'Upstairs, Downstairs' Returns To 165 Eaton Place After 34 years, the British miniseries Upstairs, Downstairs will return to PBS on Sunday. TV critic David Bianculli says the surprisingly fresh yet faithful sequel was worth the wait — but now he wants more.
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'Upstairs, Downstairs' Returns To 165 Eaton Place

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'Upstairs, Downstairs' Returns To 165 Eaton Place

'Upstairs, Downstairs' Returns To 165 Eaton Place

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This Sunday on PBS, the Masterpiece Classic Anthology Series begins presenting new installments of "Upstairs, Downstairs" for the first time in 34 years.

Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: To me, the only depressing thing about the return of "Upstairs, Downstairs" - which ran on what was then called Masterpiece Theatre from 1974 to 1977 - is that I reviewed it the first time around. How time flies when you watch too much TV. But I loved it then - and in this new, surprisingly fresh-yet-faithful sequel, I love it now.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" was one of the first miniseries hits, years before "Roots." It told of life at 165 Eaton Place, a posh residence in London, with a dual focus on the privileged folks who lived there and the servant staff that waited on them - Hence the title. And both the upstairs and the downstairs were full of intrigue, comedy, drama and very lively and unpredictable characters.

One of them was Rose, the maid played by actress Jean Marsh, one of the co-creators of the series. Back in 1974, in the opening scene of the very first episode, we met Rose greeting a new job applicant for the household staff - at the downstairs servants' entrance, of course.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Upstairs, Downstairs")

Unidentified Actress: Mrs. (unintelligible) agency sent me.

Ms. JEAN MARSH (Actor): (as Rose) So?

Unidentified Actress: I've come for that position. As parlor-maid, was it?

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) I'm the house parlor-maid. I am the house parlor-maid. Well, come in. I'll tell Mr. Hudson you're here.

Unidentified Actress: Who's Mr. Hudson?

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) The butler.

Unidentified Actress: Oh, the bloke holding black(ph) at the front door.

BIANCULLI: The first "Upstairs, Downstairs" miniseries covered the years from 1903 to 1909. Four additional miniseries followed, covering World War I and the Roaring '20s. All five seasons, by the way, have just been released in a wonderful new DVD box set by Acorn Media. And now, 34 years after "Upstairs, Downstairs" left PBS, it's back. And so is Jean Marsh as Rose.

But she's the only returning character from the original series - unless you count the house, which you should. It's one of the smart moves in this new sequel: using Rose and the old address to introduce us to a whole new world of characters and plots, but not too new. In the world of "Upstairs, Downstairs", we rejoin the story in 1936, only six years after the old series ended. Rose, when we first see her in this new version, looks old and weary. But the second a visitor to the employment agency she runs mentions a familiar old address, Rose brightens considerably. The visitor is Keeley Hawes, playing Lady Agnes, whose husband has just purchased a long-dormant property in the neighborhood.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Upstairs, Downstairs")

Ms. KEELEY HAWES (Actor): (as Lady Agnes) We require a butler with (unintelligible) and a housekeeper, of course, to oil the wheels behind the scenes. Then a parlor-maid and a chauffer (unintelligible) and absolutely the best cook you can find me.

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) Very well, my lady.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) Oh, what a splendid teapot.

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) It was a gift, my lady, from my late employer, Lord Bellamy of Haversham. Do you have a budget in mind for staff?

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) This is what my husband suggests.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) I see. Well, if you don't mind my saying so, with a professed cook, you'll be wanting a kitchen maid, as well, and a pantry boy who can double as a footman. You'll need to account for a wage for them.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) Yes. But they'd be very juvenile and grateful for the experience, surely. The house is at Eaton Place, number 165. So, not far to walk when you come to carry out the interview.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) I usually do that here, my lady.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) I'll be supervising builders. Meeting at the house will be the most convenient thing. May I assume this is all within your powers?

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) Yes.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) Hm. Splendid.

BIANCULLI: The time frame for the new "Upstairs, Downstairs" allows it to play against some major world events, such as the rise of fascism and the abdication of the king. If you want, you can think of this not only as a sequel to "Upstairs, Downstairs," but as a prequel to "The King's Speech."

But also, there are events that take place and precedence from inside the walls of 165 Eaton Place: a flirtation between a pampered upstairs society girl and a headstrong downstairs chauffeur, an unexpected live-in mother, played delightfully by Eileen Atkins - the actress who, along with Jean Marsh, concocted the original miniseries in the first place. Other standout stars in this new volume include Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes, who hires Rose, and Claire Foy as Agnes' spoiled sister. There's even a meaty role for Art Malik, whom I remember as a scene-stealer from another landmark PBS miniseries import, "The Jewel in the Crown." But hey, I've been watching these things a long, long time.

This new "Upstairs, Downstairs," though, does indeed seem new. It's not weighed down with nostalgia or sentiment. There's some real danger dramatized here, and lots of shocks and twists. And just when you think you know these characters, they surprise or disappoint you.

In both the master suites and the serving quarters, there are characters to love and characters to hate, but all of them are characters you want to spend even more time with. My only criticism of this "Upstairs, Downstairs" sequel is that they've returned with only three new episodes. Clearly, the partners in this new enterprise - Britain's BBC and WGBH's Masterpiece - should make more, many, many more.

They have proven that Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. And if your home address is 165 Eaton Place, you should.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Your Highness," a raunchy comedy set in medieval times starring James Franco, Natalie Portman and Danny McBride.

This is FRESH AIR.

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