'Upstairs Downstairs' Neil Jackson Q&A: Series two's infinitely bigger
Published Feb 15 2012, 09:00 GMT | By Morgan Jeffery
With just three episodes, the new Upstairs Downstairs
was on our screens for far too short a time when it debuted over Christmas 2010. Thankfully, the show returns for a longer six-part run beginning this Sunday, but there's been a few changes at Eaton Place...Digital Spy
caught up with series star Neil Jackson, who plays cheeky chauffeur Harry Spargo, to find out what's coming up for his character in series two, what he made of new co-star
Alex Kingston and how he feels about being compared to ITV's Downton Abbey
...The new Upstairs Downstairs picks up two years after series one. What's happened to Harry Spargo since we last saw him?
"He's kind of buried himself very much into the job. Personally he's very much carried on with his philandering ways - Claire Foy
's character Lady Persie has gone to Germany. I believe that he mourned the loss of that relationship by burying himself into work, and when we pick up with him, he hasn't personally evolved a great deal - he's still very much the Jack-the-Lad who operates on a wink and a smile.
"Then a new maid joins - Beryl Ballard, played by Laura Haddock - and he instantly takes a shine to her. He tries all of his old tricks, but she shuts him down completely at every single turn. That's something that Harry's not used to and he finds something in this woman that he's never found before.
"He starts to change his character in order to win her and in the process starts to grow up. So the arc of this series for Harry is watching him mature from being this Jack-the-Lad 20-something to very much being a man in his early 30s, maturing and starting to take responsibility for his life."How was the experience of working with Laura and developing that new relationship?
"It was incredible - Laura's a fantastic actress, very honest and generous. We would spend a lot of time talking over these scenes and plotting the development of the relationship between these two people. She spends the first couple of episodes closing the door on him, but she can't appear to close it too firmly because he wouldn't keep pursuing, and she doesn't want to seem like a harsh or nasty character.
"We're just working on the last two episodes now and we've been very lucky to have three great directors, who have all come in with some great ideas on how to allow this relationship to blossom over the six episodes. So it's a real joy to work on - we've been given some beautiful stuff. It's every line on the spectrum - painful, romantic, sometimes flirtatious, sometimes very sarcastic."What can you reveal about the new characters joining the show this year?
"Kenneth Cranham comes in and plays a very small but vital part in the first couple of episodes - he doesn't become a major player in it. But Alex Kingston's fantastic - she's such a well-respected and brilliant actress. She's come in to in some ways fill the very large hole that was left when Eileen Atkins left
- she plays her sister.
"So she keeps the same familiar tone, but she's Alex - she puts a brilliant spin on her character and has given a really refreshing element to the show. I can't reveal too much about her character, but she's a very dogmatic, opinionated, feisty woman who very much shakes up Eaton Place."How did it feel coming back to the show without Dame Eileen Atkins?
"We all loved her and of course she's a wonderful, brilliant actress, so when we found out that she wasn't coming back... and of course Jean Marsh initially wasn't coming back either
because of her illness. So to have these two wonderful, stalwart actresses who were very much the backbone of the show first time round and then come back for the couple of episodes without them there, it did feel like this series was different.
"But it's actually made the show better in some ways - it meant that the writers could service other characters to fill in some of the gaps. For example, the character of Pritchard played by Adrian Scarborough, and Anne Reid's character Mrs. Thackeray, both kind of adopted the missing place where Jean Marsh was. The result is that their characters have grown and the relationship between them has blossomed, which has given them some wonderful scenes to play, with some wonderful dialogue.
"That's really made 'Downstairs' sing a little bit more than it did last year, so out of every problem comes a solution. I think that what we all initially thought was going to be a bad thing for the series has turned out to actually make the series even better than it was before."But Jean Marsh (Rose Buck) does return in the later episodes...
"Thankfully, yeah, she got better and she's going to be appearing in episodes three and six, I believe. She makes more appearances, and hopefully - God willing - when we get a third series, she'll be back fighting fit and resuming her place."What do you make of the supposed rivalry between Upstairs Downstairs and ITV's Downton Abbey?
"I think it's really a media [created] rivalry - it's not a rivalry between the two shows. I had the great privilege of going to the Emmys, where both shows were nominated - I was the only representative from Upstairs Downstairs
going along to Los Angeles. I was there for the entire weekend, at the pre-parties, thanks to PBS, with all of the Downton Abbey
lot - the whole cast, Julian Fellowes and everybody.
"Inevitably, we're going to start talking about the shows and there's such a mutual respect between us for the other person's work. Call it competition if you will - we're very much in the same category. A period show, set pre-war - them before First World War, we're Second World War - and it's all set within one house.
"There's the inevitable comparisons, but I think that only serves to make everybody up their game and make a far better show as a result of it. I think that they're very, very good at what they do and if we are able in any way to hold a candle to the show that they have, I think we've done our job properly."What do you enjoy most about working on a period drama?
"I've got to say, partly prestige. When I was a young kid, the best stuff on television was always the BBC period dramas - it was what we sat down as a family to watch and what people talked about and looked forward to. So now, many years on, to actually be starring in a BBC costume drama, that's one of their flagship shows, it's a real privilege.
"It's researched so thoroughly and the entire production team set everything up so well, there are moments where it's honestly felt like I'm standing in history. Last series, I got goosebumps and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck when I was in the Cable Street riots. Everywhere you looked was authentic to the period - they'd completely dressed two streets and they had hundreds of extras, mounted police, period cars...
"You just suddenly felt like you were in the middle of history, because they'd done it so well. And it's happened a couple of times this year and to actually feel that connection to the material is very, very special indeed."Why should people tune in for the new Upstairs Downstairs - is it bigger and better than last year?
"It's definitely bigger and better than last year. Last year, they wrote the three episodes hoping that people would watch it, and creating characters that people could connect to. Thankfully, because last year was such a success and the writers now know the style of the show and the character's voices, everything has grown exponentially from that.
"Every single character is better, funnier, richer, with more layers and more depth, and the show has so many twists and turns and character plots that, even though I'm in it, I'm fascinated to watch it.
"We've just started work on episode six and the finale to episode six... I don't think I've ever read a script faster! It ties up so many things in a way you might not logically go to, but you suddenly realise that it's exactly what [writer] Heidi [Thomas] was plotting in episode one. There's real 'Oh wow' moments in episode six, and all the way through the show.
"The spectacle is huge - we have massive events in Alexandra Palace, where there's a big ball and a sporting event with hundreds of extras. The scope on this is infinitely bigger than last year - it's going to be a fantastic show."Upstairs Downstairs returns on Sunday, February 19 at 9pm on BBC One.