MOVIE: *** (out of 5)
DVD EXPERIENCE: ***1/2 (out of 5)
BY KEVIN CARR
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
New life is breathed in the classic 1970s Masterpiece Theatre series “Upstairs Downstairs.” Rather than remaking the story from the original World War I era, the timeframe is advanced to the eve of World War II. Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) has returned to 165 Eaton Place to arrange the servants of Sir Hallam and his life Lady Agnes. While the upper crust of British society deals with their problems upstairs, the servants also face life challenges as they live downstairs.
WHAT I LIKED
Growing up, I was very much aware of “Upstairs Downstairs,” since my mother watched it every week on our local PBS affiliate. I understood the general concept – the ongoing drama of the high class family and the lower class servants living in the same house. Of course, I was too young to really understand any of it, and like many BBC period pieces, it was boring to me as a child.
I have not revisited these older episodes, but I was able to jump right into this new version. The most impressive thing to me about the series was how it was able to present the struggles of the different classes and avoid the “woe is me” aspects that come with the territory of showing the struggles of the rich. It also avoids victimizing the working class, opting for a more viscerally human approach to the characters.
The stories balance between the two, keeping up the airs that was necessary in British society in the 30s while, but not letting anyone get too condescending.
The acting is quite fine in this film, with Rose Buck from the original series providing the anchor. But there are some really surprising performances from Downstairs. Namely, Adrian Scarborough as Mr. Pritchard is extremely relateable yet stiff as he needs to be to achieve a 30s British butler. Similarly, Ellie Kendrick as the young tart maid Ivy is a perfect mix of adorability and sensual vixen.
Finally, with this DVD release on the heels of the film “The King’s Speech” winning the Oscar, bringing the story of the era’s British monarchy to a greater understanding, we get to see a similar backdrop that is suddenly more familiar to us sheltered Americans who might not know the full historical context.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
While the production value of this BBC show has grown immensely since its first incarnation in the early 1970s, there’s still a low-rent feel to parts of it. For the most part, the BBC has really stepped up its production quality, but it still lags behind its American counterparts. But still, it works for a TV series and looks good in many ways.
The half-hour featurette “Upstairs Downstairs: Behind Closed Doors” takes a look at how the BBC updated the legendary series for a modern audience.
WHO’S GOING TO LIKE THIS MOVIE
People like my mother, who watched the BBC religiously via PBS back when I was a kid.