Upstairs Downstairs was a big to-do back in the '70s, and it's been brought into the 21st century with this new series.
Its nifty calling card is that Jean Marsh, who played Rose the maid back in the original series (and who is one of the show's original creators) is reprising her role, only she's moved on to running an employment service, and gets hired by the new owners of 165 Eaton Place to staff up—but, apparently the owner, Sir Hallam Holland, is a cheapskate, so the only help they can hire is sketchy.
The first people we meet in the first episode are Sir Hallam Holland and his wife, Lady Agnes, played by Keeley Hawes, who is married to Matthew Macfadyen in real life, and who was on MI-5 and Ashes To Ashes, among other British television shows. Keeley always seems a bit mean and brittle, and although she hasn't done anything outwardly mean yet, it seems like it's only a matter of time before she does. Her husband, Sir Hallam, is pretty to look at, but seems like milquetoast. In my notes, I kept shorthanding him as “Dud,” (not dude!); it remains to be seen if he develops a backbone.
(Just to make sure we know it is Set In A Different Time Period, Hawes is dripping with fur as they disembark from some fancy cruise ship. It's 1936, by the way, and the king is ill with bronchitis. Mr. Dud says, “If he dies, it will change things everywhere.” He dies; presumably things change.)
The two go into their new house, which is totally dusty and dark and unfit for human habitation. It does, however, have a fierce chandelier, pieces of which I would be proud to wear as earrings.
Lady Agnes pronounces she's going to make the house, their first proper house, gorgeous, and Dud says he just wants to sit and gaze at her every evening, silent because they know each other's every thought. Gag.
When we meet Rose Buck, the house's former maid now at the employment agency, it's clear she's startled to meet the new owners of the house she spent so much time at. It couldn't have been more clear the house was Important To Her if they'd played ominous organ music. Plus, Jean Marsh has the most striking blue eyes, and a lovely, worn-in visage. I like looking at her, not so much Keeley, who's still kinda off-putting. Despite her shingled hair and chic clothing.
So tasked with the job of staffing on the Dud's pittance, Rose Buck proceeds to an orphanage, where she hires one of the orphans—the one with the red polish on her nails and the saucy demeanor—and tries to persuade her old friend to come be the cook for the household, seducing her with talk of the newly-done kitchen and the fancy stove. The cook's arrival into the household is an inevitability, but she doesn't say yes right away.
As the Saucy Maid is serenading her fellow servants in her new place of work, an older woman arrives on the scene. No, Keeley, she is not applying for the housekeeper's position. She is, in fact, the Dud's mother recently returned from abroad. She's accompanied by a Cheeky Monkey—literally—who leaps onto the Saucy Maid's head and causes havoc. She also has an Indian servant, Mr. Amanjit, who is very soothing in an Eastern sort of way. The Dud is startled to find his mother in the house, and even moreso when she makes it clear she will be living with them in this new abode. Because nothing says stiffen up a guy's backbone like having your domineering, eccentric mother come to live with you. While you have the brittle, I-want-my-way wife, too. Poor Dud.
Maud, the Dud's mom, shows a surprisingly softer side when she hands the family jewels—again, literally, it's not that kind of show—to Keeley, and tells her the tiara suits her as if it were made for her. I like that they've hewn closely to the Matriarchal Character with Maud, but also made her more than a Maggie Smith clone.
Meanwhile, they try to humanize Keeley by having Rose sneak in some fish and chips wrapped in newspaper because she's had a craving. Personally, I think it just makes her seem even more snooty, but then I think I just plain don't like her.
They've hired a Footman-in-Training, or FIT, which seems to mean he gets to make even less than a regular footman. He looks like he's about 12. And his mom sends him off to his new position with a gift, a cross-stitched sampler that says “Blessed Are The Meek.” Thanks, Mom.
Of course, young people and servants being who they are, FIT meets Saucy Maid (SM) and friendship—and more?—occurs. It's never good when there are two young people in service together. Did no-one learn anything from any dark British melodrama ever?
So then we get a montage of Rose trying to staff up, not finding anyone suitable to be the butler, and FIT and SM learning on the job together, making beds and whatnot (not that whatnot; I said, it's not that kind of show!).
