Three years before World War II begins, London is awash in social and political unrest. English fascists are on the move, a new king wants to wed an American divorcee, and stirrings of terrible events to come have reached across the Channel. Jewish refugees have arrived, and so have Nazi propagandists.
But the world seems to have passed by 165 Eaton Place. The residence had been shuttered six years earlier by the Bellamy family, the original proprietors, whose exploits spanned 30-plus years and 68 episodes of the original PBS series that ended in 1975. The old place has been inherited by Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes) and -- of course -- they need servants. (The original name referred to servants who lived on the bottom floor and the Bellamy family, who lived upstairs.)
The Hollands have retained Rose Buck -- yes, the same Rose, played by Jean Marsh -- who now runs her own domestic agency. A staff is hired, while Hallam's mother, Maud (Dame Eileen Atkins), arrives from India. Meanwhile, Lady Agnes' high-spirited sister, Lady Persie (Claire Foy), also arrives.
MY SAY Imagine if "Mad Men" were reborn nearly 40 years from now for a brief moment -- while there were still a few hale and hardy fans around who remembered what it was actually about. That should give you just the slightest sense of what this return, however fleeting, means.
"Upstairs Downstairs" was a true Emmy-winning sensation all those years ago -- an import that mixed social and political satire with Evelyn Waugh-style humor, and not an inconsiderable amount of soap. This newcomer is a continuation, not a remake, and often expertly mimics the heartbeat of the original.
But this three-parter often lacks finesse and sophistication. The story is rushed or clumsily told, and the tone discordant. This "Upstairs" isn't certain whether it wants to be Jane Austen -- or George Orwell.
BOTTOM LINE Watch for Atkins only. She's brilliant.