Thirty-six years separate the end of the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” and the BBC incarnation premiering Sunday on “Masterpiece” in the U.S.
For co-creator Jean Marsh, whose Rose is the only performance link between the two series, filming new scenes on a familiar house set (albeit recreated in Wales) was understandably emotional.
“In the old days, I didn’t always have the same emotions as Rose,” she says. “I wanted to be a good worker and housemaid, but I wasn’t a ‘my country right or wrong’ person. But to walk down those steps, and open that door, character and actor merged.”
The ’70s “Upstairs” was an indoor affair — weeklong rehearsals, eventually videotaped with multiple cameras and long scenes, like a cross between theater and live television — reflective of TV techniques then. The new one has a lushly appointed, filmic look and is more snappily paced.
“There’s a different energy and speed,” says Marsh. “They’re shorter scenes, and there’s no languor like there was in the last one.”
The first “Upstairs” began as a window on the progressive era in which it was shot — narratives infused by class and gender tensions regarding money, politics and sexuality — before the final season’s conservative, everybody-happily-in-their-place aura signaled Britain’s own rightward shift. The new “Upstairs” has a more streamlined sense of nostalgia, with a few mirror touches — acknowledging Britain’s colonial past, for example, through the casting of Art Malik as a Sikh secretary working for Dame Eileen Atkins’ eccentric aristocrat.
Atkins’ appearance, however, represents the most sentimentally meaningful change. She and Marsh created the show together, but a scheduling conflict kept Atkins from joining the cast until, well, 40 years later.
“I think it might be more enjoyable for Eileen,” says Marsh wistfully. “I keep feeling guilty that I’m letting the past down. But I’ve gotten over it now, because the actors in this new one are so good!”
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