25 Downton Abbey-inspired Holiday Gifts for the Downtonite in Your Life

 Downton Abbey Season 5 poster

Acclaimed by critics and cherished by fans, Downton Abbey is the most popular period drama ever. North America is all anticipation of the premier of Season 5 on January 4, 2015 on Masterpiece Classic PBS. Until then, feed your Downtonite with these great holiday gifts.

GIFTS

     What is a Weekend Mug x 250     Countess Grantham Bear x 250

 1. What Is A Weekend Coffee Mug

When the Dowager Countess of Grantham asked “What is a weekend?” in season one of Downton Abbey, I was totally addicted to this fabulous period drama. That line summed up the classification of “aristocrat” as an endangered species and foreshadowed all the laughter to come. I now start my morning as an anachronistic aristocrat with this clever coffee (or tea) mug.

 2. Lady Cora Teddy Bear

Teddy bears became the rage during the American Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, so it seems only fitting that the American heiress Lady Cora Crawley should be featured as a Teddy Bear doll. This 14″ stuffed bear is soft and plush with old-fashioned felt paw pads, is fully-jointed and dressed to the nines in beautifully styled period costume. Continue reading

Preview of Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Masterpiece Classic PBS

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: cast pictured © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Get ready period drama fans – Season 2 of the new Upstairs Downstairs starts next Sunday, October 7 at 9pm on Masterpiece Classic PBS.

Last year we saw the triumphant return after thirty-four years of the award winning and much beloved series Upstairs Downstairs to Masterpiece Classic. The original series (1974-77) focused on the Bellamy family upstairs and their household staff downstairs: all living at 165 Eaton Place, a posh townhouse in London. Last year Season 1 began in 1936, six years after the close of the original series. We were treated to only three episodes: The Fledgling; The Ladybird; and The Cuckoo. Original co-creators of the series Jean Marsh and Dame Eileen Atkins were heavily involved in the new sequel. Marsh returned as housekeeper Rose Buck and Dame Eileen Atkins as the Dowager Lady Holland was one of the stellar new characters. You can read my preview of Season 1 to catch up on the new cast and the reaction when it aired in the UK 2010.

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2:  Keeley Hawes and Edward Stoppard Lord & Lady Holland© 2011 MASTERPIECE

Keeley Hawes and Edward Stoppard as Lord & Lady Holland

Season 2 is much more ambitious with six new episodes, so we will have a lot of great period drama to dish about over the next few weeks. Most of Season 1’s cast is returning, but one key player has died and the other recovering from a stroke in hospital. However, there are some new characters that I found quite intriguing.

Upstairs:

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Alex Kingston as Dr. Blanche Mottershead © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Alex Kingston as Dr. Blanche Mottershead

Downstairs:

Image from Upstairs Downstairs (2012) Season 2: Laura Haddock as Beryl Ballard © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Laura Haddock as Beryl Ballard

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Ami Metcalf as Eunice McCabe © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Ami Metcalf as Eunice McCabe

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Sarah Lancashire as Mrs Whisset © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Sarah Lancashire as Mrs Whisset

Here is a description of the new season with an episode guide from my friends at Masterpiece Classic PBS. Be sure to mark your calendars or set your DVR’s for Sundays, October 7 – November 11, 2012 at 9pm ET on PBS. Check your local listings for exact times. Enjoy!

In 1938, war is about to topple a way of life. But not quite yet.

The intrigues of life, love, and international politics come to a boil at 165 Eaton Place in a thrilling panorama of English society on the eve of World War II. Keeley Hawes (Wives and Daughters), Ed Stoppard (Brideshead Revisited), and Claire Foy (Little Dorrit) return in Season 2 of the Emmy®-nominated continuation of the 1970s classic. Guest stars include Alex Kingston (ER) and Emilia Fox (Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice 1995). Upstairs Downstairs Season 2 is a BBC/MASTERPIECE Co-Production, written by Heidi Thomas. The directors are Mark Jobst (parts one and two), Brendan Maher (parts four and five), and Anthony Byrne (parts three and six).

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Adrian Scarborough as Mr. Warwick Pritchard © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Episode 1: A Far Away Country about Which We Know Nothing (October 7, 2012)

Pritchard takes the rap for Johnny in a shocking incident, which leads to a revelation that casts the butler into disgrace. On a diplomatic mission to Germany, Hallam meets Persie, who has a Nazi lover.

