First Night: Upstairs Downstairs, BBC 1, 9.30pm

BBC's Downton rival shows its class – below stairs

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The Independent Culture

It's hard to say whether the BBC's reincarnation of Upstairs Downstairs' which returned last night for a second series, is dogged by bad luck or bad judgement. To lose Jean Marsh, parlour-maid turned housekeeper Rose Buck, to a stroke is a misfortune, but to have been beaten out of the starting gates by ITV's upstart Downton Abbey in the first place, in 2010, perhaps suggests a degree of complacency. And to lose an unhappy Eileen Atkins doesn't bode well, since Atkins, along with Marsh, helped to create the original Upstairs Downstairs.

Dame Eileen's imperious Agnes, Lady Holland, the equivalent of Maggie Smith's Downton dowager, was represented by a vase of ashes. The vase had more charisma than two main upstairs dwellers – Keeley Hawes's Lady Agnes and Ed Stoppard's Sir Hallam Holland – who are stiff upper-lip and little perceptible emotional hinterland. It was Brief Encounter without the subtext.

It might not have mattered. Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey is also a stuffed shirt, but he has grown-up children. Eaton Place by contrast, with only Lady Agnes and Sir Hallam and their infants (added to last night by a newborn), feels under-populated.

Alex Kingston is the new Atkins. But despite caustic asides, Kingston lacks the theatrical dame's effortless ability to inject something this drama is in dire need of – humour. The story had moved on two years, from the Abdication Crisis to the Munich Crisis. But such grand affairs of state – including an uncanny Neville Chamberlain lookalike – rather misses the point of shows like Upstairs Downstairs, with their escapist wallowing in personalised history stories. The kind of stuff, in fact, that Heidi Thomas is churning out with great success in her other BBC1 costume drama: Call the Midwife.

What comedy there is comes from Pritchard the butler (Adrian Scarborough), now revealed as a First World War conscientious objector, while, on the romantic front (if that is what it was) the priggish Hallam ended up kissing his sister-in-law, Lady Persie, the Unity Mitford of the story.

At last, some sexual tension, you thought, although Hallam looked more like he had been told that Herr Hitler had just goose-stepped into the Sudetenland.

But is it all going to prove to be enough? The show doesn't deserve to suffer a similar fate to that of Lady Agnes's pet monkey, which was dispatched in a supposedly gas-proof pram designed, said Pritchard enigmatically, by "a gentleman living in Maidstone. He's described as a bachelor but interested in babies". After all, seven million viewers are not to be sneezed at. Like the cavalry, Emilia Fox and Sarah Lancashire will soon be galloping over the horizon, while Lady Persie (Claire Foy) can't return from Munich a moment too soon. And anyone who can order a vodka martini in German should be able to bring something to the party.