Upstairs Downstairs – The Property of a Lady (24th November 1972)

Lady Marjorie’s past indiscretion comes back to haunt her ….

The lack of a writing credit on the episode is a sure sign that its genesis was a troubled one (and indeed, that was the case – Peter Wildeblood was incensed that his script was so heavily written and asked for his name to be removed).

There aren’t too many outward signs of any production travails though – even if the story (despite a dollop of location filming) feels quite enclosed and restricted. It’s notable that it has a very small cast with only six regulars (Thomas, Sarah, Mr Hudson, Rose, Lady Marjorie and Richard Bellamy) and a sole speaking guest actor – Desmond Perry as Michael Dooley, a fast-talking Irish ex-soldier with blackmail on his mind.

Dooley claims to have been batman to Captain Charles Hammond, an officer who fought and died on the North West frontier of India. In Dooley’s possession are a tranche of letters of an intimate nature exchanged between Hammond and Lady Marjorie (see the series one episode Magic Casements). Although why he should want to take these missives to a war zone is anyone’s guess.

Whilst Dooley isn’t exactly the most three-dimensional character, Perry gives a very effective performance, deftly altering Dooley’s tone from deferential to implacable whenever he spies that he’s gaining the upper hand. Initially turfed out of the front door of 165 Eaton Place by Hudson (who seems equally appalled that he’s a beggar and an Irishman) he finds a more ready confidant round the back, where Thomas is tending to the motor car.

Of course, the poor hapless Dooley never realises that in Thomas he’s run into someone who’s far more devious and underhand than he is ….

This is really John Alderton’s episode. He plays the episode’s two key scenes (Thomas approaching independently both Lady Marjorie and Richard to inform them of Dooley’s blackmail) very well. When Thomas pulls over the car to have a private word with Lady Marjorie, there’s some excellent byplay between the two – Lady Marjorie’s initial disdain turning to panic which is soothed by Thomas’ level-headed support (even though the audience – by now fully primed about his character – knows that he’s on the make).

Having acquired £200 (after her Ladyship pawns her jewels) Thomas then collects the same sum from Richard. Thomas correctly assumes that neither would dream of speaking to the other about the matter, allowing him to make a tidy profit.

And given that Dooley – asking for £200 – is eventually bundled out of the mews after handing over the letters with nothing to show for it, Thomas is able to walk away with all £400. Or is he?

There’s no getting around the fact that the wheels come off towards the end of the episode. Thomas talks Sarah into impersonating Lady Marjorie and together the pair bamboozle the unfortunate Dooley. To give her credit, Pauline Collins was less mannered and arch in this scene than I was expecting, but it still feels a little off.

Possibly the script in its original form had a little more bite, but I still enjoyed the delicate hypocrisy displayed by all the characters (except Rose, who remained in total ignorance). When talking to Lady Marjorie and Richard, Thomas’ true feelings are kept discreetly veiled as befits a good servant – but there’s no doubt that all parties know exactly what the truth is (but are compelled, for forms sake, to maintain an air of decorum).

The same goes for Hudson as he discusses the matter with Thomas. When they’re together, Hudson pours scorn on Dooley’s claims but after Thomas leaves it’s plain that Hudson is perturbed.

Sarah makes Thomas give all the money back. That Thomas does so (albeit receiving £10 from Lady Marjorie and £20 from Richard) is hard to swallow. What was there to stop Thomas pocketing some or all of it and not telling Sarah? This sudden burst of conscience seems more than a little out of character (especially since she could never have spoken to Lord or Lady Marjorie to discover the truth) but his duplicitous nature is restored when out of his £30, he only gives Sarah £3!

The Property of a Lady feels a little stretched – the plot is decent enough, but it’s quite a basic one to fill a 52 minute episode. Maybe an unconnected subplot would have given it a little more impetus.

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