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DVD Review: Upstairs Downstairs (2011)

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The critically acclaimed sequel to the much beloved BBC series, Upstairs Downstairs, which ran in three parts on PBS is now available on DVD in a two-disc set including an exclusive DVD feature: “Upstairs Downstairs – Behind Closed Doors.” Set in 1936, a year which saw three kings on the British throne, the series introduces a new family, the Hollands, to 165 Eaton Place. Rose Buck played by Jean Marsh one of the originators of the show, the only holdover from the original Downstairs staff, is working as an employment agent and she is hired to help the Hollands hire a new staff of servants. The first episode introduces all the new characters and begins to delineate the tensions and themes that are going to occupy the drama.

A good deal of attention is devoted to the historical context of the period. Lord Holland is a diplomat returning to an England in some turmoil after a tour of foreign duty. The king is dying and his successor is involved in an affair with a notorious woman. The economy is still in bad shape from the depression, and Fascist sympathizers are making headway with the people. German diplomats are looking for support among the upper classes. Series writer, Heidi Thomas seems to place a much greater emphasis on the historical background than I remember in the original series. There is, for example, an actual recreation of the Cable St. riots when the Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley tried to take his Black Shirts on a march through London. There is a sub-plot concerning a Jewish refugee who becomes a maid in the second episode. Wallace Simpson and Joachim von Ribbentrop both make appearances in the series. Upstairs and downstairs characters become involved with the Fascists. Indications of the social changes in Britain are also emphasized in an abortive romance between Lady Agnes’s sister and the chauffer.

The “Behind the Scenes” feature explains the care that was taken in creating a historically accurate mise en scene. It is not only the costumes where Keeley Hawes who plays Lady Agnes explains that she was even wearing period underwear, but everything about the setting as well. The pantry was stocked with actual spices and preserves. The servant’s hall was given all the appropriate accoutrements. Food cooked and served at dinner parties was thoroughly researched before it was prepared for the set. The house itself had the effect of physically informing the performances according to Adrian Scarborough who plays Pritchard, the butler. One can’t help stiffening one’s back and raising one’s nose, he says. Indeed, in many respects the house becomes a featured character itself, beginning as what they call a “ghost house” shrouded in drop cloths and cob webs only to reemerge in magnificent splendor.

Performances are spot on. Eileen Atkins, the other of the series originators, is a commanding elder used to taking charge and not about to take a back seat to her daughter-in-law. Keeley Hawes is effectively torn between her inexperience and her desire to assert herself, while Ed Stoppard has his diplomatic skills tested as he maneuvers between the two. Claire Foy plays the rebellious Lady Persie with the passionate self righteousness of youth.

The downstairs cast is equally fine. Anne Reid as Mrs. Thackeray, the cook, is not quite the martinet in the kitchen, but still quite jealous of her position. Her joyousness at having her photo taken by the famed photographer, Cecil Beaton is classic. If at first Adrian Scarborough’s Pritchard doesn’t seem to have the same authority that Mr. Hudson had in the original, by the time he gets to the third episode there is no question of his stature. Harry Spargo is the chauffer who can’t quite bring himself to break away from the traditional social values when all is said and done. Art Malik plays Lady Maud’s private secretary and adds an exotic note to the cast. The young maid is played with youthful exuberance by Ellie Kendrick, and together with Nico Mirallegro as a youthful footman in training, they make a fetching pair. Of course, it is Jean Marsh, her face lined with her years as an actress mirroring her years in service to the Bellamys that hold everything together. It is only fitting that the series end with her gazing out from the window of her beloved home.

Upstairs Downstairs from the seventies has become a classic. The 2011 version has much to live up to; it would be very easy to disappoint. But series lovers can rest easy, the sequel does the series proud. We can only hope that there will be more to come.

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