First Nighter: Upstairs Downstairs Makes Sparkling PBS Return

It's difficult to pinpoint when the name Masterpiece Theater became a pejorative. Not before the two early and extremely popular WGBH/PBS series The First Churchills and The Forstye Saga. Probably not before the 1971-5 Upstairs, Downstairs series, either. But possibly it started sometime soon after that and was much tossed about by the time Brideshead Revisited arrived in 1982.

By then productions featuring expensively and beautifully-photographed looks at the English past got to the point where they were regarded as nostalgic, safe, representative of boob-tube fare no longer considered nearly adventurous enough for discerning audiences.

The growing negative response got to be so ubiquitous and applied so broadly to similar offerings elsewhere -- not only on television but on movie screens -- that the powers behind Masterpiece Theater eventually changed the tag, perhaps also dropping the "Theater" part because the very idea of theater had increasingly been regarded as off-putting.

The "Masterpiece" half has been left by the WBGH deciders, and the programs under that moniker divided into Masterpiece Classics and Masterpiece Mystery. The tactic may not have obviated all resistance to the genre, however, which could mean that the three-part Upstairs Downstairs sequel -- to be aired on PBS April 10, 17 and 24 -- may not be accorded the enthusiastic welcome it certainly deserves. Indeed, those considering tuning in are advised to be wary of criticism on those tired grounds -- as well as possible dismissal of the series for following too soon the recent and similar Downton Abbey series.

On the contrary, potential viewers are encouraged to tune in avidly, and when they do, notice the loss in the current Upstairs Downstairs title of the comma that previously separated "Upstairs" and "Downstairs" on this widely anticipated return to what older audiences have known as the Bellamy home at 165 Eaton Place. It's anyone's guess why that piece of punctuation was eliminated. On the other hand, it would be gratifying to assume the disappearance indicates that those responsible for the current series have decided to acknowledge that though much separated the upper and lower classes in English society during the period covered, the classes by dint of living under the same roof were inevitably intertwined. In its way, 165 Eaton Place serves undeniably as a metaphor for the broader population beyond Eaton Place.

Those guiding the new Upstairs Downstairs are producer Nikki Wilson, executive directors Piers Wenger, Heidi Thomas, Kate Harwood and Rebecca Eaton, picking up from where Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins (childhood friends who created the '71-'75 series), John Whitney and the late John Hawkesworth left off.

The good news is that Marsh, who played upstairs maid Rose Buck from the get-go, returns as the sole character retained. The equally good news is that, after having dismissed herself from duty in the '70s, Atkins is playing one of the many new characters. She's upper-class eccentric Lady Holland, who's writing her memoirs while exerting authority in the restored house.

Although the creators this time -- Heidi Thomas wrote all three scripts, Euros Lyn directed the first two episodes, Saul Metzstein the third -- have formulated the Eaton Place return as accessible for those who didn't see the first series (who might not even have been born then), there's no question that old-time fans will find the ingrained sentiment, not to say sentimentality, hard to ignore. It kicks in the instant Alexander Faris's waltz that served as the series theme swells.

The reason for the welling emotion is that Rose, introduced here as running Buck's of Belgravia, an employment agency for household help, goes back to what had been her home for 40 years and, after having staffed the refurbished residence out of her financially uncertain business, is prevailed upon to reinstall herself as head housekeeper. For this clever contrivance, new fans simply won't have the associations long-time aficionados cherish.

(N. B.: Those wanting to catch up can do so by purchasing Upstairs, Downstairs Complete Series: 40th Anniversary Edition on DVD, now available from Acorn Media, $199.)

Nevertheless, new-comers will be exposed to the savvy facility scriptwriter Thomas shares with the earlier scenarists at infusing activity between and among the upstairs-downstairs inhabitants with the headline-making events of the period covered -- 1936-38. (Upstairs, Downstairs with comma started in the early 1890s and proceeded apace to 1930.) Part of the brilliance behind this heady private/public blend is that Sir Hallam Holland, the dapper new proprietor (Ed Stoppard), is in the foreign office under Anthony Eden (Anthony Calf).

So aside from what transpires between and among upper-crust Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes), her impetuous sister Persephone (Claire Foy), Lady Maud's sympathetic secretary Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik), snooty cook Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid), tee-total butler Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), dreamboat chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson), sensitive maid Ivy (Ellie Kendrick), eager footman Johnny Proude (Nico Mirallego), Rose and Lady Holland, there are no end of compelling situations unfolding within an infinitely larger context.

Before the end of the third episode (six more are apparently now in preparation), the rise of British National Socialism under Sir Oswald Mosley is examined. How it affects not only new Jewish retainer Rachel Perlmutter (Helen Bradbury) and daughter Lotte (Alexia James) but also Mosley sympathizer chauffeur Harry and his affair with Persephone gets stinging play.

While intramural tensions mount and defuse for the Eaton Place inhabitants, there's also a Holland house-warming party involving a visit from Joachim von Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly), who subsequently dallies with Persephone and causes foreign-office repercussions. There's a dinner at 165 instigated by Edward, Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson), who wants to influence a Daily Mail editor against Edward VIII's history-making infatuation with American-born divorcee Wallis Simpson. Cecil Beaton photographs the family.

Yes, those Upstairs Downstairs purveyors make a convincing case that they've thought of everything. Obtaining first-rate performances by every cast member right through to Lady Holland's uncredited monkey companion Solomon, they've woven their now chilling, now heart-warming, now belly-laughs-inducing intrigues into a tapestry completely worthy of hanging next to the stunning English tapestry that was the first series.