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New Upstairs, Downstairs is full of missteps

January, 1974: Nixon, Watergate, OPEC, the price of gas. Not to mention Trudeau, inflation, Morgentaler and the matter of women being allowed to join the RCMP. Popular TV shows include The Waltons, Kung Fu and Kojak.

Along comes Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. It's an immediate hit, a kind of craze. The show is an upmarket soap opera and it begins a TV phase that allows everything from I, Claudius to Brideshead Revisited to be watched around the world. The series has been airing for several years on ITV in the United Kingdom, where it was also a huge hit.

I remember it well. Those were dark days. Britain and Ireland in constant turmoil. Northern Ireland descending into a hellhole of internment without trial and ceaseless sectarian killings. IRA bombings in Britain. A kind of class war unfolding as endless disputes pit trade unions against the British government.

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In these circumstances, over there and here, Upstairs, Downstairs presented an alluring world of firm stability. At the same time, the lives of the Bellamy family and their servants were set against a time of change - the First World War, the suffragette movement, troubles in Ireland. The series was not only well made, it was ideal for times when change seemed constant and the old ways were an unreliable guide to the present.

Upstairs, Downstairs (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece Theatre) is a sequel of sorts, though more of a reboot than anything else. It's 1936 and 165 Eaton Place is about to be occupied by newly married Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard, son of playwright Tom Stoppard) and his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes). The place is a cobwebbed mess. To have it in tip-top shape and hire a staff, Lady Agnes takes on what today we would call a consultant. And that consultant is Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), who, as anyone who saw the original will know, was a servant in the house in the old days.

On paper, this looks like a perfect premise for reigniting the Upstairs, Downstairs magic. It is written by Marsh and Eileen Atkins, co-creators of the original, along with Heidi Thomas, who wrote the great Cranford series. It's the same setting with one of the iconic characters being present.

However, this Upstairs, Downstairs is strangely lacking in compelling drama, of the upmarket or down-market soap-opera variety. There is too much reliance on Rose's nostalgia for the old house and the old occupants. The viewer is meant to go misty-eyed with her, but there is only so far this can go. The problem is that by emphasizing the original, this version suffers greatly by comparison.

Keeley Hawes is skilled at portraying Agnes as a woman rather lost in a world of servants and big houses. But she is no Lady Bellamy and she certainly isn't Lady Georgina. No young man who watched Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s can forget the appeal of Lesley-Anne Down as Georgina, her flirtatious eyes staring out from under the brim of a very large hat.

Its being set in the 1930s, the background to this series involves the rise of Nazi Germany, the presence of sympathetic fascists in England and the Great Depression. And yet, with all this rich material, the series - three episodes have been made - falls flat.

One reason is that the series too often feels like a poorly made clone of the original and other series made since the 1970s have used the Upstairs, Downstairs template but added fresh ingredients. Downton Abbey, which aired this season on Masterpiece Theatre, a big-house drama set in pre-First World War England about the Crawley family and their servants, was obviously inspired by Upstairs, Downstairs, but had the oomph and zest of contemporary TV drama.

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In fact, the truly memorable aspect of this new version is the character of Lady Maud Holland, Agnes's mother-in-law. As played by Eileen Atkins, she is a very formidable battle-axe. And she reminds the viewer of Maggie Smith playing very much the same kind of figure in Downton Abbey.

The upshot is that the new version has a falseness that is off-putting. The original was, for all its soap-opera surface, a fascinating exercise in subversion. It appeared to glorify the British upper crust, but the authentic drama involved the servants and the tragedy of their subservient existence. Try as they might to be decent people, good at their jobs and loyal, they were always doomed to be lesser people in the society of their time.

In a way, the original Upstairs, Downstairs was a call to revolution. This version is a call to renovation - fix up the old house in Eaton Terrace. Nostalgia is a mercurial impulse. Sometimes, it really lets you down.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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