Monkey-Toting Mom Climbs ‘Upstairs’; Quinn’s History Lesson: TV

Ellie Kendrick, Keeley Hawes, Adrian Scarborough, Jean Marsh and Nico Mirallegro in "Upstairs Downstairs." The show airs Sundays on PBS. Source: BBC/MASTERPIECE via Bloomberg

“Upstairs Downstairs” dusts itself off for a swell new sequel 34 years after the classic British series drew its curtains. Though too tame to sweep the continents as it did in the 1970s, the three-part miniseries airing on PBS finds life in the storied manor yet.

“What a ghastly old mausoleum!” Lady Agnes exclaims as she enters the long-shuttered wreck of a London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place. Audiences familiar with the series only by reputation might have similar misgivings, but “Upstairs Downstairs” isn’t nearly as twee -- nor, for that matter, as tart -- as it could be.

Set in 1936, the new series picks up six years after the original ended. Young diplomat Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife Agnes (Keeley Hawes) have moved into the dilapidated home that once teemed with grandeur and no small amount of melodrama. Outside, England is in flux: a king has died, another is about to abdicate and the money that once kept the upper crust in pheasant is dwindling.

Change is unfolding within the Holland household as well. Hallam’s eccentric, monkey-toting mother Maud (Eileen Atkins) has arrived, as has Agnes’ troublemaking, convention-flaunting sister Persie (Claire Foy). Each carries a secret.

New Staff

Downstairs is no calmer. Lady Agnes, unequal to the demands of domesticity, has hired a new staff, including an efficient, sweet-natured butler; a brawling young footman; a scullery maid with a wild streak; a chain-smoking cook; and a handsome chauffeur with an unsettling interest in both Lady Persie and a new political movement making inroads from Germany.

Overseeing it all is Rose, the original’s parlor maid recruited by the home’s new owners to serve as housekeeper. She is played now, as then, by the wonderful Jean Marsh, who co-created the first series with, among others, Atkins. Even when the story goes soft and maudlin, particularly in the more implausible moments of the final episode, Atkins and Marsh shine like polished silverware.

“We have experience, you and I,” Maud confides to Rose. “We are what that home requires.”

And how. The actresses ground this erudite soap with the appealing, brittle sentimentality that once seemed the very air of sophistication. Nostalgia reigns, and not for the 1930s.

“Upstairs Downstairs” airs Sundays on PBS (check local listings for times.). Rating: ***

‘Long Story Short’

So, long story short. Funnyman Colin Quinn. Comic re-telling of world history. Broadway 2010. HBO now. Transition, fine.


Quinn, a featured player on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1990s, recruited Jerry Seinfeld to direct his one-man show, “Long Story Short,” a fast riff on humanity’s slow march. The show was taped at New York’s Helen Hayes Theater in February, and debuts Saturday on HBO.

Every empire gets the comic’s scrutiny. Britain, Quinn notes, conquered the world not with size but with contempt. “This,” his British invaders sniff upon arrival, “is where you live?”

On stage, the routine was funny but felt rushed, as if Quinn was trying to outrun the echoes of that big stage. The show is unchanged for HBO, yet seems a better fit, with cameras trained squarely on a man facile enough to connect history’s dictators with those friends of yours who command, “Don’t let me forget my jacket.”

“Colin Quinn: Long Story Short” premieres Saturday on HBO at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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