Keeley Hawes: One of the best; not one of the best-known

Not all gifted actresses, it seems, get equal amounts of attention. I'm quite sure I've seen more about Sandra Bullock and Anjelina Jolie than I have about Keeley Hawes.

Still, let's be clear about this: Hawes -- who stars in the "Upstairs Downstairs" PBS miniseries that begins Sunday (April 10) -- is one of the best actresses around. Here's a story I sent to papers:


PBS has an endless appetite for people
who play upper-class English folks.

There are two ways to get them – as
we see in the new “Upstairs, Downstairs” sequel. You can cast:

– Someone who grew up that way. Sir
Hallam Holland is played by Ed Stoppard, 36, the son of Sir Tom
Stoppard, the acclaimed playwright.

– Or a gifted actor who can fake it.
Lady Agnes Holland is played by Keeley Hawes, 35, daughter of a cab
driver and a housewife. “Coming from a working-class background,
it's quite different,” she said.

Stoppard fits cozily into such roles.
“Would I personally be comfortable being an aristocrat in the
1930s?” he said. “Yeah, I think I'd love it.”

He also fits any dinner party. “He is
a deliciously funny, charming and quick-witted man,” Hawes said.

Her own image is hard to pin down. Tall
(5-foot-10) and slim, dressed in her usual jeans, Hawes is your
modern Englishwoman. That fit her roles in “MI-5” and “Ashes to

But she's also had classical roles,
including PBS' “Wives & Daughters” and “Under the Greenwood
Tree,” something she's always been ready for. “I had elocution
classes when I was little,” she said.

Her brothers became cabbies, but Hawes
veered away. “I'm the show-offy type,” she said. By 9, she was
going to drama school.

PBS audiences first saw her in the
imposing “Our Mutual Friend” role, as a young girl –
uneducated, impoverished – thrust into society. In England (and on
American cable) she did the first two seasons of “MI-5”; she also
divorced her husband and married her “MI-5” co-star, Matthew

He's had his own classic roles,
starring on PBS (“Any Human Heart,” “Little Dorrit”) and as
Mr. Darcy in the big-screen “Pride & Prejudice.”

It's a busy life, granted Hawes, whose
children are ages 10 (from her first marriage), 6 and 4. And it's one
that lets her slide along the class structure.

That's how the original “Upstairs
Downstairs” started in 1971. Two actresses – Eileen Atkins and
Jean Marsh – were watching a lush British miniseries.

“We enjoyed it enormously,” Atkins
said. “But we said, 'Our poor parents would have been ironing those
frocks …. Wouldn't it be wonderful it there was a series about the
downstairs people?'”

So they created one – and now there's
a sequel that stays in the same house, but brings in new people, 30
years later. Marsh still plays Rose, downstairs; Atkins plays the
commanding Lady Holland. Her daughter-in-law is Hawes, who keeps
going up and down the stairs of British society.

– “Upstairs Downstairs”

– 9 p.m. Sundays, April 10, 17 and
24, PBS' “Masterpiece Classic” (check local listings)