brings to life the dull facts once learnt, and barely remembered, in school, and gives them a story, a context, and a meaning.
A particular high point in my own viewing pleasure was when Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay) controversially dons a pair of long baggy trousers! The determination shown here of a passionate woman fighting against the masculine hierarchy through which her society is dominated is inspiring! I must take this time to lament that this kind of passion is rarely re-created in today’s society, where the majority of women mutely accept the lingering inequalities that are still present - a whole century onwards!
So now to highlight where these similarities end…
Well, for starters both programmes have a completely different mood: set in different time periods, with different fashions. Downton, with its stately home setting, sticks to a visual pallet of pale gold, green and brown, providing comforting realism and Edwardian atmospherics (not forgetting some of the most stunning costumes I’ve ever seen). USDS seems to use an array of contrasting bold colours and is visually very striking. As a result a kind of exaggerated realism is created which is beautiful on the eye and a pleasure to watch. This contrast enforces and provides a very different reality within both programmes.
The setting also helps to shape contrasting moods between the two. I found the town-house setting in USDS quite refreshing (even though this was already done in the 70s original), it gave it a more modern and busy feel to the drama in comparison to the wide, spacious, setting of Downton, where the characters had time to move about (Maybe this also had something to do with the fact that USDS only had three hours to tell its story whilst Downton had seven?).
The smaller setting in USDS resulted in fewer characters, however, and having watched Downton first, I was left wanting more storylines and more characters! For example, as an involved viewer of Downton Abbey, I loathed the “villains”: O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) -who were both exquisitely constructed and indispensable to Julian Fellows rich narrative tapestry- yet it was a shame that there wasn’t room for their equivalents in USDS.
Despite this, a character that I adored in USDS was Johnny Proude (the footman) played by Nico Mirallegro, of Hollyoaks fame. Always one of the stronger, more capable, actors in the soap, he quit in September 2009. His transition from soap to period drama was a joy to see. He embodied one of the more poignant storylines in USDS and I thoroughly warmed to his character, as did the servants in the narrative, despite his troubling past.
Whilst both dramas have obvious similarities you only have to watch the two to realise they are not the same programme trying to create the same story. They have different writers, producers, directors, and cast.
What appeared to fuel the rivalry between them was the timing of the releases and their basic concepts of interweaving the lives of an upper-class family with the lives of their servants. Further to this, Jean Marsh (Rose Buck), who co-created the original series, implied in an interview that it was no coincidence that Downton Abbey was using the same concept and had taken it from their 70s original. This sparked tensions between the two and has now escalated to the point where you can barely mention one without the other!
As a brief aside (and something that’s always bugged me so I’ll get it off my chest) the same thing seems to have occurred with Inception and Shutter Island. You can’t have a conversation about one without mentioning the other, and it always seems to come down to a direct comparison of: “I preferred…” The two films are actually nothing alike other than they star Leonardo DiCaprio, have a twist at the end, and were released in the same year!
Although quite clearly more comparisons can be drawn between Downton Abbey and USDS than they can of the DiCaprio films, (I’m not ignorant of that). But to draw some sort of conclusion, it is my belief that the rivalry between USDS and Downton Abbey is merely superficial. Few fail to look past the pantomimic contest and just appreciate the individual dramas for what they are! Storylines cross over all the time. People seem to have fallen into adopting superficial views of the dramas based on their similarities, which always reach the same boring conclusion of “I preferred…” Even though, let’s face it; they are not quite the same are they!