"This house is going to see such life!" So declares the new mistress (familiar face Keeley Hawes) of Upstairs Downstairs' 165 Eaton Place, blowing out the cobwebs after years of disuse. This address is so iconic to fans of classic British TV, it's a wonder Masterpiece Classic waited until its 40th anniversary to time-warp us back for more sudsy ups and downs in this fabled London estate. (For those devoted to the original, a deluxe new 21-DVD set of the complete '70s series has been issued by Acorn Media.)
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There's a new titled family moving in after years of vacancy, and a new staff of colorful servants to assemble — overseen this time around with a tight grip by former parlor maid Rose (the tart Jean Smart, co-creator of the original series) — but the formula remains cozily intact in this long-awaited three-part sequel.
As in the original, this series pays lip service to its period (the mid-'30s) as a social-political backdrop: tight budgets in a bad economy, the violent rise of revolutionary Fascism, scandal brewing around a new king who might abdicate. The real focus, though, is domestic. High-born or low, upstairs or down, everyone contends with secrets, scandals, tragedy and the occasional romantic intrigue in this lovingly sentimental homecoming.
With only three hours to develop character and story, it can't help but suffer by comparison to the Emmy-winning '70s series that helped put Masterpiece Theater on the map, as well as to the recent Masterpiece triumph of the similarly themed Downton Abbey. But there are considerable pleasures — most notably the glorious eccentricity of Eileen Atkins (who co-created the series with Marsh) as family matriarch Lady Maud, returning from 30 years abroad with a monkey who eats at the breakfast table and an Indian companion (Jewel in the Crown's Art Malik) who uneasily straddles the house's social strata. And I'm still smiling about the vignette involving the cantankerous new cook's encounter with celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton.
You'll likely wish for more — and naturally, more chapters are already in the works. But if you're smart, you'll try to get your hands on those classic DVDs. They hold up, and it's a keeper.
Upstairs Downstairs premieres Sunday, 9/8c, on PBS; check local schedules in case times vary.