Upstairs Downstairs Review: The Lives Of Others

UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS: Boxing Day, BBC1, 9pm ALERT ME

The original series finished 35 years ago is well worth tracking down on DVD (a last minute stocking filler idea for you there). It told the two overlapping stories of the gentry above stairs and the servants below it. If this sounds familiar to those of you who’ve never heard of it, it’s because ITV’s Downton Abbey has almost exactly the same premise.

In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that TV shows take quite some time to produce, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the BBC had resurrected Upstairs Downstairs (ironically originally aired on LWT) as a kind of retaliation for Downton Abbey – it’s all too easy to imagine pin-striped cigar-puffing execs shouting “Get Jean Marsh in here! And get her to write Upstairs Downstairs again!â€? when they saw Downton’s ratings.

The result is a rather short mini-series, set six years after the original ended in 1936. 165 Eaton Place has now changed hands to a new family headed by the young Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), a diplomat returning from abroad with his new wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes). Needing new staff for their new home, they consult Rose Buck (series creator Jean Marsh and former head parlour maid of old Upstairs Downstairs) now running her own recruitment agency.

You can tick the list of other characters and their personalities off on a sheet. So we’ve got rough-round-the-edges but with a heart of gold parlour maid Ivy (Ellie Kendrick); Sir Holland’s crotchety, interfering widowed mother Maud (series co-creator Eileen Atkins), newly returned from India with a manservant and a monkey; Holland’s irresponsible spoiled sister (Claire Foy); a floury-armed cook (Anne Reid) and a northern footman (Neil Jackson) making a “fresh startâ€?, read: running away from something, that’s sure to catch up with him before the episode’s out.

The only diversion from character expectations is the butler, Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) who, far from the unwavering attentiveness of his predecessor Mr Hudson, is fresh from serving aboard a cruise liner and is unused to home service. No doubt that will get him in trouble in episodes to come.

It’s set against the political rumblings in Europe which will eventually lead to war. Sir Holland as a diplomat has connections with the King’s brother and foreign secretary Anthony Eden, both who make appearances. The new staff are thrown in the deep end when the Hollands host their first cocktail party which brings with it some prestigious unexpected guests.

It’s certainly entertaining. The attention to detail in the costumes and set pieces is as you’d expect exemplary, the acting perfectly fine (special mention should go to Jean Marsh, who’s absolutely wonderful in every scene she’s in – you can almost see the faded memories of her prior service reflected in her eyes) but as it’s the first episode and its primary function is to introduce as many characters as possible. Whether this episode will grow into something significant or be merely a footnote to a formerly great series still remains to be seen.

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