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Upstairs Downstairs (2010) - First episode review

Upstairs Downstairs

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 2.5 out of 5

IT WAS almost inevitable that I’d find myself writing that the BBC’s update of classic TV hit Upstairs Downstairs would find itself judged against the merits of ITV’s Downton Abbey. But I never guessed that it would struggle so hard to emerge from the shadow of its rival.

The BBC drama should actually benefit from the period revival spearheaded by Downton and also comes with the fondness of memory still afforded the original series.

Alas, the first episode of this three-parter felt rather stale and cold by comparison to its much warmer rival and lacking any real magic.

Set six years after the original ended in 1936, the story finds 165 Eaton Place in the new hands of a family headed by young Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), a diplomat returning from abroad with his new wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes).

The first half of proceedings found them searching for new staff using the advice of Rose Buck (series creator Jean Marsh and former head parlour maid of the old Upstairs Downstairs), who was now running her own recruitment agency.

By the end of the episode, the components were in place, from parlour maid Ivy (Ellie Kendrick), a northern footman making a fresh start (Neil Jackson), and the self-serious butler Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), who arrived fresh from serving aboard a cruise liner. Oh, there was also a cook (Anne Reid)!

Upstairs, meanwhile, the living quarters became complicated by the unexpected arrival of Sir Hallam’s interfering widowed mother Maud (series co-creator Eileen Atkins), newly returned from India with a secretary (Art Malik) and a monkey, and Holland’s spoiled, wreckless sister (Claire Foy).

Come the episode’s end, the young northern footman had been chaperoned off to prison by the police for an assault in a pub, Lady Agnes was struggling to assert her authority over Maud, and the family had been rocked by a visit from a certain Mrs Simpson (Emma Clifford) and her Nazi-sympathising other lover.

As you’d expect from the BBC, close attention to period detail has been paid in the costumes and set pieces (something that Downton was continually faulted for in some quarters), while the acting is good.

Marsh, in particular, stands out… her wise, kind-hearted Rose providing the heart-beat of the episode and some of its nicest moments.

But as good-looking as things were, Upstairs Downstairs remained a difficult show to warm to. In spite of several mini-dramas, nothing really happened and certain key characters lacked the charisma of their Downton counterparts.

Adrian Scarborough’s butler shows the most potential of the downstairs staff, while Eileen Atkins is as good as you might expect as the fiesty Maud… but without the lip-smackingly good line delivery of Downton‘s Dame Maggie Smith. But then she hasn’t got Julian Fellowes providing the verbal bullets.

Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, meanwhile, appear to be playing things a little over-earnest and have yet to assert themselves over proceeedings.

But then earnestness is something that Upstairs Downstairs seems to be suffering from the most, struggling to overcome the limitations imposed by a lot of ‘stuffy’ period dramas. It so far lacks the free-flowing charisma and gripping character interplay of Downton.

Hence, while it desperately wants to impress, it does so only intermittently. With only two more episodes to go, it has its work cut out!

Read our verdict on the remaining episodes