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: The Kennedy's come to dinner © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Episode 2: The Love that Pays the Price (October 14, 2012)

Ambassador Kennedy and his dashing son Jack come to dinner at Eaton Place. But Agnes is more entranced by another guest: millionaire Caspar Landry. Before the evening is over, Mrs. Thackeray resigns.

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Emilia Fox & Alex Kingston © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Episode 3: A Perfect Specimen of Womanhood (October 21, 2012)

Hallam’s Aunt Blanche appears in a lesbian novel by a former lover, sparking a scandal that threatens the good name of Eaton Place. Meanwhile, Agnes’s demands on the servants bring a social worker to set her straight.

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Nico Mirallegro as Johnny Proude © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Episode 4: All the Things You Are (October 28, 2012)

All of London sees Agnes’s shapely legs when she models stockings for Landry’s company—offending Hallam. Intent on impressing Beryl, Harry enters the servants’ boxing competition as Johnny’s manager.

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Claire Foy as Lady Persie Towyn © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Episode 5: The Last Waltz (November 4, 2012)

With war looming, romance is in the air—illicit and otherwise. Hallam, Agnes, Landry, and Persie each pursue their heart’s desire in different ways. Harry and Beryl get engaged. And even Pritchard finds a soulmate.

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 2: Edward Stoppard as Sir Holland in Nazi Germany © 2011 MASTERPIECE

Episode 6: Somewhere Over the Rainbow (November 11, 2012)

A chance remark at the Foreign Office alerts Hallam that one of his associates is a German spy—with tragic consequences. As war is declared, life upstairs and downstairs is transformed at Eaton Place.

Excited period drama lovers? I am

Images courtesy © 2011 MASTERPIECE

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

Image from The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Matthew Rhys as John Jasper

In 41 years of producing movie adaptations based on classic literature, Masterpiece Classic (formerly known as Master Theatre), has had a very productive relationship with author Charles Dickens. We have enjoyed two Bleak House’s, two David Copperfield’s, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, two Oliver Twist’s, Little Dorrit and The Old Curiosity Shop. Ten out of fifteen novels adapted is amazing. Many of them outstanding.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth, Masterpiece has added The Mystery of Edwin Drood to their long list. Written in 1870, it was Dickens’ final unfinished novel. He died before he completed it, sparking the literary debate of who murdered Edwin Drood. Other authors quickly wrote completions of the novel, notably one American who claimed he had ‘ghost-written’ the ending by channeling Dickens’ spirit! This new completion by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) does not claim any unearthly connections to the venerable author, but it does bring us a compelling and powerful story, so steeped in Gothic mystery that Jane Austen’s character Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey would be delighted. I was too!

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I adore a good mystery. I was immediately intrigued by the announcements online last year that the BBC and PBS would co-produce The Mystery of Edwin Drood. How would the story be completed? It was a mystery within a mystery. What a huge challenge for any screenwriter to finish a classic author’s work. Granted, their choice of Gwyneth Hughes seemed very fitting. Her bio-pic Miss Austen Regrets (2009) was great, capturing the historical details and spirit of my favorite author beautifully. Another plus was the choice of Diarmuid Lawrence (Emma, 1996, with Kate Beckinsale) as director. He always finds the dark side of characters and brings that forward. The list of all British cast was stellar too. With all of these factors lined up, it appeared to be the most interesting new adaptation of a Dickens novel in years.

Since it is a mystery, I do not want to reveal any spoilers. However, I will write a bit about the plot and my favorite characters. Set in the mythical town of Cloisterham, John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) is a choirmaster that detests his job. To escape, he frequents opium dens in London to fantasize about murdering his dissipated young nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox) and then marry his nephew’s fiance, the beautiful Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) who he is obsessed with. When brother and sister Neville and Helena Landless arrive from Ceylon, their murky connections to the Drood family raises questions. Soon Neville is obsessed with Rosa too, causing a violent riff between him and Edwin. On the night of their mutual reconciliation, Drood mysteriously disappears. Because of his previous contentious relationship with Drood, Landless is pinned for his murder while uncle John is secretly convinced that he killed his nephew in opium induce rage.

Filled with both sinister and delightful characterizations that Dickens in known for, this dark tale is a creepy Gothic mystery unlike anything else that he had written. Many of the key scenes with Jaspers are in the dark, dank cathedral crypt, where stone mason Durdles (Ron Cook) has created monuments for the dead; holding secrets that will unravel the mysterious death of Edwin Drood.

