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TELEVISION REVIEW

An old PBS favorite returns with new charms

From left: Ellie Kendrick, Keeley Hawes, Adrian Scarborough, Jean Marsh, and Nico Mirallegro in “Upstairs Downstairs.’’ From left: Ellie Kendrick, Keeley Hawes, Adrian Scarborough, Jean Marsh, and Nico Mirallegro in “Upstairs Downstairs.’’ (Masterpiece/BBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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‘Downton Abbey,’’ the terrific “Masterpiece’’ miniseries that aired earlier this year, was an upstairs-downstairs drama set against early-20th-century history. Now, a charming new version of PBS’s “Upstairs, Downstairs,’’ which ran from 1971-75, is also looking back at aristocracy and labor stuck together in close proximity in the 1930s.

It’s a little class-related weather pattern traveling through PBS, amid our own contemporary social and financial extremes. Both “Downton’’ and the new three-part “Upstairs Downstairs’’ (with no comma this time) study people who mostly willingly occupy a predefined place in society, either in the excesses and manners above or the workaday service below. We denizens of a supposedly more liberated time and place are invited to compare and contrast. As with “Mad Men,’’ we might find more in common than we expected.

While “Downton’’ and the new “Upstairs Downstairs’’ share much in common thematically, they are remarkably different in tone. “Downton’’ was dark and tragic; “Upstairs Downstairs,’’ which begins in 1936, is more comic. The characters are simpler. The miniseries, which premieres on Sunday night at 9 on Channel 2, takes a largely affectionate look at the family and their butlers and cooks, even while fascism intrudes on the fringes and World War II looms. It’s a tonally bittersweet but mostly sweet historical soap, further marking this season of “Masterpiece’’ as one of the best in years.

The new “Upstairs Downstairs’’ is set in the same home as the original, 165 Eaton Place in London. But only one character returns from the 1970s edition, parlor maid Rose Buck (Jean Marsh), now the head housekeeper. The family moving into and sprucing up the now decrepit old townhouse are the Hollands — up-and-comers Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) and Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard). She is trying to get pregnant, he is a diplomat with powerful connections including the soon-to-be King George VI.

Also upstairs: Hallam’s mother, Lady Maud, who is played by Eileen Atkins. Atkins and Marsh cocreated the series, and they are the twin onscreen matrons of the new version, Atkins upstairs and Marsh downstairs. Atkins is fantastic, as always, domineering and witty. Maud has just returned from India with an assistant and a pet monkey. “Every morning, as soon as he sees me opening my eyes, he applauds me,’’ she says to her daughter-in-law about the monkey. “I can’t tell you how that boosts one’s confidence.’’ She trips up Lady Agnes’s efforts to enter high society, notably by tainting Agnes’s cocktail party with a Nazi sympathizer. Wallis Simpson (Emma Clifford) also shows up at the affair.

The downstairs crew that Rose assembles takes on the air of a family, particularly after a Jewish refugee from Germany shows up with her daughter. This does not please the chauffeur, Spargo (Neil Jackson), who is falling in with the fascist movement, as well as with Lady Agnes’s wayward sister, Lady Persie (Claire Foy). But the others rise to the occasion, including Ivy (Ellie Kendrick), a cheeky and innocent maid, and cook Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid), who has a wonderful run-in with photographer Cecil Beaton.

With only three one-hour episodes, screenwriter Heidi Thomas needed more time to do full justice to the large cast of characters and the many historical and melodramatic story lines she set up. The last hour, like the last part of “Downton,’’ is hurried. Fortunately, six more episodes of “Upstairs Downstairs’’ are in the pipeline. Soon, please.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS

Starring: Jean Marsh, Eileen Atkins, Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard, Ellie Kendrick

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Sunday, 9-10 p.m.