Eventually, Keeley's sister Persephone—nicknamed Persie—arrives for a Season in London, and immediately causes household havoc. It's up to Matriarch Maud to get Percy to chill out:
In the space of 40 minutes, you’ve slapped a servant, distressed your sister, delayed dinner, which has forced Cook to ruin a maron soufflé.
Not only that, Persie heads out to the British Museum to meet Maud, getting the new winky chauffeur (by the way, is it a rule that every British chauffeur be slightly edgy? See: Downton Abbey) to reprimand her after she's left the house through the servants' entrance AND sat in the front seat next to him:
The thing is, Lady Persie, there are rules. And you have to stick to them as much as us.
You tell her, Mr. Driver.
Rose finally finds a butler who will do (he's neither Portuguese, nor a drunkard, two of the dealbreakers offered by Lady Agnes and Cook, respectively), and he's got a reference from Errol Flynn! And references Jimmy Cagney! Just in case you've forgotten it's 1936, and these are wild times. He is no Mr. Bates, sadly, just a nervous guy who seems as though he has some sort of weird secret. And I don't wanna know what it is.
Lady Agnes and her diplomat Dud have a party, and Maud interferes by changing the canapes menu AND inviting Mrs. Simpson, the “relentlessly well-dressed” mistress of the brand-new king. Mrs. Simpson coylt asks Maud if she can bring a friend to this shindig, and everyone assumes she means the king.
Lady Agnes is over the moon about the king's presence at her party, and I'd be over the moon, too, if I had the dress she wears: It's gold glitter, with a halter top, and shows a lot of back. I would totally wear it.
Oopie. Instead, though, Mrs. Simpson arrives with the “suave and sinister” Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's unofficial envoy to London. Now Diplomat Dud is in hot water with his superiors, and has to figure out how to get the Nazi—who's chatting up his sister-in-law—out of the house, fast. Being a milquetoast, and not at all diplomatic, Dud tells Keeley SHE has to figure out a way, and she goes to Rose, who speaks with the butler, and then they send FIT out with a full tray of drinks to spill on the Nazi intruder so he's forced to leave.
While the house was prepping for a party, Saucy Maid went and took a bath, and FIT tried to sneak a peek, which seemed rather bold for a 12 year-old. They make mutual promises about later on, and I'm thinking 'unwanted pregnancy!' but who's listening to my thoughts, anyway?
So FIT removes his now alcohol-sodden, Nazi-removing shirt and sucks some of the liquor off—yuk!—in prep for his evening of fun with Saucy Maid. They make out a lot, he tries to get her into a private bedroom, and she manages to lock herself in the bedroom with him without. And then she's surprised when he heads off to the pub!
She puts on fresh lipstick—super dark-red, really stunning—and arrives at the pub herself. FIT is sitting with Mr. Driver and some other random servant, and the random servant makes a comment about SM, who's clearly panting for FIT, and FIT hits the random servant, somehow managing to embed a honking big piece of glass in his neck. Huh?
FIT takes off, runs back into his room, and curls into a fetal position. It's up to Rose to talk him out of his room and into police custody. Seems as though he's got some anger issues, and has been on probation, and shouldn't ever drink, ever again. Saucy Maid feels badly, but Mr. Amanjit tells her the time for crying is over, and he goes to release a baby bird that FIT had rescued earlier in the show (seriously, I thought that bit was rather ham-fisted. Yes, an egg ready to hatch, found in the Aristocrats' home. We get it).
Everybody's upset because FIT is off being remanded into custody, Lady Agnes isn't fit to run the household, and it's up to Maud to persuade Rose to take the position of housekeeper. Maud and Rose sit on a park bench by a pond because, Maud explains, she finds it “Helpful to gaze on water during awkward situations.” Ha! That cracked me up. I like Maud better now than when she was being all Exotic Eccentric. Hey, I get it lady, you've traveled everywhere, and you haven't lived in England for a good long time.
At the end, Keeley is handing Rose a leather fob with the word “HOUSEKEEPER” stamped on it. And Rose is back at 165 Eaton Place.
Next week, more mayhem.
And meanwhile, you can watch the whole thing yourself at PBS.org: