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Soviet nostalgia, the Royals, and Upstairs, Downstairs

What ho, peasants? Today's epistle concerns curious instances of nostalgia.

On the weekend, while researching the situation in Ukraine, which I will visit while covering Euro 2012 in June, I read that in parts of the country there exists "Soviet nostalgia." That is, apparently, people traipse the streets pining for days of yore, when the Soviet Union included Ukraine and there was stability and solace in knowing that the bosses in Moscow were running things.

This nostalgia must seem odd to outsiders. Didn't the whole world cheer when the Soviet Union collapsed and everybody in it became, you know, free? Well, I put it to you that there's nothing weird about Soviet nostalgia. Hereabouts, we have our own kind of idiosyncratic pining for a peculiar portion of the past.

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On Tuesday I happened upon an interesting moment on CBC News Network. The extraordinary Ciara Hunt, CBC's current expert on matters Royal, was jawing on about some long-winded title that the Queen, bless her, had bestowed on Camilla.

Now, I always burst out laughing when the Irish Ms. Hunt appears on CBC to handle her Royal beat. Her astonishing manner of speech, known in Ireland as "West Brit," is up there with an episode of Father Ted as a source of comedy for me. I'm hardwired to react that way. Anyway, as Ms. Hunt jawed on, and a breathless public awaited footage of Charles and Camilla arriving at the Distillery District in Toronto, Carole MacNeil observed that "a small crowd had gathered" at said location. Soon, the evidence was presented. A handful of people were seen gathered.

Meanwhile, on my beat, we are at the conclusion of another TV season. Season finales crowd the schedule. A new American Idol will be crowned. The terrific Awake (Global, 10 p.m. tonight; NBC, 10 p.m. Thursday) ends forever. The peachy soaper Revenge (ABC, City TV, 10 p.m.) ends its first season tonight, on a cliffhanger, no doubt.

All of these matters are connected. Stick with me here.

Looking back at this TV season, the truly huge, surprise hit was Downton Abbey. Heavens to Betsy (bless her), but viewers in Canada and the United States lapped up the la-di-da, stiff-upper-lip soap opera. They swooned. Me, I will be bested by no man in admiration for Michelle Dockery and her character, Lady Mary Crawley. Such is my admiration that I have memorized a description of her that appeared in a giddy profile in the Daily Mail: "She is tall, luminously beautiful as an arum lily, slim as a (highly bred) whippet and every bit a lady."

However, I kind of lost interest in Downton Abbey after Lady Mary had that ruinous tryst with the Turkish guy. But that's just me.

Now then, as Vision TV proclaimed the other day, "Long before Downton Abbey, there was Upstairs, Downstairs." Vision has cleverly leapt on the Downton bandwagon. First by airing the entire series after it aired on PBS and now by airing the sequel to Upstairs, Downstairs (tonight, Vision, 9 p.m.) which will be followed in a few weeks in the same slot by the original series, which first aired between 1971 and 1975.

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Vision is likely looking at a winner with this combo. It's all a matter of intense longing for the past. First, there's the urge to remember the early 1970s, when people planned their weekends around Upstairs, Downstairs on Sunday nights. Those were strange days of turmoil. Nixon, Watergate, OPEC, the price of gas. In Canada, Trudeau, inflation, Morgentaler and the women's movement.

And along came Upstairs, Downstairs, offering an intriguing world of firm stability. People knew their place in the world of the Bellamy family and their home in Eaton Place in Edwardian London. They were upstairs and entitled or downstairs and subservient.

The new version, set in the 1930s, is vastly inferior to the original. Although written by Marsh and Eileen Atkins, co-creators of the original, along with Heidi Thomas, it lacks gravitas. It also lacks the sombre sexiness of Downton. And yet it proved immensely popular in the U.K and in the U.S. and Canada when it aired last year on PBS. A good deal of its appeal is internal: The character Rose (Jean Marsh) is ceaselessly nostalgic for the old days, and viewers identify with that.

In those old days there were servants, peasants and the upper class. Moving between classes wasn't in the cards. People weren't free to do as they please and elevate themselves about their allotted station.

Much as some people in Eastern Europe long for the days of the rigid Soviet system, many among us long for a distant, rigid past when people knew their place and stayed in it. Might as well be in Ukraine, it seems.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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