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BBC revamps 'Upstairs' to compete with 'Downton'

Beeb brings in JFK and lesbians, but ITV counters with Hollywood royalty. Adam Sherwin reports

The success of Downton Abbey, ITV's Golden Globe-winning period drama, has left the residents of 165 Eaton Place brooding, both upstairs and downstairs.

Now the BBC has unveiled a revamped and, as Downton's Dowager Countess might say, rather racy revival of one of television's biggest hits, featuring an appearance by John F Kennedy – and a lesbian romance.

Upstairs Downstairs, the story of the "upstairs" masters and their below-stairs servants, was hugely popular when it aired on ITV in the early 70s.

The updated version returns to the same Belgravia townhouse, but otherwise draws more parallels with Downton Abbey. The show returned, briefly, on BBC1 during Christmas 2010, introducing Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes and Ed Stoppard as her diplomat husband, but was soon outdone by Downton. The BBC's plans to come back with a six-part series then hit serious trouble when Eileen Atkins, co-creator of the 1971 series with fellow actress, Jean Marsh, quit after reportedly being unhappy with the direction of her character, Lady Holland.

Marsh, 77, who reprised her role as Rose Buck, then suffered a stroke. Scripts were rewritten before Marsh's recovery gave her a reduced role.

Even the BBC's launch of the series yesterday was overshadowed, intentionally or not by ITV's announcement that Shirley Maclaine, the Oscar-winning Hollywood star, will join the cast of Downton Abbey to play Lady Grantham's mother.

Downton fans will find obvious similarities with the BBC series when it launches next month. It is now 1938 and, as in Downton, the house is preparing for a war which will rupture the established social hierarchies.

But Upstairs is written by Heidi Thomas, the "queen of Sunday night TV" and writer of ratings hits, Call The Midwife and Cranford. Her secret weapons include the arrival of Alex Kingston, star of ER and Doctor Who, as Blanche Mottershead, who hides a relationship with Emilia Fox's Lady Portia Alresford. Ms Thomas said she had "seen little" of Downton and that her series, which dramatises Chamberlain's Munich Agreement encounter and the future President Kennedy's 1938 visit to London, was both "epic and intimate".

Ms Marsh checked herself out of hospital just three weeks after falling ill so that she could return.

"I was absolutely determined," she said. "The doctor said 'Alright but you'll only work for four hours a day' and I said 'terrific!'". Meanwhile MacLaine's arrival in Downton Abbey was hailed by Gareth Neame, the series' producer.

He said: "Julian (Fellowes) has written another brilliant character in Martha Levinson, who will be a wonderful combatant for Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess and we are excited at the prospect of Shirley MacLaine playing her."

Ms Thomas revealed that the BBC had received a Health & Safety complaint over an Upstairs, Downstairs scene in which a pet monkey is accidentally gassed.

"They didn't like that the monkey was laid on a kitchen table because that was a surface normally used for food," she said.

Upstairs Downstairs' Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes) and Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard). Below left: The cast of below stairs characters