Matthews Rhys gives a disturbing performance as the deranged choirmaster obsessed with a young, innocent girl whom he should have no designs on, but cannot stay away from. There is something that is compelling and hypnotic about watching an obsession. You feel like you are ease-dropping on the characters intimate failings. It makes you uneasy, but you just can’t stop. You must know why he is driven to the point of madness. It is a great plot devise that Dickens used several times: Miss Havisham in last week’s Great Expectations immediately comes to mind. Jasper’s other obsession, killing his nephew to make way for this true love, is the axis of the mystery. I can’t say that I had much sympathy for Edwin Drood when he disappeared. A dissipated and spoiled young gentleman with no redeeming qualities, actor Freddie Fox is so convincing in the part I just wanted to slap him, and, his fiancé Rosa, who should have nothing to do with him.

Dickens and Hughes’ prose blended seamlessly for me. Admittedly, I have not read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but I know Dickens’ style well from his more famous works. Her resolution of the whodunit was both surprising and satisfying. This new adaptation and completion will both shock and amaze; the true test of any good Gothic tale worthy of a peek behind the dreaded black veil.

Image courtesy of  Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC for MASTERPIECE

Great Expectations 2012: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations has been adapted no less than fourteen times for the screen. Like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, every ten years or so it gets trotted out for a new interpretation; and, for good reason. The tale is a masterpiece of storytelling – compelling to read, and fabulous to experience filmed.

Douglas Booth as Pip in Great Expectations (2012)

Since the 1970’s I have watched all of the new adaptations as they aired on television and re-watched the 1946 David Lean movie several times. Some were memorable, others, not so much. In the scheme of things, Masterpiece Classic’s new mini-series of Great Expectations that concluded last night on PBS was definitely a keeper.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Of all of Dickens’ cannon of incredible stories, Great Expectations is one of my favorites. Filled with amazing characterizations, we meet the incredibly good and the incredibly bad in human nature: innocent orphans, devious murders, slimy blackguards, unscrupulous lawyers, cold-hearted ingénues, and Miss Havisham. Yes. Since the book’s publication in the 1860’s, Miss Havisham has earned her own classification. If Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff are literary romantic icons, then Miss Havisham is their polar opposite. To be trite, there is no fury like a woman scorned. Jilted at the altar, she is obsessive, manipulative and revengeful, sending shivers into the souls of rakes, libertines and bounders – and making young maidens wiser beyond their years. She is one of my favorite fictional characters and the benchmark for every new adaptation of Great Expectations. If Miss Havisham is spot-on twisted, then you know that the rest will follow. Happily, actress Gillian Anderson gave an unnerving performance as the eccentric, wacked-out, misandrist that was nails on chalkboard disturbing. Even though I knew the outcome of the story, I was compelled to watch as she weaves her revenge until her tragic end comes to pass.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

In my mind, screenwriter Sarah Phelps, director Brian Kirk and art director Katherine Law gave Miss H. an other-worldly quality that I had not experienced before in other productions. Dressed in her famous tattered white wedding dress, we truly believe that her world froze the moment she read her fiancé’s letter jilting her on her wedding day. Not only is she dead emotionally, she looks like a ghost haunting her crumbling manor house with the clocks stopped at 11:00, years of dust on every surface, cobwebs across every vertical object and the wedding banquet food rotting in the dining room. Eeek! The first time she literally floated down the massive staircase, I shuddered in horror. This was creepy. Anderson’s glazed over eyes, delayed reactions and hoarse voice only added to her ghostly apparition.  It was not quite Dickens’ original intention, but it worked for me.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Everything about this new production was eclipsed by the great white lady after this point. It seemed quite fitting. A tribute to the grand dame of jilted lovers.

Images courtesy of © MASTERPIECE

Follow Friday: Secrets of the Manor House on PBS this Sunday

Secrets of the Manor House on PBS (2012)

Ever wonder what really went on behind the stately walls of a British manor house like Downton Abbey? If so, be sure to catch the premiere of Secrets of the Manor House being aired before the third episode of Downton Abbey Season Two on Sunday, January 22nd, 2012 on many PBS stations (check local listings).

Fans of historical drama and fiction will be enthralled by this new documentary which looks at two English country manor houses a century ago and today.

