I haven't actually watched the old "Upstairs Downstairs," but it's pretty much become the standard of historical dramas where we see both the aristocrats and the servants.
So I was deeply intrigued by the news that the BBC was reviving the show for a new three-episode miniseries, serving as a sequel to the original series. It's a sleek, glittering affair with lots of actual historical figures and events, but the story never forgets that the real focus is on the people both upstairs and downstairs.
The year is 1936. George V has just died, his feckless son is involved with Mrs. Simpson, and Hitler is on the rise. Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) move into 165 Eaton Place, intending to turn the "mausoleum" into a livable house. So they employ Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), who was once a maid at their house, to find them some suitable servants.
Soon the house has plenty of new inhabitants. Downstairs: fussy but kind butler Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), snobby cook Mrs.Thackeray (Anne Reid), hot-tempered footman Johnny (Nico Mirallegro), and others. Upstairs: Agnes' snotty fascist sister Persie (Claire Foy), and Sir Hallam's bossy globe-trotting mother Maud (Dame Eileen Atkins) and her warmhearted secretary Amanjit (Art Malik).
And while Lady Agnes hoped to have the "perfect" home, 165 Eaton Place is soon rocked by a series of problems -- an arrest, dabblings in fascism, a pregnancy, a birth, a death, constant friction between Maud and Agnes, and the discovery of secret children upstairs and down.
Technically the new "Upstairs Downstairs" is a sequel to the old one, but it's not necessary to have seen the older "Upstairs Downstairs" to understand what's going on. There are some nods and references -- particularly the presence of housemaid-turned-housekeeper Rose -- but it's mostly a self-contained story.
The writers do a great job of packing a whole season's worth of drama, sorrow, joy and soap-opera mayhem into just three hours, but somehow it never feels rushed. And they also do an adept job at weaving the story of 165 Eaton Place together with real-life events -- Ribbentrop and Simpson make cameos, Persie becomes involved with fascism, and Hallam is good friends with the Duke of York (later the king).
And it has a talented cast of well-respected actors (Keeley Hawes, Dame Aileen Atkins, the weirdly stiff Ed Stoppard, Adrian Scarborough, Art Malik and of course Jean Marsh), as well as a few newbies (Nico Mirallegro, Ellie Kendrick). The only problematic character is Claire Foy's -- Persephone is such a selfish, repulsive character that it's pretty much impossible to care what happens to her.
"Upstairs Downstairs" is a solid miniseries that stands on its own merits, but leaves the door open just in case. Juicy, dramatic and very entertaining.