Friday, May 6, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre: Upstairs, Downstairs

Within Masterpiece Theatre's 40 year run, there is perhaps no more iconic production than Upstairs, Downstairs, the 1971-1975 series that portrayed the rapidly changing culture of England from the Edwardian period through the first World War and the roaring 20s. Now, original creators Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh have teamed up again to continue (or reincarnate) the original series and bring life back to 165 Eaton Place.

It is 1936, and diplomat Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) has just purchased 165 Eaton Place, which has sat vacant for 6 years. His wife, Agnes (Keeley Hawes), is determined to make their home a star in London social scene, but she soon finds her attempts somewhat dampened by the arrival of her mother-in-law (Eileen Atkins) and her younger sister, Persie (Claire Foy).

Meanwhile, former Eaton Place parlor maid, Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), has been engaged to oversee the employment of a household staff. Though she is given a limited budget, she soon finds the people she needs. From the stiff, yet kind butler (Adrian Scarborough) to the handsome and confident chauffeur (Neil Jackson) to the immigrant parlormaid with a secret (Helen Bradbury), the household downstairs is just as complicated as the one upstairs, and history and tragedy will soon shake both tho the core.

Though it has been on my "to watch" list for quite some time, I've never actually seen any of the original Upstairs, Downstairs episodes. I am aware, however, just how important that original series was in the life of Masterpiece Theatre and that it is considered by most to be the best series ever shown on the program. So, I had enough background to know what the basic premise was, but not enough to have huge expectations. In the end, I didn't find it very satisfying, but I can't exactly put my finger on why. The acting was good, the filming top-notch, and the setting wonderful. Even the cultural issues were interesting (though I do feel like I have re-hashed the whole Edward VIII's abdication a billion times this year). But for whatever reason, I just couldn't CONNECT with the story like I have other programs. It was like I almost didn't really care about what happened to the characters. No one really stood out or grabbed my attention, unlike in Downton Abbey. The downstairs household was particularly bland, I felt, with much less drama and backstory.

It wasn't a bad way to spend an evening, but it wasn't something that I could honestly say that I loved. I didn't find myself on the edge of my seat in expectation, I didn't squeal or sob, and I didn't notice anything spectacular in the writing. While I am more determined than ever to see the original series, I'm looking forward much more to the next installment of Downton Abbey than to a continuation of this (should there be one). Just wasn't something that I felt really excited about. If you have seen both the original and the new series, please let me know your thoughts...did it live up to your expectations?


Anne Mateer said...

My husband and I were left with the same feeling. I think it had to do with the writing. Too much time covered, too many characters in only a few episodes. What Downton Abbey did so well was convey character above all else. You KNEW each one--by their actions, their dialogue. It seemed to be a more character driven series. This one seemed more plot driven--like they had certain "events" they wanted to cover rather than just letting us come to love the characters. It's interesting, because I imagine the success of the original series was its characters.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I started watching this a few days ago, am only a couple episodes in, but am not itching to get back to it like I was with Downton Abbey.