Secrets of the Manor House on PBS (2012)

Upstairs family

Here is the description of the production from the PBS website and a video preview:

Exactly 100 years ago, the world of the British manor house was at its height. It was a life of luxury and indolence for a wealthy few supported by the labor of hundreds of servants toiling ceaselessly “below stairs” to make the lives of their lords and ladies run as smoothly as possible. It is a world that has provided a majestic backdrop to a range of movies and popular costume dramas to this day, including PBS’ Downton Abbey.

But what was really going on behind these stately walls? Secrets of the Manor House looks beyond the fiction to the truth of what life was like in these ancient British houses. They were communities where two separate worlds existed side by side: the poor worked as domestic servants, while the nation’s wealthiest families enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury, and aristocrats ruled over their servants as they had done for a thousand years.

The program talks to present-day British lords and ladies and to the descendants of those who lived and worked in manor houses across the country. A series of expert historians explain the true picture of how life was lived within the walls of these stately homes that had changed very little for centuries. It explains the hierarchy of the British establishment: led by the king with a supporting cast of dukes, earls and barons, each keenly aware of his or her place. It visits modern manor houses, where aristocratic families sometimes still rule over scores of servants, in homes with 100 and more bedrooms, and where the lord still enjoys a luxurious life of hunting, shooting and fishing among the beauty of rural Britain. And it details the true hardship of life as a “downstairs” servant: maids would carry 45 gallons of hot water along hidden servants’ passageways to fill one aristocratic lady’s bath, and a housemaid’s day would start before dawn and last for 17 hours as she scrubbed floors, cleaned grates and carried coal — all for a wage of $15 a year.

But, precisely a century ago, a perfect storm of financial hardship and political and social change was threatening to engulf this traditional British way of life. Some impoverished British aristocrats married wealthy American heiresses to prop up and sustain their fading manor houses; the working classes were finding a voice and demanding both political power and better jobs; and the terrible disaster of World War I was looming in the wings. When war came, nothing in the life of the British manor house was ever the same again.

Secrets of the Manor House on PBS (2012)The Downstairs servants

Image courtesy of © PBS

Winner Announced in the Upstairs Downstairs (2010) DVD Giveaway!

Upstairs Downstairs (2010) DVD38 of you left comments qualifying you for a chance to win a DVD of the 2010 series Upstairs Downstairs offered by BBC Video .

The winner drawn at random is Vickie Hartwell who left a comment on April 30th. Congratulations Vickie! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by May 11, 2011. Shipment is to US and Canadian addresses only.

Many thanks to all who left comments. I hope you enjoyed the new series as much as I did, and look forward to the next season. The BBC has commissioned six new 60-minute episodes of “Upstairs Downstairs” to air on BBC One in the United Kingdom and PBS in the United States in 2012. Huzzah!

© 2007 – 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Giveaway of the New Upstairs Downstairs (2010) DVD!

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season One: cast pictured © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Enter DVD Giveaway!

Did you catch the incredible new revival of Upstairs Downstairs broadcast in the US on Masterpiece Classic PBS this month? Three new episodes continue the story of the lives of the residents of 165 Eaton Place. For those who enjoyed the award winning 1970’s BBC series of the aristocratic Bellamy family and their servants, you will be happy to meet the new cast of characters of both upstairs and downstairs residents who now reside in this Georgian townhouse in London, including the original parlormaid Rose who returns as the housekeeper.

Synopsis: One of the most beloved television series of all time is brought back to life in a sumptuous new production with a fresh new cast.  It’s 1936 and six years since parlormaid Rose  (Jean Marsh, Sense & Sensibility) left 165 Eaton Place. Fate brings her back as housekeeper to its new owners, Sir Hallam  Holland (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist, Brideshead Revisited), his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes, MI-5, Ashes to Ashes), and his mother, Lady Maud Holland (Eileen Atkins, Cranford, Gosford Park). Rose soon finds she has her work cut out for her as she recruits a new “downstairs” family to help run the elegance and finery of the “upstairs” world. Both upstairs and downstairs, it soon becomes apparent there lies a labyrinth of secrets, lies and scandal.  Set against the historical backdrop of a pre-World War II Britain with a new King on the throne, with Fascism on the rise on the continent, and with sexual, social and political tensions at 165 Eaton Place, this new series provides an evocative take on the master-servant relationship.

