If you too do some desi-spotting – that is, noticing when some reference to or influence from the Subcontinent appears in a non-South Asian setting or context – then tune in to tonight to your local PBS station for the first of the three-part series of the new Upstairs, Downstairs.
The story picks up at number 165 Eaton Place in Belgravia, London several years after the previous family of aristocrats and their servants vacated the house.
A young diplomat, Sir Hallam Holland (played by Ed Stoppard), and his wife, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) are returning from a posting in Washington, DC and are about to take up residence at the former Bellamy home, after they do extensive renovations. No sooner are they standing amid dropcloths in the foyer, examining a shortlist of possible maids, when the family matriarch, Lady Maud Holland (played by Dame Eileen Atkins) waltzes in with an urn of her late husband’s ashes tucked under one arm and announces that she is back from her three-decade sojourn in India, to settle down to write her memoirs. As you might guess, her daughter-in-law, whom she’s never met, is less than thrilled.
Lady Holland has not returned from India alone. In that same scene in the foyer we soon meet Solomon, her monkey who has a fondness for sweet tea and thick cut marmalade, and Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik), Lady Holland’s personal secretary, always elegant in charcoal three-piece suits, cufflinks and a turban, who we soon see is most adept at handling not just the monkey, but also his imperious boss.
Art Malik, you may recall, shot to fame in 1984 after playing the vulnerable, between-two-worlds Hari Kumar in the British mini-series The Jewel in the Crown based on Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet” of novels. He also had starring roles in A Passage to India and The Far Pavillions around the same time. In the late “˜80s and into the “˜90s, other roles came his way – the British- educated mujahedin in a Bond film, and a terrorist opposite Ahhhhhnold in True Lies and again in Path to Paradise, a film about the first World Trade Center bombers.
As with the first Upstairs, Downstairs, the new series follows the intrigues and day-to-day dramas of the wealthy Holland family, and those of their serving staff (housekeeper, butler, cook, footman, maid). Over these three Sundays, they will include run-ins with Wallis Simpson, celebrity photog Cecil Beaton, Fascist Sir Oswald Mosely, and a German Jewish woman who had left behind her own “Upstairs” life (silk nightgowns, a mink coat, her own maid) and fled the Nazis, to work as a maid in London. The only returning member from the original cast is Jean Marsh, reprising her crucial role as Rose Buck, the heart of the whole enterprise, and it is wonderful to see her again, now, older and wiser, but still Rose.
Starting from the opening credits (a slow-mo shot of the crystal chandelier twirling and sparkling), the series is high on gloss and appearance, from the many slinky evening gowns and jewels to the gorgeous period furniture, to the set for 165 Eaton Place itself (which looks and has been declared by the cast to be solid enough as to feel like a genuine house). But even sitting by the fire with the servants enjoying a chocolate biscuit and Palm Court Orchestra on the wireless, you do feel as if you are there among the characters.
India is ever-present in the mini-series, in the décor of Lady Holland’s study – which has a distinctly Orientalist feel of that time to it (richer, deeper colors, a leopard skin, with head still attached, draped over one chair) – and in her dress (for a cocktails party she wears a gold and green ensemble with a zari border), and often summoned in her speech, with reference to a bazaar in Bangalore and the soothing lily pond she had installed at the back of her home in Delhi.
And then there is the unflappable and always proper Mr. Amanjit, with razor-sharp folds in his burgundy or navy turbans, and the tic of always adjusting his French cuffs and cufflinks as he embarks on one task or another. At first, he seems somewhat apart, not quite with the downstairs crowd, yet not really with the aristocrats either. The distance from the servants arises from Lady Maud’s directive that his meals be served to him on a tray in the morning room, but eventually, with the nudging of Rachel (the German refugee) he is able to broker a relationship with them.
As one member of an ensemble cast of 12, the screen time one gets is limited, and the opportunities are few to really shine, but over the three hours writer Heidi Thomas has given each cast member their “party piece”, as they say in Ireland, that is, their bit where they can show what they’ve got. I was particularly fond of and touched by the gentle friendship that developed between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit, which you will see in the second episode. It provides Mr. Malik an opportunity to give us a glimpse at the human heart behind all that reserve.
Friends will know that, aside from the delight at revisiting Upstairs, Downstairs after such a long time, I was particularly anticipating Art Malik’s role in this series, as I think he’s got much talent that we sadly don’t get to see a lot of over on this side of the puddle. For example, I’ve heard nothing but great things about his time on the medical drama Holby City in the UK, yet for some reason it’s never made it over here. (Hello, BBC America, perhaps we might have a few less Gordon Ramsay marathons and a few new dramatic series, yes?)
One avenue any budding Malik fans out there can explore is his reading of books on tape/CD/MP3. My appreciation for Mr. Malik’s work soared years ago after I found his recording of an abridged version of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and it is a treasure. First, you have the rather silken quality of his voice anyway, but when you combine that with his ability to do a myriad of different voices and accents for all the characters piled into TMLS, you too will appreciate his talent.
In more recent years, he has done Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi which is also wonderful and at times hilarious. And my most recent and best beloved acquisition is the Silksoundbooks recording of Art Malik doing Rudyard Kipling’s The Just-So Stories - complete with Kipling’s illustrations. They are pure joy as he reads them, and also terribly smart and funny. Shame on me for never having read them before! The tales of the little Ethiopian girl and her father creating the alphabet are alone worth the price of admission.
And finally, here is a trivia question: which two members of the cast of the new Upstairs, Downstairs have a connection to the illustrious Kapoor family of actors in India?
Answer: Art Malik and Ed Stoppard.
Here’s how it is: Art Malik once starred on the British and American stage along with Felicity Kendal (bhabhi to Shashi Kapoor, who was married to her sister Jennifer – you must check them out together in Merchant Ivory’s Bombay Talkies). The two were in a play called Indian Ink, written by Tom Stoppard, who is the father of Ed Stoppard (Sir Hallam Holland in U,D). Moreover, as a child, Tom Stoppard fled from Europe during the 1940s with his family and ended up living in Darjeeling for a period of time.
See it or skip it?
If you loved the original series, or if you ever loved anything that the former Masterpiece Theater (now just Masterpiece) has run in the past, then by all means, don’t miss Upstairs, Downstairs. It has all the thousand-and-one magnificent small details that make all their productions so rich.
And even if you have never seen Masterpiece before, but enjoy crisp writing and some priceless lines delivered by a wonderful ensemble cast in an evocative setting, you should catch it too.