Monday, April 11, 2011

Doors open again at 165 Eaton Place


It was such a delight to hear the strains of that familiar theme and see the doors fly open again at 165 Eaton Place.

Yes, "Upstairs, Downstairs" is back. For those who have managed to miss it up till now, "Up, Down," as its known by its fans, was for years the most popular British import ever shown on what used to be called "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS. Airing originally in the 1970s, "Up, Down" focused on the lives and intrigues of the Bellamy family at 165 Eaton Place in London -- both the upstairs, upper-class Bellamys, and the downstairs, domestic servants of the house.

It was a runaway hit on both sides of the pond and then, suddenly, it ended, shockingly, just like that. The final scene was of parlor maid Rose Buck (co-creator Jean Marsh) taking one last look around the house, hearing its voices rise from the mists of time for one last bow.

Rose and "Upstairs, Downstairs" have returned for a brief three episode run on what PBS now calls (sometimes) "Masterpiece Classic." The first episode aired last night. And, well, it was a mixed bag.

I almost teared up in the opening scenes, hearing that music, seeing that grand old house again. I found myself smiling. But what I was smiling about was the original series.



I first found the show in re-runs back in the 1990s on PBS. On a trip to Ohio, I happened to catch the famous episode in which the King visits 165 Eaton Place. I was enthralled. When I subscribed to Netflix in 2005, the first series for which I looked was "Up, Down." I spent the next five years, on and off, watching the original show's five seasons. What a delight it was.

The new show isn't bad. It's fresh. It's got a great, good-looking new cast. Marsh is a sight for sore eyes as Rose, this time around working to populate the new house with servants for its new owners, who arrive in the series timeline about six years after the first program ended. Co-creator Eileen Atkins shows up as well, in the delicious part of the unexpected and unwelcome mother-in-law.

It's OK -- but it's not "Upstairs, Downstairs." You must forgive me, though. I am an unapologetic nostalgic. I kept waiting for Mr. Hudson to burst through the doors, getting onto Edward the footman for some lapse in his work while the cook Mrs. Bridges fussed at Daisy for the hundredth time. In the upstairs morning room scenes, I halfway hoped to see Richard Bellamy sipping his brandy while Captain James mulled over his latest crisis while Prudence popped in for her usual tour de force.

(Anybody wanting to revisit the original series can find the DVDs at Netflix or for sale here from Amazon.)

The new series has the unfortunate task of following a legend. And, like the Timothy Daltons and Ray Perkinses of the world have found out, a successor rarely ever fills the big shoes left behind. I much prefer "Downton Abbey," another hit "Masterpiece" series, which felt a lot like a thinly-disguised "Up, Down" to me when I watched it earlier in the year. It's coming back for another run next season.

But, I'll watch the other two episodes of the new "Upstairs, Downstairs," if for no other reason than even when they misfire, programs shown on PBS are almost always better than the proletariat poppycock that populates American television.

Creaks and cobwebs and all, it's good to see the doors open again at 165 Eaton Place.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" is currently airing on "Masterpiece Classic" Sundays on PBS. Check local listings.

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