Today, April 26th, the three new episodes of Upstairs Downstairs are available on DVD from BBC Video. In honor of the US broadcast the BBC America is offering one copy of the DVD set of Upstairs Downstairs as a giveaway. To qualify, leave a comment stating which your favorite characters are in the new series, or what intrigues you about this time period by May 4, 2011. Winner will be chosen at random from comments and announced on May 5, 2011. Shipment to the US only. Good luck all you Up Down fans.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Upstairs Downstairs: Part Three: The Cuckoo on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Upstairs Downstairs Season 1: Eileen Atlins as Maude Lady Holland © 2010 MASTERPIECE  The new residents of 165 Eaton Place have a “day full of unimaginable things” in The Cuckoo, the third and concluding episode of the revival season on Masterpiece Classic PBS.

Last week’s episode two, The Ladybird, had strong political overtones as rebellious Lady Persie (Claire Foy) and the chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) joined the Blackshirts, a fascist group stirring up unrest among the laboring class who are hard hit by the depression. This week, the drama revolves around personal relationships and their effect on the nation and the household, revealing secrets, scandals and new beginnings. Here is the episode three synopsis from PBS.

A chance encounter with greatness goes to Mrs. Thackeray’s (Anne Reid) head, and in turn annoys Rose (Jean Marsh), who, fed up with her pretensions, unleashes an insult so great that it sparks a feud. Yet despite the embattled cook and housekeeper, the downstairs staff is united in their love and nurturing of the child Lotte (Alexia James), who appears to need more help than they can provide. With even more than her customary authority, Maud (Eileen Atkins) steps up to take charge, whisking the child away for treatment even as she guards a secret of her own.

Preoccupied with the abdication crisis, Hallam (Ed Stoppard) attempts to buy some time from the press by hosting a special dinner for the Duke of York (Blake Ritson), placing 165 Eaton Street in the center of the monarchy’s storm. Now preoccupied, Agnes (Keeley Hawes) has abdicated her responsibility of Persie (Claire Foy), who has snapped the long leash her sister provided, and begun engaging in behavior that threatens to taint them all. Only Lotte’s absence galvanizes Hallam to bring light into his home, purging it of dishonor and dark secrets that have been hidden for too long. But just as the king charts his fate, a momentous event will change the Holland family forever.

In this very tightly constructed and emotional charged third episode written by Heidi Thomas, many of the story subplots where concluded and new ones begin. It was indeed a “day full of unimaginable things” for the Holland family and the nation. What a refreshing surprise to witness the selfish Lady Persie being thrown over by the handsome chauffeur Harry Spargo. Bravo Harry. Lady Persie is developing into a repulsive character: ungrateful for her sister’s attentions, uninterested in bettering herself, and uncaring in her selfish actions and how they affect others. It only takes her about two seconds for her to exit Harry’s bed and transfer her shallow affections  to the German Ambassador, Herr Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly) and invite him for a late night cocktail at the house of her brother-in-law Sir Hallam. Ribbentrop’s blaring Nazi pin on his lapel is so shocking. Everything he stands for is controversial, and that is exactly why Persie is attracted to him. I am uncertain of her motivations in wanting to shock and hurt her sister and her family, but sense an interesting family backstory that hopefully we will learn about in future episodes.

We knew that the devastating abdication of King Edward VIII in favor of the “help and support of the women that he loved” was looming over us and history, but it was very interesting to see the political maneuverings to control the bad press transpire in the dining room at 165 Eaton Place. Hallam’s relationship with the Duke of York (Blake Ritson), who in this version is strangely sans a speech impediment and very suave, places us right in the front line of the controversy of the American divorcee Mrs. Simpson and her romantic relationship with the current King of the British Empire, and its inevitable tragic outcome. Watching Maude, Lady Holland matter-of-factly bring the dinner conversation to the point of directly asking the influential editor of a newspaper who has Mrs. Simpson’s ear to encourage her to accept the Morganatic marriage as a suitable compromise is priceless. Lady Maude is my favorite character so far in this new production, which oddly is filled with women that are weak, selfish and unlikeable: i.e. Lady Agnes, Lady Persie, and shockingly Rose the housekeeper, who has evolved into someone that I do not recognize. Does age make people give up their spunk and values? I remember Rose as being outspoken and direct in the original series. This Rose (what little we see of her) seems resigned and ready for pasture.

