Sunday, April 10, 2011

In Praise of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS

Tonight on PBS, UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS makes its triumphant return to American television. These are words I thought I'd never type. In the years since the original program ended, ardent fans had always hoped that we'd return to 165 Eaton Place - but never imagined that it would actually ever happen.
The original show ran for 68 episodes over 5 seasons on MASTERPIECE THEATER, the Emmy-winning weekly anthology series which featured mostly English produced period dramas. Later seasons of MASTERPIECE THEATER presentations would go on to include comedies, mysteries and contemporary docudramas. Some productions even hailed from Australia and even the USA!
From Austen to Zola, if there was a classic that need to be adapted it usually wound up on a Sunday night from 9-10PM. But it was the drawing room soap UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS that put MASTERPIECE THEATER on the map. Created by actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins and developed by John Hawksworth, the serial had a charm that made it a sensation in over 40 countries. Pictured above: The first paperback novel inspired by the series.
Set in the Edwardian era that spanned from the turn of the century through the Great Depression, the series told to story of the Bellamy family and their servants with world history as a backdrop. Pictured above: An illustrated social history of the period covered by the series.
Before DALLAS and DYNASTY, UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS took us into the elegant world of the rich and powerful, offering us characters who were not only rich with money, but also rich in the dramatic sense as they dealt with the social and political changes of their time. Pictured above: The cast in later years, including Lesley-Anne Down as Georgina.
While the upper crust had their share of triumphs and tragedies, the domestic staff also experienced good times and their share of hardships, creating a microcosm of British society. Pictured above: early set photo includes the doomed Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney).
Center stage in all this was parlour maid Rose Buck (played co-creator Jean Marsh). We saw this world through Roses's eyes as characters dealt with love, birth, sickness, pain and death - and everything in-between. Pictured above: Mrs. Bridges and Rose overllok desserts fit for a King - King Edward, who pays a visit to the Bellamys.
Rose is the only character who returns in the new three episode series - joined at last by Eileen Atkins as the matriarch of a new family who moves into the Eaton Place home. Pictured above: a 1974 novel.
Part of the fun of the original series is learning what the responsibilities of each servant is. From the butlers to the footmen to the scullery maids to the cook - the hierarchy is more fascinating than that of the English aristocrats.
Pictured above: Thomas (John Alderton), Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson), Rose and Mr. Bellamy (David Langton).
There are some great moments of comedy throughout the series - notably those involving kitchen maid Ruby (Jenny Tomasin - pictured below) and cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley).
Period detail in the production design is outstanding, from the furniture to the costumes to the vintage automobiles in later seasons.
Two characters from the original seriesThomas Watkins, the chauffeur, and Sarah, the house and nursery maid, left the series and later resurfaced in a 13-episode spin-off called THOMAS & SARAH.
The intrigue, scandals and indiscretions of the folks at 165 Eaton Place undoubtably inspired the Robert Altman film GOSFORD PARK and the recent wonderful and acclaimed DOWNTON ABBEY. An American attempt to recreate the magic of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS called BEACON HILL aired on CBS in 1975 to critical dismissal and poor ratings.
Pictured above: a 1972 novel.
Unforgettable characters like James Bellamy (Simon Williams - pictured below) have also inspired American soap opera anti-heroes for decades.
I hope that the new series lives up to the memory of the old, and that new episodes continue - possibly reuniting us with other favorite characters and actors from the original show. I'd love to see what Sarah (Pauline Collins) is up to.
But until that happens, we have our memories and DVDs of the original classic to get us through. Pictured above: a 1974 novel.
So, I salute UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS and all the joy it has given us fans over the years. Pictured above: Georgina's wedding day to the Marquis of Stockbridge (Anthony Andrews).
And I hope that new fans continue to discover this great series for years to come. Pictured above: A Christmas family portrait featuring one of my favorite characters middle-class secretary Hazel (the lovely Meg Wynn Owen), who marries James.

1 comment:

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