Upstairs Downstairs (1971), The Remains of the Day (1993)


Here are two in which the butler did it.

Upstairs Downstairs must be one of the best TV drama series. “Hudson,” the butler of the Bellamy family, says in a later episode what he has signified all along: his role is “to preserve order and tradition” in an entropic, deadly world of perverse surprise. He is the one constant in the ambitious series dramatizing this basic human and societal conflict, here from roughly 1900-1930 and foregrounded in Great Britain, between a complex culture and its primary nemesis, the impersonal, “chaotic” way of the world; in short, The Ravages of Time aka Change aka The Vicissitudes of Life aka Fate. In one of the few scenes in which they spell out this drama, Viscount Bellamy (the other major character) and Hudson meet in the Servant’s Hall and, the class distinction between them dissolving for the moment, recite lines from Tennyson’s Idylls Of The King which would enshrine and preserve safe from Time and Oblivion the Old Values of the culture. Of course, these defenses of the culture, no matter how strictly engaged in through the main strategy of a Daily Protocol held to with Herculean insistence and steadfastness in the face of No Matter What, slowly fail. The perversity of history prevails. That is the drama–this slow but noble defeat–which elevates Upstairs Downstairs.

As must be the chief reality, all in the drama are weak humans who fall short of the ideals, some (especially the younger characters) ambushed by the turmoil of the times, most notably World War One and the Titanic (a powerful historical metaphor of the central drama in Upstairs Downstairs), together with the flaws in the cultural defenses themselves such as the cruel Class System and its injustice and, finally, the impossibility of sustaining any way of life. James Bellamy in particular personifies the post-Victorian Lost Generation of those times and its fate. Gordon Jackson as “Hudson” and David Langdon as “Viscount Bellamy” are superb.

It is a culture alien to ours, but in a more generic sense, Upstairs Downstairs, presented like a stage play with only a few sets and no music score, turns on one of the major dramas a work of fiction could attempt in any period. Most of its episodes capture and stir.

The Remains Of The Day, the 1993 film version of Ishiguro’s novel about English Royals who were sympathetic to the Nazis in the 1930s–were, in short, among those who came to be known as “appeasers”–also has the butler as the main character, in this case Anthony Hopkins’s “Stevens.” You might say that this drama picks up about where in history Upstairs Downstairs passes. Given the darkness falling over Europe, Ishiguro sees the Order and Tradition we find in Upstairs Downstairs as wrenchingly doomed as History sweeps it under.

“The Remains of the Day” is literally an inspired title about a drama in which an Idyllic Day of English aristocratic life in the great estates is fading in a new and brutal era of the approaching 1930s totalitarian catastrophe in Europe: the “remains” are the dying forms–the manners and styles and gestures–of that vanishing aristocratic life. Stevens is determined, and in a touchingly forlorn fashion, to preserve the old order by strict adherence to the obsolete forms: nothing–the physical decline and death of his father, his love of  the housekeeper Miss Kenton–curtails him in his determination. Stevens’s master, Lord Darlington, himself lives by an aristocratic code that is hopelessly out of touch with the current realities of the Gathering Storm, and it ruins him in every sense. Hoping in a terribly wrongheaded way to preserve the Old Order, Lord Darlington holds appeasement conferences and meetings at Darlington Hall Estate with the likes of Halifax and Chamberlain together with leading German and French diplomats. An American congressman, a guest at some of these meetings, gives the prophetic lie to the hopeful, tepid and genteel facism of the British culprit-fools. So does a French diplomat, Dupont d’Ivry, whose feet grow painfully sore during a visit to Darlington Hall because his shoes don’t fit.

But perhaps the most elegant statement of the traditional aristocratic values in The Remains of the Day comes from Stevens’s father, an aging and physically and mentally failing former Master Butler, who recounts a quintessential anecdote of a tiger discovered in the empty dining room of a palatial British manse in Colonial India years before, the huge cat spied lurking beneath the lace table cloth by the butler, after which the tiger is quickly shot and removed with there soon remaining no trace anywhere in that grand room of that horrendous encounter, that is, no visible sign that would distract the aristocrats from their normal, presumably ordinarily pleasant, anticipations as later that day they enter the room to dine. Here the butler (or Butler) has the role of creating a serene, clockwork, deferential world–a refuge–beyond the perversity of the natural order.

In short, here are two superb dramas about a central human theme. Both are required viewing.