The cast of the new "Upstairs Downstairs," from left: Eileen… (Jane Hilton, ©BBC/Masterpiece )
Reporting from New York — — Pity the British: When it comes to etiquette, they're always getting their petticoats all in a bunch.
Take the very proper Londoners on "Upstairs, Downstairs," the English period drama that helped "Masterpiece Theatre" forge its reputation during the 1970s. When the series returns to PBS on April 10, it's a perfect English day during the Depression — gray and overcast — and yet the head of the housekeeping staff, Rose Buck, seems quite ill at ease. The wrong type of marmalade has been ordered for the pet monkey. The maid has been forced to unpack a suitcase full of shabby knickers. And somebody has invited a Nazi to dinner. The lady of the house will be ruined! Ruined, we say!
Yes, England's premier showcase for good manners is back, and for those who find there aren't enough dour servants or tiny, crust-free cucumber sandwiches on TV, it's still essential viewing. Over the last four decades, "Upstairs, Downstairs" has been watched by more than 1 billion people in more than 40 countries, inspiring a whole new generation of period dramas, including the recent PBS series "Downton Abbey." (Just in case you've missed it, an "Upstairs, Downstairs" box set, due to be released on March 29, offers a chance to catch up with the first five seasons.)
Now, for the first time since it went off the air in 1977, the series will debut three new episodes (with more to follow in 2012), providing a long-awaited coda to the original, which followed London's aristocratic Bellamy family and their below-stairs help from the pre-World War I era to the 1930 market crash.
Co-produced by the BBC and "Masterpiece" on PBS, the latest "Upstairs, Downstairs" picks up in 1936 with an all-new cast joining the series' creator and star Jean Marsh, who plays Rose once again. A new couple has moved into 165 Eaton Place, and they need Rose, who's now the proprietor of a domestic employment agency, to help them hire servants. Slowly, the outside world seeps into their self-contained universe, as the abdication crisis of Edward VIII and the rise of fascism on the continent begins to affect the family inside.
The timing couldn't be better for this 1930s throwback. Just as viewers of the Depression escaped into the elegant romances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, there's nothing like a recession to reignite Americans' interest in a world of mink stoles, fine china and personal chefs. And now that "The King's Speech" has swept the Oscars and the royal wedding has nabbed all our tabloid covers, British high society has piqued our interest again.
"It's a perennially attractive idea," says Rebecca Eaton, who executive produced "Upstairs, Downstairs" and many other popular "Masterpiece" series, including "Miss Marple." Eaton admits that she has high hopes for the remake, which aired in the U.K. late last year to mostly positive (or at least wryly amused) reviews. "In times of great social and political uncertainty, aspirational stories always work, and 'Upstairs, Downstairs' is a very aspirational story."
That wasn't always the intention. Today it plays like luxury-home porn, with a plush leopard skin draped across every Chesterfield sofa, but Marsh and her co-creator Eileen Atkins originally envisioned the series as an up-with-the-working-class drama that focused entirely on the servants.
Marsh, like Atkins, came from a family of laborers. The idea for the series was even inspired by a photograph of one of Atkins' relatives standing with a group of servants at a bus stop. "They looked like they were going on a day's outing," Marsh recalls. She and Atkins found themselves imagining a secret life for these servants. "There was just a sense of how exciting it must have been for her to go away, even 10 or 15 miles away, from wherever she was."
But writer and script editor Alfred Shaughnessy, an aristocrat himself, pointed out that the below-stairs crowd had to serve someone, simply for dramatic friction. So the focus began to shift to the elite, creating class tension both on and off screen. While filming the first season, the cameramen went on strike, claiming they weren't paid enough for the effort required to shoot in color. No one got a raise, and the crew ended up filming the first season in black and white.
Lesley-Anne Down, who played the spoiled Lady Georgina, remembers that the cast members weren't compensated too well either. At the time, she and her boyfriend were forced to move into low-income housing. "One of the terms of [the] lease was that we had to take turns scrubbing the stairs," Down recalls, laughing. "I used to do it at midnight when I knew nobody could see me. Here I was, a famous actress, going to premiere parties, and I couldn't show anyone where I lived. The limo driver would take me home, and I'd say, 'The best thing for you to do is park at the bottom of the hill.' And then I'd walk all the way up that hill in high heels and an evening dress in the rain. It was ghastly!"