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For Two Decades, Defending Death Row Inmates.

Attorney David Dow has spent his career representing inmates who have been sentenced to death. Despite his efforts, many of his clients have been executed — and most of them were guilty. He details what it's like to become emotionally involved with the people living on death row in a new memoir.

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 8, 2010. 'The Autobiography of an Execution' is now available in paperback.


Other segments from the episode on April 8, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 8, 2011: Interview with David R. Dow; Review of television program "Upstairs, Downstairs"; Review of film "Your Highness."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
For Two Decades, Defending Death Row Inmates


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

In the last 20 years, our guest, David Dow, has represented more than
100 death row inmates. Most of his clients were guilty, and he knew it.
Some had committed monstrous crimes, and he's won only a few cases.

We're going to hear about why, in spite of all that, he continues to
represent men on death row and what the impact of his work has been on
his life and on his family.

David Dow is the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, a
nonprofit, legal-aid corporation that represents death row inmates. And
he's the Cullen Professor at the University of Houston Law Center. Terry
Gross interviewed David Dow last year, after the publication of his
memoir, "The Autobiography of an Execution." It's now out in paperback.


David Dow, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is a memoir, and one of the
things that you write about is the difficulty of making the transition
back and forth between working on death row and coming home and trying
to be in the world inhabited by your young son and having your son say
things to you like: Hi, dad, did you have a good day on death row? Tell
us a little bit about what those problems are going back and forth
between death row and your son.

Mr. DAVID DOW (Author, "The Autobiography of an Execution"; Litigation
Director, Texas Defender Service): Yes, it's a very difficult
transition. I think that it's still a difficult transition for me, even
though I've been doing it now for nine years, which is how old our son

I spend a lot of time at death row, which is located in Livingston,
Texas, and the visits range from okay to terrible. I don't think that
I've ever really had a visit on death row that I would call good. Maybe
there's been one or two where I'm reporting to an inmate that we've won
and that I don't think that there's any chance that that victory is
going to be taken away from us. I suppose you could call that a good
visit, except that it's still a case where there has been a murder in
the background, and I've spent all day at death row.

And then I come home, and I see my son, and he's been at school. He's
now in third grade. But in the stories that I'm telling in the book, a
lot of the times he was in kindergarten or first grade, and it's just a
very difficult transition. He wants to talk to me about that he did well
on the spelling test or that he got all of the state capitals right, and
then he says, you know, how was your day? And it's just a difficult
conversation to have.

I think that I've gotten better at those transitions and conversations
over the years. But I would say that for a while, they were difficult
for me.

GROSS: What do you tell him about your work?

Mr. DOW: Well, from the time that he was old enough to ask me what I do,
I would tell him honestly. Now, we obviously haven't told him about the
details of what the people I represent have done. He knows that I
represent people who have done bad things. He knows that I represent
people who have killed somebody, and he knows that I represent people
that the state wants to punish by executing them.

As I say, he doesn't know the details of the murders. He doesn't know
details of how executions are carried out. But from the time that he's
been old enough to ask what I do and why I do it, I've told him
honestly. I haven't really felt that there was any way that I could
think of to hide that from him in a way that wasn't misleading or

GROSS: You write that murder is perhaps the ugliest crime, and that's
why it's so shocking to you that murderers, most murderers are so
ordinary in appearance. Did you start this work expecting to meet
monsters and end up meeting people instead?

Mr. DOW: That's exactly what happened. I think that the first time that
I went to death row, I expected it to be full of Hannibal-Lector-like
characters, people who gave you the creeps just to be sitting in front
of them. And, in fact, exactly the opposite happened.

When I first started representing death row inmates, most of the people
who I was representing were probably a few years older than I was. And
now, of course, I've been doing it 20 years, and most of them are
younger than I am. But I had a client, for example, who was executed
last November, November of 2009, and I remember the first time I went to
see him, being struck by how completely ordinary he looked.

