Upstairs Downstairs – A Pair of Exiles (28th October 1972)

UpDown was rarely the sort of series to indulge itself with showy directorial flourishes, but the opening shot of this episode – we see a worried Lady Marjorie through a rain-soaked window – is quite nice.

She’s concerned about a bill that’s been forwarded onto her from a jewellers – James has run up quite a debt with them. Lady Marjorie – always keen to think the best of her son – worries that he’s fallen into bad company, gambling with his brother officers (who can easily afford to shrug off substantial losses as matters of no consequence).

But Richard points out that these aren’t gambling debts – jewels suggest a young woman. Richard goes on to surmise that he’s fallen into the clutches of an unprincipled female who intends to take him for every penny that he’s got.

Just to hammer this point home, the action then cuts to Sarah (wearing a hat that certainly catches the eye). She fits the bill of a gold-digger, but it’s interesting how the episode is quick to turn this idea on its head. James has got large gambling debts and he obtained the jewels in order to pawn them (thereby raising a little money). Sarah is doing her best to help him, but it’s plain that he’s in a desperate situation.

James’ commanding officer, Colonel Winter (Moray Watson), pays a visit to 165 Eaton Place. Watson could play this sort of role in his sleep, but he’s still very watchable – Winter makes polite smalltalk with Lady Marjorie and Richard for a few minutes before breaking the bad news. James is drinking far too much and running up debts at a rate of knots.

That would be enough to generate a decent episode’s worth of drama by itself, but everything then moves up several notches after Sarah tells James that she’s pregnant (“there’s a little captain on the way” as she puts it). Thankfully, this bombshell means that Sarah stops acting in a manic manner (when Pauline Collins is in full flight it’s a little difficult to take).

Rose has arrived to take tea in the servants hall and has a letter waiting for her from Sarah. Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges are incensed that she has the nerve to write (following the scene she made at Miss Elizabeth’s wedding) but the younger servants, like Edward, are much more indulgent.

Rose later visits Sarah and she shares her news. After a moment of shock, Rose decides that James has to do the right thing by her. Despite Rose’s obvious affection for Mr James, all of her sympathy lies with Sarah (who begins to wail in a rather over the top manner).

James meets with his parents and comes clean. As you might expect, Lady Marjorie doesn’t react kindly to the news that James has fathered a child with their former parlour maid. She’s too far well bred to make a scene though – instead her features simply set into immobility.

Mrs Bridges isn’t surprised to learn about James’ gambling debts. She mutters darkly about James’ Uncle Bertie, which helps to fill in another chink of the Southwold family tree (they seem to be mainly comprised of dissolute spendthrifts, at least according to her occasional reminiscences).

The arrival of Sarah sets the servants’ tongues a wagging – especially when she’s invited upstairs. If there’s a problem to be fixed, then Sir Geoffrey Dillon (Raymond Huntley) is your man. He’s got it all worked out – Sarah moves down to Southwold and eventually – after the child is born – will be found a suitable job, in the laundry maybe.  Sarah doesn’t react very well to this ….

James comes over as rather spineless in this scene. Whilst Sir Geoffrey intones, James says very little – unable to meet Sarah’s eye or respond to her pleas. Eventually he does speak a few words to her (“I’ll write to you”). This comment is greeted with a faint smile and a nod of the head. For all that Pauline Collins can go over the top at the drop of a hat, this is a subtle moment.

James is banished to India – which writes out Simon Williams until the final episode of series two.  That’s a shame, but by the time he finally returns he does become more of a central character.

The final line of the episode (Sarah’s “Rose, I’m frightened”) manages to strip away all of Sarah’s brittle bravado to reveal a more vulnerable woman underneath. Mind you, I’ve a feeling that she’ll bounce back ….

The Ambassador – Simply Media DVD Review

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Harriet Smith (Pauline Collins) is the newly appointed British ambassador to Northern Ireland.  Recently widowed, she has to juggle the demands of her family (Harriet has two teenage sons who don’t understand why her job has to take precedence over them) as well as numerous day-to-day diplomatic challenges.

Thrust into a world where truth is often a flexible commodity, Harriet is fortunate to have the staunch support of commercial attaché John Stone (Denis Lawson).  But Stone also serves another master (MI6) which means that he occasionally pursues his own agenda, something which becomes more pronounced in the second series ….

