Having never seen the original Upstairs, Downstairs, the beloved British TV series from the 70’s, I sat down to watch this new installment with some trepidation. Would I be able to follow the storyline without knowledge of that series? I made the assumption that this new installment )which aired on PBS earlier this year and has recently been released on a 2 DVD set)would be a continuation of the original. I was wrong. The only link between the two shows are the setting, 165 Eaton Place, and the character of Rose, played by original actress, Jean Marsh. Otherwise, viewers should consider this new series Upstairs, Downstairs: The Next Generation.
Set in 1936 (six years after the original storyline ended), as Hitler’s madness is being felt throughout Europe and creeping toward England, Upstairs Downstairs opens with Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) moving into the unoccupied house. The dusty, run down interior needs a make over and a wait staff to run it. Lady Agnes hires Rose, who now runs an agency for domestic services, to hire the staff. Rose brings in a mix of wiser, older veterans, such as Mrs. Thackery, the cook (Anne Reid), and high strung Mr. Pritchard, the butler (Adrian Scarborough) and less experienced youngsters like maid, Ivy (Ellie Kendrick), an orphan with an independent streak, and footman, Johnny (Nico Mirallegro), a teenage boy looking for a second chance in life.
Episode one of the three part series establishes the characters and gets the action moving along rather quickly. In addition to the introduction of the downstairs staff, we also meet the upstairs occupants. Lady Agnes brings her younger sister, Lady Persie (Claire Foy) to live with them so that she can learn to be a proper lady. At the same time, Sir Hallam’s mother, Maud, arrives with her Indian Servant, Amanjit (Art Malik) and her pet monkey en tow. Maud plans to live out her days with her son and write her memoir, much to the chagrin of Agnes. In another connection between the old series and the new, Maud is portrayed by Eileen Atkin s, one of the creators of the original show.
Approximately a year passes over the course of the series, the time progression shown through the progression of Lady Agnes’ pregnancy. A good deal of the drama in the household can be tied to the lives of the downstairs staff, in particular that of Harry, the driver (Neil Jackson). He falls under the spell of the Fascist party and parlour maid, Rachel (Helen Bradbury), a German-Jewish refugee who has just fled her homeland with her daughter, is aghast. At the same time, Lady Persie begins an affair with Harry and gradually becomes involved with the Nazi’s, leading to an alarming ending. Rachel’s further influences life in 165 Eaton Place when her daughter is brought on as Sir Hallam’s ward. The secret he later uncovers because of his kind gesture changes his life and his family’s forever.
As crafted by series creator, Heidi Thomas, who wrote each episode, and directed by Euros Lynn and Saul Metzstein, Upstairs, Downstairs is no staid drawing room drama. The characters are three dimensional and full realized. Everyone in the house has flaws and noble qualities, making them relatable and human. And each of them carries secrets, as most of us do, struggling to keep their shoulders straight as their souls feel heavy. Credit the impeccable cast for taking Thomas’ words and giving the character three dimensionality. Likewise, the directors keep the camera fluid and very visual. While there is plenty of dialogue to this show, the editing and the mise en scene keeps things exciting.
This DVD includes a bonus feature that goes behind the scenes with the new Upstairs, Downstairs, showing how Thomas and her fellow producers and writers revered the original, yet set out to give the new series its own voice. They certainly accomplished that, so much so that I want to track down the original to learn more about 165 Eaton Place and the characters who once lived there. I also hope that new episodes are in the furture and that we’ll be seeing more Upstairs, Downstairs.