The first thing I thought when I was talking to him was that I simply
could not picture this kid. He was 30 years old, but he still looked
like a kid to me. I simply could not picture this kid doing what he had
done. And I think that one of the really striking things about meeting
people on death row and talking to people on death row is that, almost
without exception, they don't look like what you expect them to look

There are a few, obviously, who have ticks and mannerisms, and you can
tell that they're not normal in the sense that they have some apparent
mental illness, but almost all of them aren't like that. Almost all of
them look like people who you might have sat next to at the bar, where
you were watching the ball game the night before.

GROSS: The people who you defend aren't monsters, but some of them have
committed, most of them have committed crimes that are monstrous. Can
you give us an example of somebody who you defended who you were pretty
sure was, in fact, guilty and who committed an especially monstrous

Mr. DOW: Yes. I had another client who was executed in March of last
year. His name was Willie Pondexter. And Pondexter had grown up in this
vast, sprawling, broken family. One of the things that the lawyers in my
office do is we try to construct family trees of all of our clients, and
it's not just for curiosity that we do that, but one of the things that
we're looking for when we do that are signs of mental illness because
mental illness tends to run in families.

And the only way you can know whether mental illness is running in a
family is to construct a family tree. And so, we routinely construct
family trees.

The family tree that we tried to construct for Pondexter looked like a
Jackson Pollock painting. I mean, it had so many triangles and squares
and circles veering off into all kinds of different directions that it
was impossible to follow.

And that was the environment where he grew up. He grew up in an
environment where he had no father. His brother, the only full brother
that he had that he was close to, committed suicide when Pondexter was
10 years old. His mother was placed in mental hospitals four, five or
six different times, and he ended up finding a family, which was a gang.

And as a result of that membership in a gang, he participated in a crime
that included the murder of an elderly woman by the name of Martha
Lennox. They killed her and then stole her car, and there isn't any
doubt that Pondexter participated in that crime.

I'm not sure that he would have initiated it, but he participated in it
voluntarily. And Martha Lennox was shot and killed inside her house in a
suburb of Dallas.

By the time Pondexter was executed, more than 10 years after this crime
had been committed, he was simply not remotely the same person that he
had been at the time the crime occurred. He had completely grown up. He
had matured.

There were guards on death row who approached me and told me that they
didn't think that he should be executed. Several of them signed
affidavits that we submitted to the Board of Pardons and Paroles on his
behalf to try to have his death sentence converted into a life sentence.

He is somebody who, at the time that he was executed, I would have had
no hesitation, none, asking him to babysit for our son. He was simply
not dangerous anymore. He had been rehabilitated. As a society, we've
mostly given up on rehabilitation, but Pondexter had been rehabilitated.

GROSS: Is this an example of one of the reasons why you do death row
work, because there are people who are going to be killed for a crime in
their past, and they've since been transformed in some way?

Mr. DOW: Yes, I think that that's certainly one of the factors that
pulls me to the work. We're executing people who did something
unspeakably terrible at some point in their lives, and yet by the time
we execute them, many of these people, I'm tempted to say most, would
not ever commit such a crime again.

I had another client who was executed just this past November who was
executed because he and three others went out looking for a house to
burglarize. They broke into a house because they thought it was empty.

There were four of them. Two stayed in the car, and two broke in. And
while the two were inside - one of them was my client, whose name was
Christian Oliver - and while Christian was inside the house, the owner
of the house, a man by the name of Joe Collins, he returned home.

And Joe Collins happened to be a gun collector and a marksman, as well.
And so he picked up one of his own guns and started to chase the two
boys through the house.

And the two kids - Christian and the other one - ran to the back of the
house to try to escape through the back. And unfortunately for them, the
back door was locked. It was padlocked shut from the outside. And so the
two took refuge in a bedroom in the rear of the house, and Mr. Collins
cornered them there and started shooting into the room. And then my
client, Christian Oliver, shot back and killed Mr. Collins.

Christian Oliver had been involved in other burglaries before this
crime. He's never been involved in a violent crime. He'd never even shot
at anybody, much less killed somebody. And so, here you have this - I
call him a kid. By the time he was executed, he wasn't a kid anymore,
but he was only 19 at the time this happened.

You have this young man, and he participated in a crime that should
never have happened. He should never have participated in it. But the
crime itself spun out of control in a way that he certainly didn't plan
and probably nobody could have predicted. And by the time he was
executed, 11, 12 years after this happened, I feel confident in saying
that there was no way that was ever going to happen again.

