Class struggle: New ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ vs. ‘Downton Abbey’ at the Emmys?

Probably the best British drama series ever made returns this season after a 35-year gap. “Upstairs Downstairs” first aired in the U.K. from 1971 to 1975 in five seasons and then on PBS in the U.S. from 1974 to 1977, compressing the first two British seasons into one.

“Upstairs” won the best drama series Emmy for three of those seasons and best limited series, a category invented for it, on the other occasion making it an unbeaten Emmy champ in the top categories.

The new version, which will air in the U.K. in December and on PBS in April, consists of three one-hour episodes that should lead to a further series in 2011. These episodes pick up the story in 1936, six years after the original series ended, and feature a new family occupying the house. The only original cast member returning is co-creator Jean Marsh, whose character Rose has moved up in the world from a maid to a housekeeper. The other co-creator Dame Eileen Atkins will also star in this version as the mother of the new owner.

The new cast also includes “Spooks” and “Ashes to Ashes” actress Keeley Hawes; Ellie Kendrick, who recently played the title role in “The Diary of Anne Frank”; Claire Foy, who starred in PBS’ most recent Emmy-winning miniseries “Little Dorrit”; Ed Stoppard; Art Malik and Anne Reid.

Coincidentally, one of “Upstairs Downstairs” Emmy rivals could be another British/PBS co-production about servants and their masters. Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes’ new series “Downton Abbey” is currently airing in the U.K. and debuts on January 9 on PBS. “Downton,” which has been a critical and commercial hit, has already been picked up for a second series. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery and Dame Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey” follows the lives of the Earl of Grantham and his family living at the Abbey alongside the lives of their servants beginning in 1912, a period that was covered in the original “Upstairs Downstairs.”

With only two spaces in the miniseries category at the Emmys, hopefully PBS will decide to place “Downton Abbey” in the drama series race, which would avoid a head-to-head battle between the two shows.

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