Coming to PBS this Sunday, April 10th, is Upstairs Downstairs, the newly minted series. Except for Rose, the characters have completely changed, but the nature of the program, following the family and the servants who cater to them, has not.
It is 1936, and only six years have passed by since the Bellamys last lived at 165 Eaton Place. The townhouse is an abandoned shell when Lady Agnes Holland (Keely Hawes) and her diplomat husband, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), arrive from abroad to renovate it as their first home in England.
Rose (Jean Marsh), the only holdover from the original series, has left service to care for a sick aunt and is now self-employed, finding work for other domestics. A frugal Lady Holland solicits her to fill her house with servants. This means she does not mind employing help with little experience and who need training.
Heidi Thomas, who also wrote the script for Cranford, delivered a crisp, intelligent, and witty script that draws viewers in right away, preserving the elements that drew us to the original show. This series (which has been renewed for a second season) stacks up well against its parent very well indeed. (Although my heart will always be with Hudson, the first butler.)
Thirty years or so ago, Upstairs, Downstairs was a television sensation, and rightly so. The series had been conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who was working on another project when filming began, and so she did not play a maid alongside her friend, Jean. Thankfully so, for Ms. Atkins has returned as Maude, Lady Holland a character who lights up the screen as delightfully as Maggie Smith’s dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.
In this year of The King’s Speech, it is interesting to note that Wallis Simpson makes an appearance in the first episode and that the cast listens to Edward’s first radio speech as king. The story of the king and his abdication has long legs this season (he and Wallis were also featured in Any Human Heart, also shown on PBS)
Comparisons of Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey are inevitable, but this is unfair. After all, Upstairs, Downstairs arrived on the scene decades earlier and provided the template for all the master/servant stories that followed. Viewers will not be disappointed with the renewal of a most beloved series. I certainly wasn’t.