DAVIES: David Dow, speaking with Terry Gross. Dow has represented more
than 100 death row inmates. His memoir, "The Autobiography of an
Execution," is now out in paperback. More after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're listening to an interview with
David Dow, the litigation direction of the Texas Defender Service, which
represents inmates on death row. Dow's memoir, "The Autobiography of an
Execution," is now out in paperback. He spoke last year with Terry

GROSS: So when you are defending somebody who's already been convicted
of murder, they're on death row, and you're trying to appeal their case,
on what grounds can you appeal? You think they are guilty most of the
time, not all the time but most of the time. So the question isn't
whether or not they did the crime usually. So what is the case about

Mr. DOW: In death penalty jurisprudence, there's this very peculiar
concept, and the concept is being innocent of the sentence. So the
person isn't innocent of the crime. There's not an argument that the
person didn't commit the crime. The argument is that the person is
innocent of the sentence.

And what that means is that the person should have been sentenced to
life in prison rather than death. So most of the time, what I'm doing as
an appellate lawyer is trying to construct the argument to persuade a
court that my client, even though he did something horrible, even though
he committed a murder, should have been sentenced to life in prison
rather than death.

And then there are a variety of argumentative strategies that we use to
try to persuade the court that the person should have a life sentence
rather than a death sentence.

GROSS: And which court are you appealing to?

Mr. DOW: Well, I personally, and my office generally, work in both the
state courts, as well as the federal courts so that the first layer of
appeals in death penalty cases go through the state courts. And then
after you exhaust all of your opportunities in the state courts, you
have an opportunity to go into federal court.

GROSS: And sometimes you've appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

Mr. DOW: Almost invariably, we try to take the case all the way up to
the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, unlike the other courts, has to
give you permission to appeal to it. So we are allowed to file an appeal
in the lowest federal court, the federal district court, and then if we
lose there, we're permitted to appeal that loss to the intermediate
court of appeals.

If we lose there, we almost always ask the Supreme Court to review the
case, but the Supreme Court rarely does. They only hear these appeals in
a handful of cases.

GROSS: We've talked about cases where you were convinced that your
client was guilty of murder but that they shouldn't be executed. There
is one example in your book of a case you took on where you came to
believe that your client actually did not do the murder - did not commit
the murder - murders that he was accused of.

Can you tell us briefly what the charges were against the person who you
give the name of Quaker in the book? You've changed the names in the

Mr. DOW: I have changed the names. The story that I tell about Henry
Quaker is a story involving one of my clients who was convicted of
killing his wife and his two children. Over the course of my work on
that case, I came to be convinced that he didn't actually commit the

Of all the cases that I've worked on over the years - more than a
hundred cases - there've been only seven or eight where I reach the
conclusion that my client didn't commit the crime that he was sent to
death row for.

One of the erroneous beliefs that people have about death row inmates is
that they all claim to be innocent. In my experience, very few of them
claim to be innocent. And what that means, if you're a death penalty
lawyer, is that when somebody claims to be innocent, you pay attention
to that claim, and you pay attention to it because it isn't all that
common for people to claim to be innocent.

Henry Quaker told me he was innocent, and I didn't believe him at first.
I didn't disbelieve him. I simply didn't form an opinion; I tried not to
form an opinion.

But the more deeply we looked at the case, the more I became convinced
that all of the evidence that had been used to support Quaker's
conviction had problems with it. And at the end of the day, none of it
really established his guilt. And that, coupled with the shear fact that
I believed him when he told me he didn't do it combined to convince me
that he was innocent.

GROSS: But you lost the case anyways.

Mr. DOW: We did lose the case, anyways. Of the six or seven or eight
cases that I've mentioned where I said I think that I've been
representing somebody who's innocent, the truth is that I've lost most
of those cases.

That's one of the reasons that it's harder to represent somebody who you
believe to be innocent than somebody who you believe to be guilty
because, as a death penalty lawyer, you're going to lose most of the
cases, almost all of the cases, and if you're going to lose almost all
of the cases, this sounds odd to say, but it's less devastating to lose
a case where you're representing somebody who actually committed the
crime that he's being executed for committing.