I am glad to see the shift back to inter-personal relationships of the family and staff in this episode. Even though last week’s foray into the political sphere of fascism was true to events transpiring in London during the mid-1930’s, I found it overpowered the personal drama that I have enjoyed in the original series and hoped to experience in this new revival. In this episode we saw some characters reveal secrets, react to change, emotionally evolve and others make choices that will cause anguish for their families and the nation. In folklore, the cuckoo is symbolic of loss and misery.  One wonders if the cuckoo in this episode is the abdicated King, this new wife, or the spiteful Lady Persie?

Image courtesy of © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Follow Friday: Masterpiece Classic PBS

Pride and Prejudice (1980) Masterpiece Theatre PBS PosterThis year marks the 40th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre, now with a new name of Masterpiece Classic under the umbrella of Masterpiece: which includes the trifecta of presentations in the Classic, Mystery and Contemporary categories. This television show premiered in 1971 and is produced by WGBH in Boston. It airs on PBS in the US and is now the longest running prime-time drama series on the air. Over the years they have presented many British dramas, comedies and mysteries based on classic novels and new material.

Masterpiece has been very good to Jane Austen fans bringing us movies and miniseries of her novels starting with Fay Weldon’s 1980 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice staring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie. Since then we have been treated to Northanger Abbey (1986 & 2007), Persuasion (1996 & 2007), Pride and Prejudice (1995), Sense and Sensibility (2008), Mansfield Park (2007), Emma (1996 & 2010) and Miss Austen Regrets (2008).

Masterpiece has a wonderful website listing the current season lineup and an extensive archive. You can follow them on Twitter as @MasterpiecePBS, on Facebook as MASTERPIECE | PBS (Masterpiece Theatre) and watch videos of their current production at PBS Video.

Be sure to watch the last episode of the continuation of Upstairs Downstairs this Sunday, April 24th at 9:00pm ET on PBS.  You can catch up by watching part one and part two online at PBS video until May 24, 2011. Enjoy!

Image courtesy of © MASTERPIECE

Upstairs Downstairs: Part Two: The Ladybird on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Claire Foy as Lady Persie in Upstairs Downstairs (2010) After the happy reunion with 165 Eaton Place and introduction to the new cast last week in part one, The Fledgling, the tone and plot of Upstairs Downstairs on Masterpiece Classic takes a harsh left turn into the reality of the changing political climate in Europe in the mid 1930’s. The popular 1970’s television series of the same name had earned its reputation as a character driven drama touched by the social and political climate, so viewers might be taken aback by writer Heidi Thomas’ choice to jump right in and throw some unpleasant and disturbing subjects in our faces.

Tensions rise both upstairs and downstairs when bored debutant Lady Persie (Claire Foy) has a dangerous flirtation with a servant and an ideology, friction between Maude, the Dowager Lady Holland (Eileen Atkins) and her daughter-in-law Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) requires Sir Holland’s (Ed Stoppard) intervention, and downstairs, the servants struggle with the reality of anti-Semitism in their own kitchen when a Jewish refugee arrives from Germany to take up her duties as the new parlormaid. Here is the synopsis from the PBS website:

As fascism spreads within Europe, its threat is felt at 165 Eaton Place, both downstairs and up. A new parlormaid, Rachel Perlmutter, arrives safely from Germany having lost nearly everything, but carrying a secret. And the foreign office calls on Sir Hallam to appease the exiled Emperor of Ethiopia, whose country has been annexed by Benito Mussolini. But Hallam’s diplomatic skills are also required at home — Maud continues to find Agnes lacking in her duties, as Agnes’s attentions are happily occupied elsewhere. Persie takes a detour from the boring requirements of her social debut, rejecting a performance of La Bohème in favor of a flirtation with a servant and a dangerous ideology — pursuits which imperil her moral and physical standing.

A genuine companionship grows between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit, both outsiders who share knowledge of loss firsthand. Rachel tells Mr. Amanjit, “We are not forced to accept the things that grieve us,” but it is Hallam who embodies that sentiment when he draws the line about who will live in his house, and how.

