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Less Froth, More Nazis: A Darker “Upstairs Downstairs”

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens April 7, 2011 at 3:58AM

The new Upstairs Downstairs is as visually glittering as you might want. The camera swirls around a crystal chandelier in the opening credits; the stylish young owners of 165 Eaton Place have painted the walls in the entry hall a beautiful peacock blue. And glamor? Wallis Simpson drops by a cocktail party, Cecil Beaton comes to photograph the family, and the soon-to-be King George VI stops by to chat, without the hint of a stutter. But there is also a Nazi who crashes the party, a Fascist chauffeur, and a Jewish maid who has escaped from Germany.
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The new Upstairs Downstairs is as visually glittering as you might want. The camera swirls around a crystal chandelier in the opening credits; the stylish young owners of 165 Eaton Place have painted the walls in the entry hall a beautiful peacock blue. And glamor? Wallis Simpson drops by a cocktail party, Cecil Beaton comes to photograph the family, and the soon-to-be King George VI stops by to chat, without the hint of a stutter. But there is also a Nazi who crashes the party, a Fascist chauffeur, and a Jewish maid who has escaped from Germany.

Set in 1936, six years after the original series ended with the aristocratic Bellamys selling the house, the new Upstairs Downstairs is far darker in tone than the original. Forty years ago, that classic created the formula for a lush escape into an Edwardian soap opera of masters and servants, but if you were hoping to reenter that frothy world, you might adjust your expectations: this new version is less a sequel than a reinvention, a drama responding to a society that has changed while the house stayed empty. That leaves the series with a bit of an identity problem, as it tries to keep ties to the original while breaking free of it.

The house’s appealing new owners are a diplomat, Sir Hallam Holland, and his wife, Agnes, played with smooth sophistication by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes. Needing a staff, Agnes turns to a domestic help agency coincidentally owned by Rose (Jean Marsh), the Bellamys’ former maid. Although Rose lets slip the news that Lord Bellamy has died, and at times she looks lovingly around the old place, that is the extent of the connection to the past. Those tinges of nostalgia literally waft in from another series.

Marsh, of course, was the soul of the original, which she created with Eileen Atkins, who turns up here in the crucial role of Lady Maud, Sir Hallam’s mother. A delightful and seriously wrong-headed woman, Maud virtually takes over the household. Arriving fresh from her days in colonial India, she brings along a turbaned secretary, Mr. Amanjit (Art Malick), and a pet monkey who joins them at the breakfast table, as well as a family secret not revealed until the final episode. The other upstairs characters include Agnes’ rebellious younger sister, Lady Persie, who has a thing for the Fascist chauffeur. We’ve seen her type before, the aristocrat who plunders the working class for lovers, and thinks she’s really a socialist.

The downstairs staff is even more stereotypical than Persie, with a prim butler and blowsy cook (Adrian Scarborough and Anne Reid). The original Upstairs Downstairs may have invented those types, but that doesn’t make them less familiar here. Gosford Park and most recently Downton Abbey have appropriated the pattern with, I have to say, more entertaining results.

The problem with the new Upstairs Downstairs is its sketchiness. In its three episodes, we never get to know anyone well enough, as the plot zooms off into its tangle of personal and political issues. Lady Agnes is longing to have a baby; Lord Hallam tries to do damage control when Lady Persie takes up with their Nazi visitor, who happens to be Ribbentrop himself. In episode three the family secret pops in out of nowhere. And while the original dealt in occasional tragedy (Lady Marjorie did not survive that voyage on the Titanic), this version brings riots in the streets and death to the forefront, without letting us feel the characters are deeply engaged in those dramas.

But if this pretty new series isn’t completely satisfying, it is tantalizing enough to make you wish it were deeper and rich, so here’s the good news. A six-part second season is in the works. Now that Upstairs Downstairs has shaken off its past, the next season can move on and fill in the slender outline we get here.

If you still long for the original, you can find it on the newly reissued DVD; now that is a frothy escape. And if you just want to laugh at the whole genre, don't miss the delicious parody Uptown Downstairs Abbey.

Upstairs Downstairs begins its three-week run on PBS's Masterpiece this Sunday. Here’s the trailer, which makes the connections to the original seem much more emphatic than they are.

Watch the full episode. See more Masterpiece.

This article is related to: TV Reviews

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