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.
One 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.
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.
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
- Read my preview of Upstairs Downstairs (2010)
- Read my review of Episode Two, The Ladybird
- Visit the Upstairs Downstairs official website at Masterpiece PBS
- Watch episode one of Upstairs Downstairs online until May 24, 2011
Images courtesy © MASTERPIECE