Fervent fans of the 1970’s series will feel the abrupt shift in emphasis from the inner relationships at 165 Eaton Place to a politically driven plot. New viewers will not, and take it for face value. It appears that the producers have chosen to push the series in a new direction. It was inevitable. How could they ignore the mounting political atmosphere in Europe in the mid 1930’s, one of the most unsettling and disruptive series of events for England and the world, dominating everyone’s lives? We are introduced to these events through Lady Persie’s romantic interest in the Holland’s chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) and his affiliation with the fascist movement of Oswald Mosely, leading to her involvement in the Blackshirts movement in London. This is a far cry from our previous exposure to violence during World War I with the Bellamy family and their servants in the first series. A soldier writing home or arriving in smart uniform on leave is romantic and melodramatic, totally removing the viewer from the violent reality of war. Here we witness first hand the fascist and anit-fascist riot during the Battle of Cable Street in London. It is harsh, but it is impossible not to face it.

The inner-household relationships that we do witness are interesting, particularly Lady Agnes Holland. Keeley Hawes is superb as the social climbing “perfect wife” to her ambitious foreign diplomat husband Ed Stoppard. As she strives to connect with the right people in London and present her younger sister Lady Persie into society, we begin to see beyond her shallow facade of appearances and possessions and feel for her plight to conceive a child. We are exposed to a bit of the Holland’s back story and her previous losses when she expresses her reservations and grief to her husband with the possibility of new pregnancy. “It is such a cruel thing to lose a baby. Nothing is ever untainted again. Not even hope.” I found this profound statement ran true through many of the events in this episode: Lady Persie’s dangerous adventures, Sir Holland’s introspection over his job, and the refugee parlormaid Rachel, whose hope is very guarded. She is the Ladybird in this drama, who ironically can no longer fly away home.

Sadly, housekeeper Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), who I always enjoy meeting again, had few lines and only Solomon the monkey got a laugh from me. If this all sounds a bit grim, it was. Growing pains. It was, however, beautifully produced with fabulous acting. I suspect it will take a few more episodes for me to adjust to the newness of it all, and then I will never look back, being totally engrossed in the new characters and events.

Image courtesy © MASTERPIECE

Upstairs Downstairs: Part One: The Fledgling, on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Jean Marsh as Rose Buck in Upstairs Downstairs (2010)After a thirty-four year wait, many faces will be beaming and hearts gladdened by the concluding scenes of the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs’ triumphant return to Masterpiece Classic tonight.

As the camera panned the front façade of the stately Georgian townhouse at 165 Eaton Place, my heart was in my throat, and Goosebumps covered my arms. It does not get much better than this for a period drama lover – well – maybe if it is a Jane Austen mini-series, but that is only a far off dream at this point.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the highly successful and beloved original 1974-77 series of the same name, this posh address was the London home of the Bellamy clan. Renowned for its intimate view of an aristocratic family and their household of servants, the series spanned the Edwardian period until post WWI, ending in 1930 with a scene of ladies maid Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) closing the front door and walking down the street. Jean Marsh is the one returning cast member from the original series. It was a very long walk Rose, but we are glad you finally made it back.

Upstairs Downstairs original Masterpiece Theatre series poster 1970'sOne of the delights of episode drama is that it’s never really over, ever. Years can pass in our physical dimension but they stand still in TV land until recalled into service. Happily, the original series co-creators Dame Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh are both attached to this new series – Atkins as eccentric widow Maud, Lady Holland and Marsh reprising her role as Rose Buck, now promoted to housekeeper.  Here is an episode synopsis from PBS:

It’s 1936, and 165 Eaton Place sees its first stirrings of life after years of neglect when the house’s new master, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), and his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes), cross the threshold. Though dust shrouds every surface, Lady Agnes is stirred to proclaim, “This house is going to see such life!” And with relish, she sets about an extravagant restoration and enlists the help of the staffing agency Bucks of Belgravia and its owner, former longtime 165 Eaton Place housemaid, Rose Buck (Jean Marsh).

Rose brings her cherished memories and high standards to the project, assembling a motley staff ranging from seasoned snobs to fledgling teens. Upstairs, the unexpected arrival of Hallam’s mother, Maud, Lady Hallam (Eileen Atkins) — returning from India with a Sikh secretary Amanjit Singh (Art Malik) and monkey Solomon in tow — introduces both eccentricity and tension as she interferes with Agnes’s management of the house. Somewhat in over her head in her new position, Agnes is further tested upon the arrival of her devil-may-care younger sister, Lady Persie (Claire Foy). As King George is dying, and against a backdrop of uncertainty, the residents of 165 Eaton Place host an elegant party to launch the Hollands in London society, and together attempt to field obstacles, both comical and sinister, that come their way.

