Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Return to 165 Eaton Place: Upstairs, Downstairs

1936 will be a difficult year for the British Empire. The economy is stagnant, fascism is sweeping Europe, and a scandal will soon rock the Royal Family. The effects of these grand historical events will be felt by the new owners of 165 Eaton Place, perhaps the best loved address in television history, as well as their domestic staff. Nearly forty years after its initial American debut, Upstairs, Downstairs (promo here) returns to PBS’s Masterpiece Classic this Sunday for three weeks of appointment television.

It has been thirty-some years since the final episode of the original series, but only six years since upstairs maid Rose Buck left the service of the Bellamy family. Since that time, she opened her own employment agency for domestics. Times are tough in 1936, but it is still hard to find good help. However, when the new lady of the house at number 136 engages her agency services, Mrs. Buck also agrees to serve as housekeeper, at least temporarily.

Though Lady Agnes Holland tries to staff the house on the cheap, Mrs. Buck (no longer known as Rose) is able to recruit a serviceable staff. However, the footman and chauffeur seem to guard secret pasts, while the veteran cook sometimes has trouble acquiescing to her authority. Meanwhile, there is plenty of drama upstairs, too. Particularly troublesome are Lady Agnes’s churlish young sister and Lord Hallam’s imperious mother, Lady Maud.

Coming in the wake of The King’s Speech, American audiences should be well versed in the events leading up to the abdication of Edward VIII. As it happens, the Duke of Kent makes a few appearances at 165, seeking Sir Hallam’s council regarding his brother and that Simpson woman. The events of Europe hit close to home for the staff as well, when the Hollands hire a formerly well-to-do Jewish émigré as one of their upstairs maids. It also offers a rather unvarnished look at the appeal of British fascist orator Sir Oswald Mosley, whose rallies were one of the few places where the upper and lower classes mixed (while the middle class had the good sense to steer well clear).

Once again, Jean Marsh supplies the heart of Eaton Place as Mrs. Buck, conveying the honest dignity of service. However, she steps back a bit, leaving most of the major plotlines to her co-stars. In a case of being together again for the first time, Eileen Atkins, who co-created the original Up-Down with Marsh but was unable to accept an acting role due to prior commitments, now appears as the high-handed Lady Maud, clearly delighting in her sharp dialogue and regal air.

Yet, perhaps the most compelling character evolution comes from Ed Stoppard as Lord Hallam. Though initially portrayed as a cautious balance-of-power school of diplomat, it seems evident he is ready to chuck in his lot with Churchill’s Conservative anti-fascist backbenchers as the new Up-Down progresses, in part due to events he witnesses in his own household. He also starts to stand up to his domineering mother and self-centered wife, for much the same reasons.

The original Up-Down created such a strong emotional bond with viewers, it is hard to speculate how the faithful will receive this return to Eaton Place. However, for those coming in cold, the new series is an engagingly performed, richly produced period drama that sets the hook right from the start. Though it finishes strong, the new series still leaves at least one major loose end dangling, suggesting there may yet be more Up-Down in the future. Thoroughly entertaining, (at least for us newbies), Up-Down should have a similar appeal as Masterpiece’s breakout hit of the year, Downton Abbey. These two series, along with the rebroadcast of last year’s highly cinematic remake of the 39 Steps makes this one of the best seasons of Masterpiece in perhaps decades. Eminently classy but also simply good fun, the new Up-Down airs over the next three successive Sunday nights (April 10th, 17th, and 24th).