Mrs. Patmore was the last straw. During the much ballyhooed season 3 finale of “Downton Abbey,” the feisty cook fell for a purveyor who turned out to be a louche womanizer lusting for Mrs. Patmore only for her food. After a humiliating carnival outing, it fell to stolid head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes to break the news to her friend.
Sound familiar? Fans of the original “Upstairs Downstairs,” the BBC series that ran from 1971 to 1975, might remember that in season three, feisty cook Mrs. Bridges fell for purveyor Albert Lyons. During the servants’ seaside outing, Lyons got drunk in a pub and let on that he was only interested in Mrs. Bridges for her cooking. It fell to erstwhile butler Hudson to break the news to his friend.
Really, Julian Fellowes, do you think seasoned “Masterpiece” viewers don’t notice?
But the gilded “Downton Abbey,” which unveils its fourth season Sunday amid hype and hoopla, has cribbed from its illustrious ancestor from the start.
It’s one thing for two series set in Edwardian England to have similar characters or turns of events. I didn’t balk when “Downton” opened with the Crawley cousins presumed dead on the Titanic, where Lady Marjorie Bellamy of “Upstairs Downstairs” had also met her demise. Any series set in 1912 is compelled to put a character on the doomed liner. There were other broad strokes — in “Downton,” ditzy scullery maid Daisy is a carbon copy of the ditzy scullery maid of “Upstairs Downstairs,” Ruby; Thomas Barrow, the ambitious, often unlikable “Downton” footman, closely resembles Thomas Watkins, the social-climbing cad and chauffeur of “Upstairs Downstairs”; Lady Sybil of “Downton” was thrown in jail for taking part in a women’s suffrage rally just like Rose Buck of “Upstairs Downstairs.” Lady Sybil raised eyebrows when she worked as a nurse during the Great War, as did socialite and Bellamy cousin Georgina Worsley, and on and on.
There are differences, of course. “Upstairs Downstairs” was steeped in theater tradition — long takes, pauses, and complete sentences — while “Downton Abbey,” for all its pleasures, is a high-gloss soap opera with plot twists unfolding at a breakneck pace. The setting of “Upstairs Downstairs,” 165 Eaton Place, was right in the heart of London, putting its denizens up close to big events. Genteel Downton is an estate, as self-contained as Pine Valley. The “Upstairs Downstairs” vault must be tempting for “Downton” writers hungry for story lines; like a wine connoisseur in a vast and noble cellar, they may think a few pilfered bottles will hardly be missed.
But even minor plot points and character traits are lifted with regularity. To wit:
While “Downton” took us into the trenches of World War I, “Upstairs Downstairs” earned much of its reputation for the season that was set during the Great War. Without a single battle scene (owing to budget constraints), “Upstairs Downstairs” showed the harrowing effect of the war above and below stairs. Officer James Bellamy came home in a wheelchair enraged about the waste of life at the Somme and later committed suicide. In “Downton,” officer Matthew Crawley also came home unable to walk — the result of a spine injury that left him, in his words, “an impotent cripple.” But, in true soap form, he soon recovered on both counts.
James’s inconvenient wife, Hazel, became gravely ill with what turned out to be Spanish influenza. Matthew’s inconvenient fiancée, Lavinia, also died of the flu.
“Upstairs Downstairs” head butler Hudson threw the house into a tailspin when he suffered a heart attack. He was tenderly nursed by his longtime colleague Mrs. Bridges. In season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” head butler Carson suffers an apparent heat attack and is nursed by Mrs. Hughes, revealing Carson’s true feelings for his longtime colleague.
While James was at the front, Hazel befriended Jack Dyson, a young airman who, like her, had risen from the middle class. The day before Jack returned to the front, he left a note for Hazel, calling her his “only girl in the world,” which was also the title of the episode.
With Matthew missing (just as James was missing, then returned injured), the Crawleys put on a concert for the soldiers convalescing at Downton Abbey. The song that Lady Mary sings, of all things, is “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.”
When Mrs. Patmore had vision trouble, Lord Grantham sent her to London to have cataract surgery. In “Upstairs Downstairs,” Mrs. Bridges was having trouble reading recipes and blaming her young apprentice for it. Hudson eventually brought this to her ladyship’s attention; Mrs. Bridges was sent to be examined and fitted with spectacles.
In the second season of “Downton,” we learned that Lavinia stole evidence that tied her uncle to the famous 1912 Marconi scandal and sold it to Lord Grantham. This minor plot echoed an “Upstairs Downstairs” episode (“Word of Honor”) in which Richard Bellamy was accused of using insider information when he bought shares in a company set to be awarded a government contract.
One of the most unusual episodes of “Upstairs Downstairs” had Rose secretly hide Alfred, a former footman who was on the run after killing his homosexual lover. The episode turned into a thriller when desperate Alfred took a hostage until the police captured him. At Downton, Thomas’s homosexuality is an open secret among the staff — at a time when homosexuality was a punishable offense in Britain. His nighttime ambush of Jimmy raised a few hackles but everything was smoothed over by benevolent Lord Grantham, who told the police it was all a mistake, promoted Thomas, and all but vowed to start a Yorkshire PFLAG chapter.
“Upstairs Downstairs” was notable for a tighter focus on the servants, who were more wise to the ways of their “betters,” as Hudson would say, than the Bellamys were about them. “Downton Abbey” seems to give equal time to characters above and below stairs, particularly because “Downton” can boast the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played to perfection by the great Maggie Smith. But this scene-stealer owes more to the actress playing her than to any great conception or development — acerbic one-liners notwithstanding. As the perfect marriage of actress and role, however, “Upstairs Downstairs” had Rose Buck.
It was Rose, played by series co-creator Jean Marsh, who brought the curtain down on it in 1975. She stood alone in empty 165 Eaton Place, a witness to the changes of history, just as we’d witnessed her growth from parlor maid to ladies’ maid to the heart and soul of the series. It was a masterful moment. As “Downton Abbey” rolls out its much-anticipated new season, it may continue to raid and repurpose “Upstairs Downstairs.” But it can’t replicate it.
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.