The original Upstairs, Downstairs, which ran on British television from 1971 to 1975, was conceived by actresses Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh in response to the enormous popularity of 1967’s televised serial The Forsyte Saga. Their simple idea was to tell the story of a grand English house through its servants, the butlers and housemaids that typically stand in the background like statues while their employers live the high life. It was a novel idea for television at the time, and it turned into a massive worldwide hit.
The new Upstairs Downstairs (no comma this time around) is less a sequel than a reboot. The only returning character is housemaid Rosie (played by show creator Marsh), who is charged with finding suitable servants for the new inhabitants of 165 Eaton Place in London. It’s 1936 and the house, the same location as the original, has been empty for several years. The new owners are Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes) and Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard), who works under Anthony Eden (Anthony Calf) in the foreign office, which means that historic figures of the day, like Hitler and Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, are frequent topics of discussion. This historical referencing was an important feature of the original series, and it works well here, adding complexity to an otherwise simple story. Especially compelling is a subplot involving Lady’s Holland’s sister, Persephone (Claire Foy), who becomes involved with the British Union of Fascists.
But where the old series was revolutionary (in television terms) in its presentation of the serving class, the new series comes across as somewhat sentimental and melodramatic. This is partly because in the year’s following the end of the original series, British television has tackled the working class (in long-running soaps like EastEnders) and downstairs help (in the recent, and excellent, Downton Abbey), but it’s also that the writing (penned by Heidi Thomas) is fairly unsophisticated. None of the characters, with the exception of Lady Holland, who struggles between shallow egotism and strength of character, are more than one-note clichés, including a steely mother-in-law (Eileen Atkins), a crotchety but warm-hearted cook (Anne Reid), a naïve housemaid (Ellie Kendrick), and even a sinister but handsome chauffer (Neil Jackson). It’s a wonder that no one winds up bludgeoned by a candlestick.
The least convincing character is Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik), the Indian secretary to Sir Holland’s mother, who’s come to live out his remaining years with his mistress at Eaton Place. He’s part noble servant, part noble savage, all rolled into one gooey mess of over-the-top acting. The sentimentality with which the show’s creators approach Mr. Amanjit is indicative of the way they deal with almost all of the other characters, most of whom (even the sinister chauffer) are eventually redeemed by performing an act of kindness. We’re ostensibly supposed to see Eaton Place as a warm haven holding out against the cold wind of history, but a show built around the humanity of strangers would be more convincing if the characters displayed more humanness.