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'Upstairs Downstairs' review: A worthy successor to the original, and to 'Downton Abbey'?

The new PBS Masterpiece presentation Upstairs Downstairs is no Downton Abbey, let alone an improvement upon the original, Upstairs, Downstairs (shown 1974-77 in America), but the first of its three parts on Sunday night zipped right along with its own sort of pleasures.

While fans old enough to remember must have been delighted to see the prominent role played by Jean Marsh as Rose, you didn’t have to know the original to get your bearings immediately. The new UD, a British production created and written by Heidi Thomas, takes place in 1936 Britain, about five years after the first series ended. The beloved Bellamy house has been recently taken over by Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife, Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes), who hire Rose to assemble a house staff. Much of this first hour was spent introducing these characters as they were introduced to the Hollands.

An early stand-out is Mr. Pitchard (Adrian Scarborough), hired as a butler – again, the new series can’t compete with the original’s Mr. Hudson (the wonderfully stern but warm Gordon Jackson), but this is a “downstairs” staff for a new generation anyway, and Scarborough’s Pritchard is utterly, delightfully different, an intelligent, fussy man whose beetled brow hints at deeper troubles.

Comic relief and the occasional sentimental moment is provided by Lord Hallam’s mother, Lady Maud (Eileen Atkins, who co-created the original UD with Marsh and here is seen in a role strikingly similar to the one Maggie Smith powered through in Downton Abbey).

Thus far, the focus has been more on the “downstairs” – the assembled crew of young, eager/virtuous/scheming/lazy/industrious servants who are already getting entangled with each other. The “upstairs” will mingle the hoity-toity Hollands with real-life characters. (German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop got his Nazi-sympathizer butt kicked out of the house in the first episode, for example.)

All in all, a diverting way to spend the next few Sunday evenings, especially if, next Sunday, you’re too timid to tackle Game of Thrones.

Did you watch the new Upstairs Downstairs?

Twitter: @kentucker

Originally posted April 10 2011 — 10:03 PM EDT

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