Upstairs Downstairs – An Object of Value (15th December 1972)

An Object of Value continues a run of episodes defined by the arrival of an outsider to 165 Eaton Place who has an immediate destabilising effect on the household. Today it’s Lady Marjorie’s recently widowed mother, Lady Southwold (Cathleen Nesbitt), and her companion Miss Hodges (Nancie Jackson) who, almost as soon as they step through the door, begin to put the cat amongst the pigeons ….

Although Lady Southwold is a suitably imposing figure in public, in private she comes across as a fairly genial old soul. Mind you, it’s understandable that she’s rather short tempered once she believes her irreplicable butterfly brooch has been stolen. Miss Hodges is the one who mainly suffers at Lady Southwold’s hands, although you get the sense that her flashes of anger don’t last long (and if Miss Hodges wasn’t such a terrible snob, maybe Lady Southwold would be able to hold her tongue a little more).

If Lady Southwold kicks off proceedings by deciding that she’s been robbed, then Miss Hodges stokes the fire by confiding to Hudson that she thinks (with no real evidence) that Miss Roberts is guilty.

The simmering enmity between Hodges and Roberts is nicely teased out at the start of the episode as is Hodges’ strange limbo-like position. She considers herself to be a cut above the servants and wouldn’t think of taking her meals with them, but whilst she’s present in the drawing room with Lady Marjorie, Richard and Lady Southwold, her menial status is made clear very quickly (she remains standing whilst the others sit, and her comments tend to be politely ignored).

Richard instructs Hudson to make discreet enquires amongst the staff. This is the cue for a ladle of humour (the unfortunate Edward compares Hudson to Sherlock Holmes, unaware that the cat-like Hudson has crept up on him and can hear every mocking word) and also drama (Roberts explodes into hysterics after she decides her position and integrity are under attack).

An Object of Value is one of those self-contained stories, never setting foot outside 165 Eaton Place. Apart from the regular cast (for once, all the servants are present and correct) there’s only four guest actors – Cathleen Nesbitt and Nancie Jackson are both quite key, even if they don’t have a great deal of screentime (Lady Southwold and Hodges exist mainly to kick the plot into action) as is Christopher Biggins as Mr. Donaldson, although his big scene comes right at the end of the episode.

Donaldson is an acquaintance of Thomas and someone who the chauffeur hopes to go into partnership with. Sarah – on Thomas’ bidding – steals a bottle of wine from the cellar, all the better for him to sweeten Donaldson. This action is a little hard to swallow – why would Sarah risk everything, especially since she didn’t seem to benefit? At first I thought that maybe it would be used later by Hudson as an example of Sarah’s untrustworthiness (if suspicion fell on her that she stole the brooch) but as that didn’t happen, we can just take as a spot of colour which enlivens the early part of the episode.

John Alderton gets plenty of good material to work with today. Thomas continues his pursuit of Sarah and eventually gets her into bed although it’s his confrontation with Rose that really stands out. First, Rose finds it impossible to articulate quite why she cares so much about Sarah’s burgeoning friendship with Thomas (although the innuendo is quite plain) and then Thomas roughly manhandles her (demonstrating that beneath his thin veneer of affability that’s won round some of the staff, such as Mrs Bridges, there’s something rather nasty lurking).

When Hudson later asks him to explain who his visitor was, Thomas stands his ground and refuses. There’s strong energy in these scenes with Gordon Jackson and John Alderton – Hudson might be able to browbeat the rest of the staff, but it’s plain that Thomas is an immovable object. Thomas even stands his ground with Richard, although eventually he does concede and explain.

Then an unspoken irony comes into play. Thomas is off the hook because Richard knows that Mr. Donaldson is a respectable man, but that’s only his public face. In private Donaldson is revealed to be somewhat degenerate – pawing Sarah and limbering up for something more, before Thomas bursts in and they slug it out.

We don’t see many fight scenes in Upstairs Downstairs, which makes the Thomas/Donaldson one quite noteworthy. Christopher Biggins isn’t the sort of actor who tends to indulge in a great deal of fisticuffs, so it’s not entirely convincing (although you have to say that recording fights in a multi-camera vt studio never offered the director or actors the same flexibility as single-camera film work did). It’s not a total disaster though, and the pair certainly threw themselves around with abandon as flimsy prop chairs and tables get demolished with alacrity.

After that’s over and Sarah finds herself bonded ever tighter to Thomas (although we still don’t know if he cares for her at all) there’s just time for the mystery of the missing brooch to be solved (no spoilers – but it’s a happy ending).

This is another good script from the always reliable Jeremy Paul. Apart from the smooth-running of the main plot, there’s plenty of incidental moments to also enjoy. Such as Sarah teaching Ruby to read with the baby’s blocks from the nursery and Mrs Bridges instructing Ruby (it’s her day to learn) about the best way to slice a cucumber. I also appreciated Rachel Gurney’s wistful underplaying during the scene where Lady Marjorie confides that she wished she’d known her father better. Gurney delivers the line in such a detached way that it almost feels like Lady Marjorie is referring to a distant acquaintance, rather than one of her closest relatives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s