The opening episode of this three part drama brings us The Fledgling – and very aptly named. Like a young bird, this series has new wings and must learn to fly. Acclaimed screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Cranford) has written a superb script. The storyline is filled with endings and beginnings – a perfect bridge for our memories of the original series and the introduction to the new one. There are nice touches of nostalgia, but it does not get too maudlin. The opening credits use the famous series music, but with a new remix, focusing on the sparkling crystal chandelier in the townhouse foyer. It is a symbol of both the old elegance and lifestyle of the Bellamy’s and a new beginning for the Holland clan and their household of servants. The scene when Rose returns to 165 Eaton Place, her former home of almost forty years, will require a hanky.

Upstairs Downstairs (2010) cast

The casting is top notch and their performances amazing. There is a wide range of personalities interacting in this newly refurbished series, all appealing to different demographics. The standouts are hard to earmark, since everyone was superb. We are happy to see scene stealing conceded to age and experience over youth and beauty. Dame Eileen Atkins as the Dowager Lady Holland and Jean Marsh as Miss Rose Buck dominated every scene over their younger compatriots. Of the upstairs personalities, Keeley Hawes is duly luminescent as the rattled social climber, Ed Stoppard charming as her careening husband, and Claire Foy sizzles as the rebellious baby sister.

Downstairs, Adrian Scarborough has big shoes to fill after butler Mr. Hudson left a indelible impression in our memories of what a proper English butler should be. He has a promising beginning. Anne Reid as the snooty cook should stir up some trouble and Art Malik as Lady Maud’s Indian secretary is imposing and mysterious. The selection of younger actors might attract a new crowd to this Masterpiece series. Ellie Kendrick as saucy orphan housemaid teases footman in the making Nico Mirallego into a risky flirtation, and every household needs a hunky chauffeur like Neil Jackson to drive you around and put naughty thoughts in your head. We concede to being personally delighted with Solomon the monkey, Lady Holland’s particular friend she brought back with her from India, since he is partial to sweet tea and thick-cut marmalade.

The staff at 165 Eaton Place, Upstairs Downstairs (2010)

Welcome home Upstairs Downstairs fans. It has begun again. A new period drama series filled with secrets, scandals and seductions from both sides of the stairs. Episode two, The Lady Bird, continues next Sunday April 17 on PBS

Images courtesy © MASTERPIECE

Preview of Any Human Heart on Masterpiece Classic PBS

Gillian Anderson as the Duchess of Windsor in Any Human Heart (2010)The 40th anniversary season of Masterpiece Classic continues tomorrow night with a new three-part contemporary drama Any Human Heart at 9:00 pm (check local listings) on PBS. Based on William Boyd’s acclaimed 2002 novel, he also adapted it for the screen. Following the life of writer Logan Mountstuart, three actors portray him during different stages of his life: younger years by Sam Claflin, middle years by Matthew MacFadyen (Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice 2005) and older years by Jim Broadbent.

As Mountstuart travels to 1920s Paris to 1950s New York and 1980s London, we witness some compelling history and meet dazzling personalities: Ernest Hemingway (Julian Ovenden), Ian Fleming (Tobias Menzies) and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Gillian Anderson and Tom Hollander) to name a few. The many women in his life include: first fling Tess Scabius (Holliday Grainger), first girlfriend Land Fothergill (Charity Wakefield, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility 2008), first wife Lottie (Emerald Fennell), second wife Freya Deverell (Hayley Atwell, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park 2007) third wife Allanah (Natasha Little), later fling Gloria Scabius (Kim Cattrall), and guy friends Peter Scabious (Samuel West) and Ben Leeping (Ed Stoppard). As you can see, the cast is as amazing as the story itself.

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in Any Human Heart (2010)

Any Human Heart aired in the UK last Fall. Its North American premiere is the second new production in the 2011 Masterpiece Classic season following the universally popular four-part historical drama Downton Abbey. It is filled with incredible events and amazing characters from real life that the fictional Logan Mountstuart encounters. It reminded me of a British version of Forrest Gump (I thought this before I read the reviews, so I am obviously not alone) whereby an average person’s life is shaped by extraordinary events and real-life personalities. Besides a griping performance by Matthew Macfayden, Gilliam Anderson offers a wicked Duchess of Windsor and Hayley Atwell continues to awe and enchant.

Further reading

Images courtesy © MASTERPIECE