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Coming Home Again: An Advance Review of Upstairs Downstairs on PBS' Masterpiece

"Home is not where you live, but where they understand you." - Christian Morganstern

My, how time flies: It's been more than three decades since Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) walked out of the front door of 165 Eaton Place and into the future.

For those of us who grew up on Upstairs, Downstairs (created by Marsh and Dame Eileen Atkins) watching the repeats on PBS or on DVD later, the show--which depicted the lives of the wealthy Bellamy clan and their servants below stairs--defined the period drama, transforming the stuffy recreations of aristos into a soap opera teeming with the hopes and dreams (and failures and foibles) of both the masters and the servants of a great London house.

While there have been countless adaptations of period-set literature over the years (Austen and Dickens remain always in style), recently viewers have seen a resurgence in open-ended, serialized period dramas. Lark Rise to Candleford may have perhaps started the trend in earnest, but it was the double punch of ITV's Downton Abbey and the revival of Upstairs Downstairs that truly brought the trend into full bloom.

Upstairs Downstairs, which begins its superb three-episode run on Sunday on PBS' Masterpiece, sees the series return to the small screen after a sizable hiatus. Revived by writer Heidi Thomas (Cranford) and directed by Euros Lyn (Doctor Who), this new Upstairs Downstairs has Marsh reprising her role as Rose, the former parlormaid who now runs an employment agency for domestic servants. The house at 165 Eaton Place has fallen into disrepair in the six years since the Bellamys decamped, its staircase long covered in dust, much like the period drama genre itself. But, before long, the crystal chandelier at the heart of the home, will sparkle once more.

While Marsh returns to the 1930s for the series, she's the only original cast member to do so. The rest of the staff--and the well-heeled Holland family upstairs--are played by actors new to the franchise, including Atkins, who makes her Upstairs debut here as the deliciously quirky Lady Maud Holland, an eccentric widow returning to London following the death of her husband after living in India for years. She brings with her an irrepressible monkey named Solomon, a quiet Indian manservant, Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik), and a propensity for stirring up trouble. Atkins is at the top of her craft here, imbuing Lady Maud with a flintiness that belies unseen vulnerability. In short: she's a hoot, but there's an emotional core to her as well.

Lady Maud is invading a household that's already a bit on edge. Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) and Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes), a childless couple, see the address as an opportunity for a fresh start and the place where their dreams can come true. But there's a hell of a lot of baggage they're dragging along with them. Lady Agnes' sister, the spoilt Lady Persie (Claire Foy), is a shadow thrown over the light and possibility of this new home, and she transforms, over the course of these three installments, from a naive land-rich-but-cash-poor heiress into a loathsome and mercenary creature.

Downstairs, Rose--now newly installed as the housekeeper--has her hands full as well, overseeing a staff that has very different ideas about what's acceptable than she did when she was below stairs as a girl. Ivy Morris (Ellie Kendrick) prefers singing in the bath to housework, chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) spends his time falling into the Fascist movement, well-educated housemaid Rachel Perlmutter (Helen Bradbury) seems in over her head, and Johnny Proude (Nico Mirallegro) conceals a troubling secret. Fortunately, Rose has found some professionals: snobbish cook Clarice Thackeray (Anne Reid) and teetotaler butler Warwick Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough).

The cast is top-notch, as one would expect from any iteration of Upstairs Downstairs. There's a nice emotional throughline to the series and while the plot appears to be episodic, there are strong narrative undercurrents that carry the viewer through all three installments.

With only three episodes at their disposal, there's a lot of plot unfolding here. Characters come and go, matters of life and death intrudes into the space of 165 Eaton Place, and there's as much movement, change, and briskness as you can shoehorn into three hours. (I did wish, upon watching this season, that Thomas and Lyn (whose direction is dazzlingly beautiful) had more than just three episodes to work with. There's an innate sense of grandeur and of recreated glory, but I only feel like we're just scratching the surface here. There's a fair amount of telling, rather than showing going on.)

There's also a sense that the personal and the political are deeply intertwined here, that what's happening inside 165 Eaton Place is both affected by the outside world and also affects it in turn. Real-life historical figures--from Ribbentrop to Cecil Beaton--mingle with the Hollands and their servants and the entire cast of characters--from Foreign Office diplomat Sir Hallam to the lowliest housemaid--is caught up in the changes afoot in 1936: riots in Cable Street, the abdication, rising tensions with Germany, the rumblings of xenophobia and the trumpets of war.

There's a sense that life is about to change in ways that the Hollands and their staff would never, ever expect. While the house may have been repainted, the chandelier restored to its stunning glory, those days that the house represented are long gone and what's about to arrive will change England forever.

Much of Upstairs Downstairs revolves around that sense of fragility and change, offering a view into the way in which people live both above and below stairs. Despite our stations in life, one can't escape the inexorable matters of heartbreak, loss, love, joy, friendship and family. Here, a child's marble becomes an aide-memoir, an emblem of loss and grief, of secrets long kept and heartache most deep.

All in all, the three episodes of Upstairs Downstairs airing this month (six more episodes are on tap for 2012) represent a tantalizing start for this revival, an elegant new beginning for a series that's about the old and outmoded just as much as it is about the bright spirit of hope for the future. Once more, a rose blooms within 165 Eaton Place.

Upstairs Downstairs launches Sunday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on PBS' Masterpiece. Check your local listings for details.

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