Upstairs Downstairs (2010) DVD Review: return of the king

I approached this new continuation of the ‘70s series with a fair amount of trepidation based on my childhood memories of the show. It seemed like the original was inescapable during its US broadcast run on PBS in the ‘70s, much like Doctor Who, constantly leaving me scratching my young noggin with wonder about how anyone could enjoy such stuffy, boring British fare. Well, fast forward 30+ years and I finally get it, which I suppose means I’m stuffy, boring, and old, but I also have a feeling that viewers of any age will find this winning new version much more accessible than its predecessor.

Upstairs DownstairsThe year is 1936, and a new family is moving into the estate at 165 Eaton Place in London. The home has fallen into disrepair in the six years since it was left by its previous tenants, with thick layers of dust and decay everywhere that lead the new owners to declare “it’s a museum”. Obviously Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) won’t be cleaning up, so they visit a local agency for domestic servants and engage the services of Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) to recruit and hire their downstairs staff. Rose finds this assignment to be bittersweet, as she spent nearly 30 years as head maid at the new Holland home, but she sets herself to the task of retaining viable candidates within budget, including a former Cunard cruiseline server as butler, a dashing revolutionary as chauffeur, and a troubled young lad as footman. Meanwhile, the upstairs gets a bit more crowded with the arrival of Lady Agnes’ headstrong sister Persephone (Claire Foy), Sir Hallam’s flinty mother Lady Maud Holland (Dame Eileen Atkins), her Indian secretary Amanjit Singh (Art Malik), and her pet monkey. Yes, there’s a monkey in Upstairs Downstairs.

With all the characters in place, the plot kicks into gear as they build new relationships within the house while reacting to the cultural and political changes occurring outside the house. Among those external changes are a fascist movement that converts the chauffeur and Persephone before erupting in street riots, King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, and the emergence of Joachim von Ribbentrop as German Ambassador and gentleman caller. While I fully appreciated those historical aspects of the show, its strength remains its titular theme: the contrasting and intersecting lives of the upstairs masters and downstairs servants.  There's scandal and intrigue aplenty as the players from the two distinct social classes intermingle and find their footing, but the show never descends into soap opera hysterics, preferring to chase intelligent period-specific realism rather than succumb to lurid plot machinations.

The only returning character from the original series is Rose Buck, again played by original performer and series co-creator Jean Marsh. This gives the new show a really great through line as we experience the changes and similarities along with someone who has been there for the entire ride. But she’s not quite alone. Although Dame Eileen Atkins didn’t appear in the original series due to a conflicting acting engagement, she’s its other original co-creator, making this a poignant homecoming for her as the matriarch of the new household. The rest of the new cast is uniformly solid in their roles, with Claire Foy and Keeley Hawes in particular leading the strength of the talent onboard. The original theme music also makes a return engagement in a classy updated recording.

At only three hour-long episodes, the new series feels like more of an extended pilot than a season, but the creators packed enough drama, acting talent, and elegant production design into those hours to virtually guarantee further series. In fact, the show has recently been picked up for return in 2012, which should make for even richer subject matter as the timeline moves closer to World War II. Until then, we’re left with this new 2-disc DVD set containing the episodes and a behind-the-scenes featurette. The DVD set is available on April 26th, 2011. Check out the official site for additional information, photos, and video clips.

By Steve Geise

About the author

Reviewing for various magazines and websites since 2004.

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