Monday, April 11, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs: PBS's Revamp of the 1970s Series

I was not around for the first version of "Upstairs, Downstairs". In fact, my parents were younger than I am now when the series ended. I learned about the premiere of PBS's continuation of the series through NPR this past week. I heard period drama, 1930s, Duchess of Windsor, King George (King's Speech—the prequel?), and British aristocracy and I knew this miniseries would be something worth checking out.

Last night at 9 pm I was transported to 1936 and the "year of three kings" in which we witness the mourning for King George V who is immediately succeeded by his eldest son, Edward VIII. Of course, the first episode references Edward VIII's mistress and eventually his wife, the American Miss Simpson. The audience even gets to meet Miss Simpson at a party thrown by the main characters and she quite suitably causes a scandal by bringing a German friend with ties to the Nazi party who is disposed of after the family and the servants join forces.

For those of you who do not know the premise of "Upstairs, Downstairs", it is the story of an upper class British family and their servants who live downstairs. The original version took place in the early 1900s and involved the Bellamy family, their maid Rose (who is in the new version as the housekeeper/owner of a household staff employment agency), and all of the other servants who made the household operate. The last season of the old series was set in the 1920s.

The new version picks up in 1936, as previously stated, and the Bellamys have moved on from their house at 165 Eaton Place in London and a new family moves in and fixes it up. They are the Atkins family: a man, his wife, his mother who has just returned from thirty years in India, and the wife's younger sister who is preparing to come out into London society (it seems, perhaps, somewhat unwillingly).

The new servants are mostly inexperienced. The house maid is young, hormonal and favors red nail polish and lipstick. She has a brief flirtation with the footman, a flirtation that leads to a barroom brawl and a surprising turn of events.

There is a butler whose prior experience was on the Cunard line, the luxury cruise line. Errol Flynn is his reference. He has never been in private service but right away he proves himself to be competent and above all, traditionally British. The latter is the most important since Mrs. Atkins sneers at the idea of having a Portuguese immigrant in her service as part of the upstairs household staff.

The cook is female and appears to be experienced but with a limited choice of jobs in the bad economy (something else that makes this 1930s period piece incredibly timely). She is lured to the Atkins job by her hatred for her current job and the new icebox being delivered from Harrods that will be at her disposal.

The mother of Mr. Atkins is cheeky and perhaps a little devious. Her personal secretary is Indian and her constant companion is a monkey. It is difficult to say whether the elderly Mrs. Atkins or her monkey will cause the most trouble.

Mr. and Mrs. Atkins are devoted to becoming a London power couple. His title is new and her position as a society hostess is new as well. She struggles with her mother-in-law in the first episode over who will organize the details of their first political party. When she faces trouble in the form of Miss Simpson's German friend (it was the mother-in-law who invited Miss Simpson in the first place under the pretense that she was bringing "a friend" and presumably the King) she turns not to her mother-in-law and a potential "I told you so" but to her housekeeper and the servants downstairs who save the day. Mrs Atkins rejoices in her triumph of solving the problem without her mother-in-law by standing on the balcony in her gorgeous gold beaded dress (very Great Gatsby).  In fact, the costumes in this series are breathtaking and make me wonder what exactly the budget was for production over at PBS.

Mrs. Atkins younger sister has had a difficult childhood. Their family is old money which means, says the sister, that they have no money. She has little clothing and scoffs at the idea that her older sister is rescuing her, a sentiment she does not want to express because she fears it will be confirmation of how horrible her life has been thus far. She detaches from her elder sister and forms an alliance with her sister's mother-in-law—an alliance that is sure to stir up some trouble.

All in all, the first part of this miniseries was a great introduction to some legitimately interesting characters combined with a history lesson about a period in history that was tumultuous in and of itself. Combine that with the stories brewing with the servants downstairs and this PBS revamp is sure to be a least in my book.

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