'Upstairs Downstairs' review: A worthy successor to the original, and to 'Downton Abbey'?

The new PBS Masterpiece presentation Upstairs Downstairs is no Downton Abbey, let alone an improvement upon the original, Upstairs, Downstairs (shown 1974-77 in America), but the first of its three parts on Sunday night zipped right along with its own sort of pleasures.

While fans old enough to remember must have been delighted to see the prominent role played by Jean Marsh as Rose, you didn’t have to know the original to get your bearings immediately. The new UD, a British production created and written by Heidi Thomas, takes place in 1936 Britain, about five years after the first series ended. The beloved Bellamy house has been recently taken over by Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife, Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes), who hire Rose to assemble a house staff. Much of this first hour was spent introducing these characters as they were introduced to the Hollands.

An early stand-out is Mr. Pitchard (Adrian Scarborough), hired as a butler — again, the new series can’t compete with the original’s Mr. Hudson (the wonderfully stern but warm Gordon Jackson), but this is a “downstairs” staff for a new generation anyway, and Scarborough’s Pritchard is utterly, delightfully different, an intelligent, fussy man whose beetled brow hints at deeper troubles.

Comic relief and the occasional sentimental moment is provided by Lord Hallam’s mother, Lady Maud (Eileen Atkins, who co-created the original UD with Marsh and here is seen in a role strikingly similar to the one Maggie Smith powered through in Downton Abbey).

Thus far, the focus has been more on the “downstairs” — the assembled crew of young, eager/virtuous/scheming/lazy/industrious servants who are already getting entangled with each other. The “upstairs” will mingle the hoity-toity Hollands with real-life characters. (German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop got his Nazi-sympathizer butt kicked out of the house in the first episode, for example.)

All in all, a diverting way to spend the next few Sunday evenings, especially if, next Sunday, you’re too timid to tackle Game of Thrones.

Did you watch the new Upstairs Downstairs?

Twitter: @kentucker

Comments (65 total) Add your comment
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  • Tucker

    It’s kind of unfair to compare this UD to the old one or to Downton Abbey, because they only gave them three episodes to work with. UD was a show that played out over five seasons and several decades; even DA got six episodes to explore its world. This seemed a bit rushed, but I think it’s very good, and if they’d bring it back full time I think it could be amazing.

    • ChaCha

      Right, and Downton Abbey’s episodes were also longer–one and a half hours, compared to UD’s one hour.

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    • Joe Owens

      The new series is worthy of its heritage, and Rose is as loveable-and capable as ever. Eileen Atkins is pure genius!!

  • Templar

    It was just OK for me. Marsh is excellent as always, but I felt most of the downstairs staff was disappointing. Upstairs,Eileen Atkins is a treasure, as always. Lord Hallam’s wife and the maid were particularly miscast in my opinion.

    • amakky

      I am fortunate in that I am old enough to have seen the original UD, when it was first shown in the UK and then of course as it became hugely popular in the USA. I don’t think the new UD will live up to the old, but then it’s a hard act to follow. I just take it for what it is, and I don’t think it’s the intent of the writers to recreate the old classic.

      I enjoyed DA, more for the imagery than anything else, Maggie Smith was the star of the show and I look forward to the next season.

      Of course with the advances in video, the newer shows are visually much more appealing…..but Mrs Bridges, Hudson, and the old UD…is still a tough act to follow.

  • Leah

    Downton Abbey sucked. All sleazy melodrama, no substance. The original Upstairs/Downstairs was awesome.

    • babysloth

      I haven’t seen the original U/D but I actually loved Downton Abbey and didn’t think it was sleazy melodrama at all. Amazing how you saw that in the production and yet I did not.

      • maggie

        I agree with you. Downton Abbey wasn’t sleazy melodrama. It was brilliant drama, beautifully acted.

    • jrt2000

      I wouldn’t call DA sleazy…but it was completely unworthy of “Masterpiece” designation. I do believe a huge part of DA’s problem was ham-handed editing. That, and Elizabeth McGovern who was miscast or just not up to the task.

    • Bobby’s Robot

      I liked it.

    • Mddmouse

      Agree, it seemed like 90210 only in period costumes. Adore Maggi Smith but not even for her could I stomach DA.

      • colbea

        I loved DA, can’t wait for season 2!

  • el

    I enjoyed it. I don’t know the original at all, but am excited to watch this one. I do agree with the maid being miscast though. Kind of wanted to smack her.

  • maggie

    The new Upstairs Downstairs is good, but suffers in comparison to Downton Abbey. DA clearly had a larger budget, aided by filming at a real estate. UD looked like it was filmed on a sound stage, and didn’t look like that grand a mansion. Also, 3 episodes of less than one hour, doesn’t give much time to develop a story. This should have been at least a 6 hour story. UD was enjoyable, but seems to be a victim of the BBC’s budget cutting. (Downton Abbey is an ITV production, and they must have more money because they show commercials like American networks.)

    • Unity

      Stay with this guys, you’re hlepnig a lot of people.

  • lynnc

    I thought the production was fun. Miss the old residents of 165, of course, but this group has potential. Too bad only 3 episodes are planned! And, did Wallis Simpson actually parade about with Ribbentrop so blatantly? It was, after all, 1936 and close to Edward VIII’s abdicating……

    • gertie

      I wonder about Wallis’s association with him, too. And was she such a bitch, like they showed there? How could she be while one man was married to her, and another desired her? Odd. I guess I’ll never understand.

