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New ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ structurally sound


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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

I’m not sure what exactly the appeal is. I loved “Gosford Park,” and I ate up all six hours of PBS’ recent “Downton Abbey,” only to find that it ended with an excruciating cliffhanger.

Bloody hell.

Maybe it’s that the English period dramas make scandal seem ... so genteel. They’re about an entitled aristocracy desperately trying to merge through marriage, and the plucky servants who are proud to iron their newspapers. Everyone knows their “place.”

So essentially, they’re about an alien civilization.

Now the mother ship is back. The ’70s series that started it all, “Upstairs Downstairs,” has dared to return as a three-hour sequel beginning tonight. Only six years have passed, with the action beginning in 1936, and only one character returns, parlor maid Rose, who has risen to dizzying heights — she’s promoted to housekeeper.

Rose is played by Jean Marsh, who created the series with Eileen Atkins. Atkins was too busy with stagework to take a role in the original series, but 40 years after the cameras first rolled, she stars as mother-in-law Maud. Just returned from India, Maud’s entourage includes a turbaned Indian servant and Solomon, a small monkey.

Only six years are supposed to have lapsed, so Marsh deserves some kind of award for slipping back into the role without skipping a beat. She looks a bit older than she’s meant to, but, hey, the ’30s were rough on a lot of people.

Lesley-Anne Down, as Georgina, moved out in the last episode, and the house has been snapped up by a smart young couple. Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), a dashing diplomat, brings his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes), to her first real home, and they simply must have a first-rate staff. Their social stature means that historical luminaries like photographer Cecil Beaton and royal-wrecker Wallis Simpson are liable to visit.

(After the first episode, WTTW is airing “Edward & Wallis: A Royal Love Story” to keep the vibe going.)

Downstairs, Rose ably assembles a team that includes a young maid who cries often (and loudly), a footman-in-training from the sticks, and a very proper butler who comes with a glowing reference from Errol Flynn. “I was like this at Jimmy Cagney’s 21st,” he says nervously before a big soiree. “It didn’t end well.” Personal drama dominates (sex, violence, tragedy), but “Upstairs Downstairs” also chronicles Hitler’s rise in Germany, England’s divided reaction to it and the line that’s beginning to blur between servant and master. “I won’t call you ‘Lady’ anything if you don’t act like one,” the chauffeur chastises young Lady Persephone.

He hasn’t seen anything yet.

The history lesson is leavened by droll dialogue and the small triumphs in life — particularly downstairs, where Rose’s silver tea kettle is her proudest possession because it was given to her by the last family she worked for. Servants weren’t supposed to have familial ties themselves — the better to serve, you see — so they leaned on one another.

Watching it was just bliss, and those of you who experienced the first five seasons in real time will probably enjoy it even more. BBC Worldwide is releasing a two-disc DVD of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” ($34.95) on April 26.

That should keep you busy until “Downton Abbey” manages to put together its second season. And “Upstairs Downstairs” continues to inspire imitators: England’s ITV has announced that it’s filming a four-hour miniseries called “Titanic” that will profile passengers from steerage as well as first class.

There probably won’t be a sequel to that one.

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