Wel­come back to 165 Ea­ton Place, as PBS re­vives ‘Up­stairs Down­stairs’


Jean Marsh still re­mem­bers vividly the day she started film­ing the first new episode of “Up­stairs Down­stairs,” a re­vival of the sig­na­ture 1970s Bri­tish se­ries that pre­mieres at 9 p.m. to­day on Chan­nel 9.

Repris­ing her Emmy-win­ning role as Rose Buck, the ac­tress, now 76, was stand­ing in a re-cre­ation of the stately Lon­don home set where she had worked for five sea­sons when she re­ceived some spec­tac­u­larly un­nec­es­sary ad­vice from her di­rec­tor.

“He said to me, ‘Now, when you walk into the hall, don’t for­get that this is the house where you were the hap­pi­est, so you must be moved,’ ” Marsh re­calls. “And I thought, ‘My God, do you think I’m not moved? I’m moved as Rose, and I’m moved as Jean.’ I walked into that replica of the hall­way, and I could hear voices. It was just breath­tak­ing. I said, ‘You’d bet­ter not say that to me again, or you’ll just have me cry­ing all the time, and I think the au­di­ence should cry, not me.’ ”

If view­ers do shed some tears, they will be happy ones. The orig­i­nal “Up­stairs” has re­mained a fan fa­vorite in the 40-year “Mas­ter­piece” pan­theon. Marsh, who co-cre­ated that orig­i­nal se­ries with close friend Eileen Atkins (“Cran­ford”), says sev­eral in­ter­ested par­ties have ap­proached the two women since the first se­ries ended its run more than three decades ago. Broad­way com­poser Bur­ton Lane (“On a Clear Day You Can See For­ever”) and lyri­cist Shel­don Har­nick (“Fid­dler on the Roof”) even took a stab at turn­ing it into a stage mu­si­cal.

But it was only af­ter “Cran­ford” screen­writer Heidi Thomas, who fell in love with “Up­stairs” as a lit­tle girl, de­cided to tackle a re­boot of the se­ries that things started to move for­ward.

As the new episodes open in 1936, 165 Ea­ton Place is about to get a new fam­ily in res­i­dence: Sir Hal­lam Hol­land (Ed Stop­pard, son of play­wright Tom), a diplo­mat re­turn­ing from a stint in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and his wife, Agnes (Kee­ley Hawes, “Wives and Daugh­ters”), soon joined by his re­cently wid­owed mother, Lady Maud (Atkins), and Agnes’ head­strong younger sis­ter, Lady Per­sie (Claire Foy, “Lit­tle Dor­rit”).

Orig­i­nally hired by Agnes to as­sem­ble a house­hold staff, Rose even­tu­ally is pressed into ser­vice as the house­keeper of the res­i­dence, joined by Mrs. Thack- eray (Anne Reid, “Bleak House”), the cook, and Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scar­bor­ough, “Cran­ford”), the but­ler.

“In Bri­tain, 1936 was known as ‘the year of three kings,’ be­cause Ge­orge V died in Jan­uary, Ed­ward VIII came to the throne and then ab­di­cated in De­cem­ber, giv­ing way to Ge­orge VI,” Thomas ex­plains of the new his­tor­i­cal set­ting. “It was just a year of enor­mous change. It was a cru­cial point in Euro­pean his­tory, with the rise of fas­cism, and it also gave us a chance to look at what was hap­pen­ing in the work­ing class, and the riot in Cable Street, when the or­di­nary Bri­tish work­ing man rose up against that specter of fas­cism.”

Thomas pitched the idea to Atkins dur­ing a long flight back to Eng­land fol­low­ing a U.S. press tour for “Cran­ford” and had an in­for­mal deal worked out by the time their plane landed. Marsh, how­ever, ad­mits to be­ing a tri­fle wary when she heard about the pro­posed pro­ject.

“I was in­stantly ner­vous,” she says. “I was anx­ious about the past and the pos­si­bil­ity of let­ting so many peo­ple down. Not just me and Eileen, but also all the ac­tors who were now dead. I thought it prob­a­bly was a good idea, but I wasn’t sure. When I ac­tu­ally sat at the first readthrough with all of the ac­tors around me — I sat be­tween Mrs. Thack­eray the cook and Mr. Pritchard the but­ler — and they were so fab­u­lous that I knew both Gor­don Jack­son and An­gela Bad­de­ley (who played but­ler Mr. Hud­son and cook Mrs. Bridges in the orig­i­nal) would ap­prove of them. That’s when I thought, ‘It’s go­ing to be all right.’ ”

Ac­tu­ally, it’s quite a bit more than just all right. The three episodes that make up this ini­tial minis­eries, with the happy pos­si­bil­ity of more to fol­low, are a tri­umph, per­fectly re­cap­tur­ing the spirit of the orig­i­nal yet pick­ing up the sto­ry­telling pace to ap­pease mod­ern at­ten­tion spans. As Marsh’s first im­pres­sion re­flected. Reid and Scar­bor­ough not only stand up to fond mem­o­ries of Bad­de­ley and the Emmy-win­ning Jack­son but they also make in­deli­ble im­pres­sions of their own as Ea­ton Place’s new cook and but­ler. And Atkins, whose busy stage ca­reer kept her from ap­pear­ing in the orig­i­nal “Up­stairs,” is a crusty de­light as Lady Maud.

Vet­eran Bri­tish ac­tress Jean Marsh reprises her role in “Up­stairs Down­stairs.”

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