      • Jennifer

        From various things I’ve read about her, she was quite the snob and very capable of being a bitch, especially to other women of her own class. Obviously she had something that attracted men, ’cause she had multiple husbands, but some men like bitchiness so who knows. It seems she was very bossy and almost motherly at times to the Duke of Windsor – given his upbringing, may he needed that in a woman?

  • conor

    what a joy to hear the theme again after 30something years, i was a child again!

  • jury’s out

    It’s supposed to be five years later? Rose wouldn’t look the way she does after only five years. That makes no sense.

    • Barack Palin

      Maybe its meant to be five DOG years. I guess Rose missed her botox appointments.

      • DM

        Rose is actually the right age. The original series spanned 40 years, but the actors were not aged….so Jean Marsh is the perfect age to play Rose in 1936.

    • Jaxon

      Yeah, that’s the teikct, sir or ma’am

  • Melissa

    I tried to watch the original UD on DVD a few months ago and barely got through the first two episodes. The production values do not hold up well at all, especially after watching 6 hours of the beautifully produced Downton Abbey. So, I came into the new UD without the affection of the original clouding my judgment. I enjoyed this version of UD but didn’t love it. There is a lot of potential but three hours doesn’t seem to be enough time for the establishment of storylines for every character. I wonder, does anyone know how much of the original BBC version was cut for the PBS broadcast? I will continue to watch but I doubt I will have the anticipation of the new episodes like I did with Downton Abbey.

    • Bobby’s Robot

      You should give the original another shot. It really is a masterpiece.

    • Jean

      What a little snob…The original was made almost 40 years ago, so of course the productions values are not as good…your loss, toots.

      • kath85

        I don’t think anything Melissa said warranted calling her a snob, but you do have a good point. Television has changed a lot! Thankfully, the story lines in older shows are so charming that even younger generations (like me!) still love them.

  • Chance

    Loved it. Keeps the spirit of the original UD, of which I am marathoning via the new boxed set. I just wish they could have gotten a commitment for a full season. Then they could take their time getting to know the characters, and see the daily flow of life in pre war England.

    • pats

      I loved it and I remember the original. The whole cast was great and Ellie Kendrick is a riot!!!!

    • Banjo

      We suffered through the first episode and five minutes of the second. Jean Marsh looks like an old crone who should be stirring a pot in a dark forest. Having co-creator status evidently allowed her and the other old woman in the show to dictate lots of screen time for the two of them. And they surrounded themselves with the dimmest cast I’ve seen for many a moon. It is almost a sacrilege.

      • sascha

        jean mash won an emmy for best actress in a drama series in the original upstairs downstairs. And the other old woman you are talking about is Dame Eileen Atkins who is one of Britain’s most respected actresses.

  • Bob

    It was a very good start. I think if it had been on a year ago, before Downton Abbey, people would be viewing it differently. As others have said, three episodes isn’t enough for character/story development.

    • Scottish151413

      I am up to my ears with the Jews and the Nazis – the Jews and the Nazis – the Jews and the Nazis. When does this mourning end???

  • Charles Read

    With the introductory music to Masterpiece Theatre’s Upstairs, Downstairs, I was ushered into a school reunion; the expectations, the trepidation. Yet, it wasn’t a reunion. It was new with but a thin veil of the old. Jean Marsh’s brilliant portrayal leads us gently back to No. 165.
    However, although I found the rapidly fleeting hour enjoyable, I felt as if I had been watching a preview with quick cuts, an overview, a prologue. It felt rushed, rather than giving the characters (which includes the house) an opportunity to slowly develop.
    But then, perhaps the move from the pace of Victorian times to razzle-dazzle 1936 is proper. For this series, let us never forget Proper!

  • Deets

    I loved the original; I thought the first episode of the new was a disappointment. After all those years in the Bellamy household, Rose had developed a spine and had good sense. Why she would put up with Lady Agnes and let her walk all over her, I have no idea. And the butler a standout? In what way, I thought he was inconsequential. Casting is problemmatic: the Welsh sister looks too much like the maid to keep them straight and poor Art Malik has certainly come a long way down from The Jewel in the Crown. Oh, and the idea that a footman would be told to actually dump a tray of drinks on a guest was ridiculous.

    • ranchette

      couldn’t agree more with every point.

  • Lee

    I wasn’t old enough to watch the original U/D but caught it in my university years when my local PBS station ran it on Sunday nights – and I loved it.

    This wasn’t close to it, but nothing really can be, so I enjoyed it for what it was: entertaining! Eileen Atkins was great and it was so clever to use Rose as the link between the two series.

    As for Downton Abbey comparisons … stop overanalyzing and just enjoy the fact that two great series are being produced: otherwise, it’s like comparing CSI with L&O/ Dallas with Knots Landing, etc.

  • katie

    there were some moments where i felt the need to watch the original serious, to get a better grasp of the show.
    and honestly, i think that was the only flaw!
    i still can’t believe it’s only going to be three episodes, not even six!?
    i have to say though, when it comes to upstairs/downstairs interaction, i still prefer downton abbey!

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