Times Television Critic

You might call it Upstage, Downstage.

There are obvious similarities between “The Bretts"--the season-opening “Masterpiece Theatre” production debuting Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channels 50 and 24 and at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15--and “Upstairs, Downstairs,” perhaps the most popular British series ever to air on American TV.

Both are elaborate soap operas and treasures for Anglophiles. And like the Bellamys of 165 Eaton Place, the Bretts of Hampstead display the trappings of wealth and privilege with a large house and a staff of servants whose relatively mundane lives are a running counterpoint to the adventures of their upper-crust employers.

The resemblance ends there, however.


Unlike the prosperous, somewhat aristocratic Bellamys, the Bretts are a 1920s family of sweepingly self-indulgent thespians whose fame is bigger than their bank accounts.

And unlike the deeply affecting “Upstairs, Downstairs” characters and intrigues that commanded your interest from week to week, “The Bretts” is lighter and slighter, offering far less to chew on in the earliest of its eight episodes.

Nonetheless, the battling Bretts are a charmingly decadent, warring brood whose whole life is a stage and whose best performances are delivered at home. They’re worth watching if only to catch the silken work of delightful Norman Rodway and Barbara Murray as a theatrical couple who have been married 31 combative years.

The British-produced story was created by Frank Marshall and Rosemary Anne Sisson (an original “Upstairs, Downstairs” dramatist). It seems that Charles and Lydia Brett (Rodway and Murray) have been major stars of the West End stage since the 1890s. Their oldest son, Edwin (David Yelland), and daughter, Martha (Belinda Lang), also have stage careers. And their youngest son, Thomas (George Winter), is a writer of New Wave plays that clash with the swashbuckling old-world sensibilities of his wonderfully lecherous father, who regards Noel Coward as an upstart.


Downstairs is a staff of servants who are largely misfits. Sutton the butler (Tim Wylton) is a former actor, Flora the cook (Rhoda Lewis) is a former nanny and Hegarty the chauffeur (Billy Boyle) was once an Irish rebel.

The episodes are elegantly staged and wittily, if unevenly, written. In the opener, Lydia threatens to leave Charles for hiring a beautiful, pampered secretary (a “war widow,” he calls her) who can’t type, and Charles seeks ways to make ends meet and perpetuate his waning career.

Although the energy drops off when Charles and Lydia aren’t around, “The Bretts” is an urbane and amusing slice of fiction grounded in theatrical history.

“Women in Prison,” the new Fox Broadcasting comedy series arriving at 8:30 Sunday on Channels 11 and 6, is a sort of “Hogan’s Heroes” of the prison set: You know, all the stuff that makes prison so hilarious?

It’s also pathetically unfunny.

The sadistic guard in this fun house is Meg Bando (Denny Dillon). The zany cons (are there any other kind?) are Bonnie (Antoinette Byron), Dawn (C.C.H. Pounder), Eve (Peggy Cass) and Pam (Wendy Jo Sperber), who has a separate cell where she plays the organ and enjoys the other fineries of life. And into their goofy midst Sunday arrives spoiled and pampered Vicki (Julia Campbell), a la Goldie Hawn in “Sgt. Benjamin.”

“Women in Prison” is from Katherine Green and Richard Gurman, who were also behind Fox’s vastly superior “Married . . . With Children.”

If you like punchless punch lines and cheap gay jokes, “Women in Prison” is the show for you. Beware, though, for Fox says “Women in Prison” is “reality based.” Oooooooh.