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Retro : Serving a Masterpiece : KOCE POURS OUT ALL 68 EPISODES OF GREAT BRITAIN'S 'UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS'

August 29, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Upstairs, Downstairs" was something veddy different for PBS' acclaimed British drama showcase "Masterpiece Theatre."

The 68-part series holds the distinction of being the first "Masterpiece" presentation to be created strictly for television with no claims to literature, the theater or movies. "Upstairs, Downstairs" proved that a masterpiece could be created for the small screen. Rather ironically, the series spawned several novelization productions. CBS even attempted an ill-fated American version, "Beacon Hill," in 1975.

It's time to break out the scones, crumpets and tea and heat up that VCR. Beginning Thursday, KOCE will repeat all 68 episodes of the series, which originally aired from 1974 to 1976 on "Masterpiece Theatre." Also included in the package are eight installments, which predate the "Masterpiece" episodes, as well as five "lost" black-and-white episodes that aired when PBS repeated the series in 1989.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" was created by actresses Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh, the creative team responsible for the 1992 Arts & Entertainment series "The House of Eliott."

Spanning the years 1903 to 1930, the series focuses on members of an upper-class London household--the Richard Bellamys of 165 Eaton Place--and their domestic staff. It takes place from the reign of Edward VII to World War I and through the social changes of the 1920s. It so happened that both Atkins and Marsh both came from families who had been in domestic service.

Not only was "Upstairs, Downstairs" inhabited with colorful, memorable characters and compelling stories, but the series also served as a great history lesson and an evocative glimpse into the British social strata.

There's no denying "Upstairs, Downstairs," which won Emmy Awards for best dramatic series in 1974 and 1976 and best limited series in 1975, was soap opera. But it was extremely well-crafted. John Hawksworth ("Danger UXB") was the impeccable producer-writer. Other writers included Jeremy Paul, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Fay Weldon ("The Cloning of Joanna May").

The enormous ensemble cast was equally top notch, notably David Langton as the distinguished patriarch Richard Bellamy, Simon Williams as his weakling son James, Jean Marsh as maid Rose, Gordon Jackson as the strong-willed head butler Hudson and Angela Baddeley as the feisty cook, Mrs. Bridges.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" also featured several young actors who went on to other successful productions. Pauline Collins won a Tony Award in 1989 for "Shirley Valentine" and received a best actress Oscar nomination for the film version; Nicola Pagett starred in the popular "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina"; Lesley-Anne Down appeared in such features as "The Betsy" and "Hanover Street," and Anthony Andrews has starred in numerous TV movies and miniseries, including "Danger UXB" and the classic "Brideshead Revisited," for which he received an Emmy nomination as the tragic Sebastian.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" begins Thursday at 8 p.m. with two episodes on KOCE. Beginning next week, it will regularly air Thursdays at 9 p.m.

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