It’s hard to argue that The Ambassador is a terribly realistic series, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.  Harriet seems just a little bit too good to be true – whilst everybody else stumbles around, she’s sometimes able to sort out seemingly insoluble problems in a matter of minutes.  But if the plotting can feel a little contrived at times, there’s also a pleasing sense that the world she now lives in is painted in shades of grey.  So even when she turns out to be right we can’t always expect a “happy” ending.

In the first series she clashes with Steven Tyler (William Chubb) and Kevin Flaherty (Owen Roe). It may not be entirely surprising that although both Tyler and Flaherty start off as implacable rivals they later become staunch allies. More interesting is the relationship she shares with John Stone.  Stone, with his MI6 connections, is invaluable whenever Harriet needs to dip into murky waters, but he seems to undergo something of a change between series.  In series one he tends to act in Harriet’s best interests but that’s not the case during the second series.  This does add a little spice to the stories though, and Lawson is an actor who’s always worth watching.

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Since she’s at the centre of most of the action, Pauline Collins is the glue that holds the series together, although it’s possible to argue that she has a little more to work with in the second series.  This is partly because Peter Egan is introduced as Michael Cochrane, who becomes Harriet’s love interest.  Her relationship with Michael helps to humanize her a little, as well as generating a rather unsurprising plot-twist when it turns out that he has a dramatic impact on her professional life ….

Out of the twelve episodes, the following were of particular interest.  A Cluster of Betrayals sees a hostage crisis take place at the embassy, as a distraught father (whose son died from radiation poisoning) brandishes a canister of nuclear waste in an attempt to draw attention to the pollution he claims has been created by leakages from British power plants.  Things aren’t going well until Harriet steps in to handle negotiations.  This is one of those episodes where it seems just a little too pat that Harriet is able to diffuse the situation when everybody else has failed.

Cost Price sees Harriet’s personal and professional lives collide as Michael is kidnapped.  Unable to negotiate directly for his release, she’s forced to watch proceedings from the sidelines.  Although both series were an excellent vehicle for Pauline Collins, the personal angle for Harriet in this episode helped to ramp up the tension a little more.

The final episode of series two, Getting Away From Murder, ensured that The Ambassador ended on a high.  After Tyler’s wife is found dead from an overdose, he’s accused by the Garda of murder.  He pleads diplomatic immunity (in order to not to derail some sensitive negotiations) leaving Harriet to wonder whether one of her key allies could really be a cold-blooded murderer.  With the truth not disclosed until just before the end, this is a very effective mystery story.

Thanks to strong central performances from Pauline Collins and Denis Lawson and quality support from the likes of Owen Roe, William Chubb, Peter Egan and Eve Matheson, The Ambassador is certainly a series that’s worth a look.  Guest appearances from the likes of Michael Angelis, Philip Jackson, T.P. McKenna, Frederick Treves, Geoffrey Whitehead, Michael Cochrane, Jack Dee and Tenniel Evans don’t hurt either.  Although Harriet may be rather too perfect, if you can suspend your disbelief then there’s plenty to hold your attention across both series

The Ambassador – Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 15th of August 2016.  RRP £34.99.

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The Ambassador to be released on DVD by Simply Media on 15/8/16

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Simply Media will release both series of The Ambassador on the 15th of August 2016.  Review here.

British acting legend Pauline Collins OBE (Shirley Valentine, Dickensien) stars as The Ambassador in this powerful BBC drama from award-winning, BAFTA-nominated Russell Lewis (Inspector Morse, Endeavour), which originally aired in 1998 and now makes its UK DVD premier courtesy of Simply Media.

Harriet Smith is the newly appointed British ambassador to Ireland; recently widowed, this sharp-witted confident woman, holds one of Britain’s most coveted and powerful Embassy posts and has unenviable task of quelling the mounting tensions between the two countries. She must perform a delicate balancing act between raising her two teenage sons and the demands of her career.

John Stone (Denis Lawson – Bleak House, Star Wars) is Harriet’s determined commercial attache and main aide. But the ever-crafty Stone also works for another master – MI6.

Harriet finds herself in a sinister and dangerous world far removed from the cocktail parties of Downing Street. Entangled in a complicated web of half-truths and withheld information – rife both in and outside of the Embassy walls – Harriet is up against a host of people who would love nothing more than to see her fail.