At first, the idea seems strange and arbitrary: Rebooting “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the stately 1970s British drama, in a three-hour, three-part miniseries? Why now — especially after “Masterpiece” just covered similar terrain with the brilliant “Downton Abbey?” Yet after a slow start, the second and third chapters become pretty absorbing, showcasing a first-rate cast — including original series creators Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh — and an interesting subplot regarding the growing Nazi threat in 1930s Britain. In short, 165 Eaton Place remains an address well worth visiting, and ultimately, you can’t have too many classy English costume dramas.
Set in 1936 (and again featuring the abdication of King Edward VIII as a subplot, as did “Masterpiece’s” recent “Any Human Heart”), the story features a new couple occupying the mansion featured in the original. The vacant house is inherited by a young diplomat, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife, Agnes (Keeley Hawes). They enlist a domestic employment agency run by Rose Buck (Marsh) — unbeknownst to them, a former servant to the previous owners — to provide them with a small staff.
Nostalgia notwithstanding, this portion grinds along rather sluggishly. Soon enough, though, Rose has filled the house with new hires and the Hollands have added difficult relatives: Hallam’s estranged and imperious mother, Maud (Atkins, stealing every scene she’s in); and Agnes’ debutante sister Persie (“Little Dorrit’s” Claire Foy), who becomes enamored with the British Union of Fascists and a German emissary, Ribbentrop (Edward Baker-Duly).
From the moment Maud enters with a polished urn — asking her aghast son and daughter-in-law “Where shall I put your father?” — it’s clear the production is in good hands under writer Heidi Thomas (“Cranford”) and directors Euros Lyn and Saul Metzstein. That includes several unexpected twists, along with moments of humor and heartbreak as the story unfolds, all playing out against an especially fascinating period in British history.
Of the various subplots, the most compelling doesn’t kick in until the second hour, involving a German Jew (Helen Bradbury) who finds work at the house — and begins a poignant friendship with Maud’s Indian servant Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik).
By the end, it’s clear the new version is just warming up, and happily, additional installments are being planned. Because unlike so many revivals that do little but mine the title’s recognition factor, “Upstairs, Downstairs” serves its audience far more capably.