"Upstairs, Downstairs," the British series about life among the servant class and the class they served, is back -- doubly back. Last month, the five-season, 68-episode series got a long-in-coming royal-treatment DVD release, "Upstairs, Downstairs Complete Series: 40th Anniversary Edition" (Acorn Media). And beginning Sunday, via PBS, its first American home, it adds -- over three new hours of television -- another year to the story.
First airing in Britain from 1971 to 1975, and in America from 1974 to 1977, the original "Upstairs, Downstairs" was a sort of extended-family drama that tracked the Bellamy household from 1903 to 1930; its purpose from the start was to give equal time to the determinedly unseen hands that rocked the cradles and made the beds and cooked the food.
Jean Marsh, who co-created the show with fellow actress Eileen Atkins, played Rose, the head parlormaid, and it is her story if it's anyone's.
The thread that connects the original iteration to the new, Rose is now -- in 1936, that is -- running an employment agency for domestics and is hired, quite by coincidence, to engage staff for the new family in her old house. But it is hard to find good help, even for the help.
"Staff was loyal once upon a time," Rose says with a sigh to cook Mrs. Thackeray (Ann Reid), remembering the old days.
"It was a one-way street," Mrs. Thackeray reminds her. She is a talented free agent weighing her options in a time of financial insecurity. On the whole, the "should I stay or should I go" tensions that animated the original series, which contrasted the inchoate rage to live of Pauline Collins' Sarah with Rose's desire for a safe place, are missing here. It's the Depression now, and nobody wants to go.
Written by Heidi Thomas, who adapted "Cranford" for the BBC, the new series is not a continuation of the original story but a return to the concept and the place. You won't have to have seen the first five seasons to understand or enjoy this tardy sixth -- with a seventh slated for next year -- and to the extent that the sequel suffers a bit in the comparison, that is potentially an advantage.
Now in residence at 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, London, are the Hollands: Hallam (Ed Stoppard), a young diplomat just back from America, with his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes, from "Ashes to Ashes"). Though the place is "a ghastly old museum" when they arrive, Lady A. sees past the dust and disrepair: "This house is going to see such life. There'll be lights at every window, lilies on every surface." Such words spoken aloud have ever meant trouble.
That comes in the form of her sister Persephone (Claire Foy), a country mouse up from Wales, soon to lose both her country and her mousey ways, and Hallam's long-absent, unconventional-within-bounds mother, back from the Colonies with an Indian secretary (Art Malik) and a monkey. She's played by Atkins, making her long-delayed debut in the show she helped create; checking in just to watch either her or Marsh would be worth your while.
The story runs from the January death of King George V through to the end of the year, with the abdication of Edward VII along the way, and like its predecessor, it embeds the family drama within a sociopolitical portrait of England at a time of confused national identity. Passing through are Wallis Simpson, who made a commoner out of a king; her rumored lover, the German ambassador Von Ribbentrop; and (just off-camera) Sir Oswald Mosley, England's own fascist superstar, tempting characters both upstairs and down into dangerous situations.
Euros Lynn, who directed the first and third episodes and had much to do with the reborn "Doctor Who," knows a thing or two about spiffing up old brands. And while the narrative never quite coheres into a compelling whole, there are enough independently arresting, unexpectedly moving moments to carry you through, hopping from one to the next like stones in a river, on the way to a strenuously tidy conclusion.
This is a gentler drama than its original. That program, which played out in long theatrical scenes rich with talk -- it was shot on video with multiple cameras -- was, in spite of the sentiment it generated and sometimes encouraged, made with a dedication, often disquieting, to the truth of the characters and their asymmetrical situations.
That is the argument of the "Complete Series" set, with its illuminating, intelligent documentaries and interviews and commentary tracks: that you take this series with the seriousness of the people who made it.
'Masterpiece Classic: Upstairs, Downstairs'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)