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 in the place 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. Now, 34 years after Upstairs, Downstairs left PBS, the show is 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 she brightens considerably the second a visitor to her employment agency mentions a familiar old address. The visitor is Keeley Hawes, playing Lady Agnes, whose husband has just purchased a long-dormant property in the neighborhood.
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 new version as not only as a sequel to the original 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 Hawes as Lady Agnes, who hires Rose, and Claire Fay 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 — made a third of a century after the last installment — 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.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.