Upstairs Downstairs, PBS Masterpiece

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Upstairs Downstairs

Written by Heidi Thomas
Directed by Euros Lynn (Episodes 1 and 2) and Saul Metzstein (Episode 3)
Starring Dame Eileen Atkins, Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard, and Jean Marsh
Coproduction of the BBC and MASTERPIECE on PBS
PBS, April 10, 17, and 24, 2011, at 9 p.m. ET/PT

This new three-part follow-on series of “Upstairs Downstairs” begins six years after the conclusion of the lauded first series (aired on PBS from 1971 to 1975), which ended with parlormaid Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) closing the empty London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place.

Being ultra-busy with babies and law school, I never saw the original series—too much of a time commitment for me then. So I was really looking forward to seeing the new one. But I was somewhat disappointed. Or perhaps I’m on overload from having recently watched “Downton Abbey” and “Any Human Heart.”

In this new version of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” it’s 1936. A completely different family moves to the still empty Belgravia mansion, which had been recently inherited by the dashing young diplomat Sir Hallam Holland (dramatist Tom Stoppard’s son, Ed Stoppard, “Any Human Heart”). Joining Sir Hallam Holland in the sumptuous residence are his haughty autocratic mother Maud, Lady Holland, late of Raj-era India (Dame Eileen Atkins, “Gosford Park,” “Cranford”), his beautiful, egocentric and ambitious wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes, “Wives & Daughters,” “MI-5”), and her defiant, self-centered younger sister, Lady Persie Towyn (Claire Foy, “Little Dorrit”).

The downstairs servants include the former parlormaid, now housekeeper, the upright Rose Buck (Jean Marsh, “Sense and Sensibility”), the trustworthy and accomplished butler, Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough, “Cranford,” “The King’s Speech”), the comic cook, Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid, “Five Days,” “Bleak House”), the educated Jewish refugee, now maid, Rachel Perlmutter (Helen Bradbury, “Lennon Naked”) and Lady Maud’s neither upstairs nor downstairs Indian secretary, Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik, “The Jewel in the Crown”).

The intertwining of the upper-class and working-class is played against a backdrop of startling world events—the abdication crisis of Edward VIII, the growing belligerence of Hitler and Mussolini on the continent, and the rise of the British Union of Fascists under Sir Oswald Mosley. These shattering occurrences personally affect the household members, yet lead them to divergent actions. The characters’ reactions to world events and their consequences at home lie at the heart of “Upstairs Downstairs.”

It’s always a pleasure to see 1930s England portrayed on screen. The acting, costumes and production values are first rate, despite the fact that what passes for 165 Eaton Place was actually filmed in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.

“Upstairs Downstairs” suffers from following ITV’s “Downton Abbey” and Carnival/Channel 4/Masterpiece’s “Any Human Heart.” The inevitable comparisons highlight the shortcomings of “Upstairs Downstairs.” Its characters are underdeveloped; its writing hints at interesting plot possibilities, yet none is expanded and cultivated sufficiently. More than three episodes are needed to flesh out the bares bones of “Upstairs Downstairs.” Luckily, more episodes will be shown in 2012.

“Upstairs Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey” and “Any Human Heart” all rely on world history and the English Empire’s slow slide to bolster the characters with greater importance and meaning. All three involve brushes with the rich and famous—e.g., the redoubtable Mrs. Wallis Simpson makes an appearance in all of them.

Revelations of family secrets, magisterial widows, the upward mobility of servants, and sexual liaisons between younger daughters/sisters and chauffeurs leading to forays into dangerous political movements are merely a few of the similarities between “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs.”

However, since Season Two of “Downton Abbey” will not be aired until the winter of 2012, if you are anxiously awaiting the sight of an English estate complete with scandals and servants, you should try “Upstairs Downstairs.”

©Emily S. Mendel 2011All rights reserved.

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