Jonathan Storm: 'Upstairs Downstairs' makes a veddy welcome return

Posted: April 10, 2011

What a mess.

Upstairs Downstairs' legendary 165 Eaton Place has cobwebs on its cobwebs. The new owners also have new(ish) money, and not all that much of it. It's 1936. Society, already on the way down when the Bellamy family abandoned ship from the posh address at the end of the Roaring '20s, is in quite a state of disarray.

You can't even find a decent butler. "There are a lot of Portuguese about," the director of the employment service tells the new would-be lady of the house.

"Absolutely not!" she declares.

Her mother-in-law, the imperious Lady Maude Holland, has a meeting in the park with the service director. "We have experience, you and I," Lady Maude says. "We are what that house requires."

It's just a touch of the veddy, veddy humor that helps make everything so delightful before the world intrudes into Masterpiece Classic's revival of Upstairs Downstairs, beginning Sunday at 9 p.m. on WHYY TV12.

The domestic expert is the very same Rose Buck who ran things belowstairs 40 years ago when Upstairs Downstairs became one of the PBS beloved. Lady Maude's a newcomer, but the woman who plays her, Eileen Atkins, besides being one of Britain's most distinguished actresses, was cocreator, along with Jean Marsh, who plays Rose, of the original series.

No other returnees. "I was about to say, 'They're all dead,' Atkins said in January at the TV critics' semiannual gathering in Los Angeles.

Not quite, but many are gone, and Marsh said she and the folks behind the scenes who have revived the series "agreed it's a bit touch-and-go to have me in it 35 years later, let alone if you fitted anybody else in. It wouldn't have been the new Upstairs Downstairs."

Just three one-hour episodes so far, airing Sundays through April 24, and starting out pleasantly enough before fascism inserts itself into the story next week.

Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes from MI-5) is trying to run the place on a shoestring, hiring an orphan as the kitchen maid and a boy with but one reference as the pantry boy cum footman. That turns out poorly.

The butler who is finally found (Adrian Scarborough, who was Mr. Johnson in Cranford) is badly grounded, indeed, after more than two decades at sea with Cunard (and you'd better say it Q-nard, if you want to pass in these precincts), which is why he has references from such as Errol Flynn rather than the Baroness Bottomley of Dorking.

The man of the house, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard, son of Tom), is solid enough, but his hardheaded wife is a bit of a climber, and her younger sister, Persephone (Claire Foy in a role opposite the dutiful daughter Dorrit in 2009's splendid Charles Dickens adaptation), is country and headstrong and simply a disaster as an aristocrat.

She now gets to go by the name of Lady Persie, and she wants the chauffeur to know it, as she plops next to him in the front seat of the family's Humber Pullman, a couple of tons of no-nonsense luxury metal that took a strong man to tame.

"I won't call you Lady anything if you don't act like one," he declares, and she scurries back to her place. As in the old days, staff members in 1936 frequently remain more concerned about proper behavior than their masters. But things can change.

Impossible at first, Lady Maud arrives unannounced with a monkey and an Indian secretary in tow. She had decamped from Tangiers after merely three days. "It was full of the British, wintering," she declares, "and that sours a place like nothing else."

Maud simply can't stand it when the orphan maid yowls from an insult at the hands of Lady Persie. "I thought I was in the bazaar in Bangalore," she says, and she's so very sorry that she has never met her daughter-in-law of eight years, but, after all, the wedding was held in the wilds of Wales.

Her presence will turn out to be a blessing, a calming influence in the face of tragedy.

There's a little bit more of the outside world than hard-core fans might like in their Masterpiece Classic, and things move a little speedily in this modernized Upstairs Downstairs, but that's what they did in 1936, when Hitler was already persecuting Jews and Mussolini was conquering Ethiopia.

Divorcée Wallis Simpson ("the Simpson woman," Lady Maud calls her) had conquered King Edward VIII, too, and by the end of that pivotal year, he would have renounced the throne - a key development in the home, both upstairs and down, of a London aristocrat.

The old Upstairs Downstairs ran 65 episodes over five years. The new one ends, without a great amount of closure, in only three episodes.

But fear not, staircase lovers, there may be more life in the old girl yet. Marsh and Atkins, to be sure, but also their super-satisfying TV creation.

Three episodes (à la last year's Sherlock) is getting to be S.O.P. in Britain. "They try three and see if it takes," Atkins told the critics, "and . . . I'm sure it's going to take and, yeah, then they do more. . . . I mean, real life just goes on, and we hope Upstairs Downstairs is just going to go on."

Lady Maude might have said it better, but the sentiment could not ring truer.


Jonathan Storm:

Masterpiece Classic: Upstairs, Downstairs

9 p.m. Sunday on WHYY TV12


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

 

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