Victoriana (with occasional Magic)

I’ve been in a complete Victoriana/Edwardiana mood lately, funnily enough considering my current project. So a lot of the culture I’ve been consuming has been along these lines.

I watched Season 2 of the 1970’s Upstairs Downstairs quite by accident – I had ordered Season 2 of the 2012 version on Fishpond and due to an error, received the old show instead. And it had PAULINE COLLINS AND JOHN ALDERTON on the cover, so who could reject such a beautiful thing? I realised when watching it that while I remembered elements of this season, it was pretty much the only one I hadn’t revisited over the years – I had watched most of Season 1 on VHS, and read novelisations covering both the early and later periods of the show, but had missed out on this one, which is COMPLETELY BRILLIANT.

It also carries on directly from the audiobook of season one’s novelisation, which I’d listened to recently, so was perfect. It’s still very much the original cast, before many of the actors were “sent to America” or killed off on the Titanic, but the stories are more complex and interesting than in the first season. We get Elizabeth’s failed bohemian marriage, the fallout from James’ affair with Sarah the former parlourmaid and her pregnancy, and a whole bunch of bankrupcy, bohemian parties and blackmail. The most fun addition to the regular cast is Thomas the footman/chauffeur (John Alderton), an ambitious and slightly sinister Welshman who displays criminal leanings, but isn’t very GOOD at being bad. Ultimately he is drawn to Sarah, the other “wicked” egg in the household, and the two of them fall into a relationship that’s half romantic, half partners in crime, and just a bit uncomfortable… (they leave the household together at the end of the season, never to return, and later got their own spin off series)

By far the most powerful and interesting (to me) episode of the series was “A Special Mischief” by Anthony Skene, which revolves around Lady Elizabeth’s flirtation with the suffragette movement. What starts out as a bit of a comic episode turns deadly vicious when maid Rose’s attempts to stop Elizabeth from getting into trouble lead to them both being arrested – and while Elizabeth is let off with a mild fine due to her aristocratic status (and the good word of the gentleman they attacked who has his eye on her) – Rose is sent to do hard time. Jean Marsh is extraordinary in this episode, as we see her innocent maid character put through the wringer, surrounded by women far more experienced at this than she is, and having to first starve herself along with the others in the hope of earning an early release… and then to be force fed by tube.

Elizabeth discovers what is going on in the prison and is horrified, searching desperately for a male ally to help her address the injustice, and eventually they get the women released, but it’s very clear that Rose, for all her loyalty, will never quite forget what she had to endure because of her mistress. The class divide is beautifully expressed in a final scene in which all Rose can do to express what she has been through is to ask for a cup of tea…

Next I read The Truth About Verity Sparks by Susan Green, a fun middle grade (maybe leaning towards YA) romp about a girl detective in Victorian London. For a minute I wondered if the author had watched the same season of Upstairs Downstairs as me, as she had the same subplot about a hat shop where the upper crust ladies refuse to pay their bills, but I guess this might be a common thing with hat shops?

In any case, the main story is about Verity’s mysterious ability to “find things” and how she is taken in by an eccentric family/investigation agency which leads her not only to solve a bunch of interesting mysteries, but also to discover her own true history and identity.

This was a fun, compelling story and while it was a fairly clean and tidy version of Victorian London, as might be expected considering the audience, I was glad to see that issue to do with class inequality and some of the other injustices of the era were addressed in the story. Also, Australian author, hooray!

Finally, I bought the first season of the ongoing Jago and Litefoot audio series from Big Finish – I had been meaning to for ages, and the recent super sale gave me the incentive I needed.

Jago and Litefoot are two supporting characters from a classic Doctor Who story, The Talons of Weng Chiang, generally regarded as one of the best of the 1970’s era stories, and also one of the more racially problematic ones to rewatch because of the fact that the Chinese characters in the story, especially the lead villain, are played by white actors in heavy makeup. Henry Gordon Jago, the bluff and hearty “theatrical impresario” who owned the theatre from which all manner of dastardly shenanigans took place in the story (set in a particularly Sherlock-Holmes-and-Jack-the-Ripper-peasouper-fog version of Victorian London) and Professor Litefoot, a gentle and chivalrous upper class pathologist who occasionally helps out the police, have been mythologised in Doctor Who fandom as the greatest of writer Robert Holmes’ legendary “double acts” despite the fact that the two characters only meet in the last third of the story. The entertaining performances by Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter were so good that a spin off series was even suggested at the time, though it came to nothing.

Thirty years later… Big Finish brought the two characters back together in Companion Chronicle one-act-play “The Mahogany Murderers” which was by far the fastest selling story in that range, and led to the creation of a fullblown series.

I thoroughly enjoyed the four stories in this first season, which feature the regular banter and deep friendship of the two men from opposite sides of society, solving crimes and downing pints in Merry Old London. Joining them is Ellie, a spirited barmaid (played by Lisa Bowerman, also the director of the plays) who is regularly pulled into their adventures. The first season involves werewolves, vampires, ghosts and spirit mediums, and mysterious illnesses… and while this is still obviously part of the Doctor Who universe, with a mostly scientific explanation behind many of the apparently magical happenings, there is less of a requirement to rationalise everything, with all the characters thoughly grounded in the Victorian mindset, in which there might well be real monsters who go bump in the night.

While not especially revolutionary from a gender point of view, this is a great series that revels in its source material, telling complex and interesting tales about characters that are steeped in Victoriana. As noted in the behind the scenes interviews, it’s rather lovely to have stories about men that aren’t about the usual macho ridiculousness, but instead about friendship, cleverness and comic banter. I am keen to listen to the next season now – they’re up to four already, with more to come, and I am very excited that Louise Jamieson will be joining the regular cast later on.