GROSS: So for Quaker, whose innocence you believed in, did you witness
his execution?

Mr. DOW: Yeah, I did witness Quaker's execution.

GROSS: Why was it important for you to be there?

Mr. DOW: There's a lawyer in my office who was asked to witness an
execution at the end of last year, and she asked me whether she should.
What I told her was that it is something you will never get over, that
you have nightmares about it for weeks, months, maybe years.

And so what you have to decide when you're making the decision about
whether you're going to witness your client's execution is whether the
suffering that you're going to have for watching it is greater or lesser
than how much your client needs you to be there.

I watch executions only if my clients ask me to. And if they ask me to,
I watch because if they ask me to, I feel that it is more important to
them that I be there than it is to me that I not be there.

In addition, one of the things that I talk about when I'm talking about
the Quaker case is that in almost all of our cases, we're actually
litigating the case up until the very end.

I had a conversation with one of my clients last week, and I was telling
him that he could put me on the witness list to witness his execution if
he wanted to but that I thought it was really more important that I be
in my office working on the case if we were still working up until the

So I think that one reason that many death row inmates don't put their
lawyers on the list of people to witness their execution is that their
lawyers tell them they'd really like to be working on the case up until
the very end.

That's certainly true in my case. I tell my clients that I'll be there
if they want me to, but that I'd rather be at my office so that I can
try to keep working on the case if there's anything left to do.

GROSS: Did you ever get one of those last-minute stays of execution?

Mr. DOW: Oh sure. We get last minute stays of execution - I'm tempted to
say a lot. It's not a lot compared to the number of executions, but in
2009, for example, we had six or seven last-minute stays of execution.
So it happens about every other month or so for us.

DAVIES: David Dow, speaking last year with Terry Gross. His memoir, "The
Autobiography of an execution, is now out in paperback. David Dow is the
litigation director of the Texas Defender Service and the Cullen
Professor at the University of Houston Law Center. We'll continue with
this interview in the second half of today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview Terry recorded last year with David Dow,
who spent over 20 years representing prisoners on death row. His memoir
"The Autobiography of an Execution" is now out in paperback. Dow is the
Collin professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the
litigation director of the Texas Defender Service. He's represented more
than a hundred inmates facing execution. Many of the condemned prisoners
he's represented have asked him to attend their execution.

GROSS: So when you are witnessing an execution, do you try to make eye
contact with your client when they're strapped to the chair?

Prof. DOW: The people who are being executed can't see...

GROSS: It's really a gurney, isn't it? It's not a chair anymore.

Prof. DOW: It's...

GROSS: In Texas it's a gurney and it's - what's it called? Like an IV.
What's the word for it?

Prof. DOW: Right. It's lethal injection.

GROSS: Lethal injection. Yeah. Yeah. So you can't make eye contact
because they're in a prone position.

Prof. DOW: Well, you could - you would be able to make eye contact if
they could see you because you are standing at a level that is above
them, so that you're essentially looking down at the person who's
strapped to the gurney. And what typically happens is that there are
three different rooms that witnesses are in. There's one room that is
reserved for members of the press; there's a second room that is
reserved for members of the - family members of the murder victim, and
then there's a third room that is reserved for people who have been
asked to witness the execution by the person who's being executed.

And they're those three different rooms and one of those rooms is
essentially at the feet of the person's who's being executed and if the
person who's being executed turns his head to the left - and I say his
head because most people who are executed are in fact men - if he turns
his head to the left he would be looking into the room where the family
members of the murder victim are. And then if he turns his head to the
right he would be looking into the room where his own witnesses are. But
all of those windows are one-way glass so that the witnesses can see
into the execution chamber but you can't see into any of the other rooms
where witnesses are.

And so, by the same token, the person who's being executed can turn his
head and look towards the family members of the murder victim. He can
look toward his own witnesses but he doesn't actually see them because
he's looking at a piece of one-way glass. So, I guess in answer to your
question, it's possible for the witnesses to make eye contact with the
execution victim but it's a sort of one-way eye contact. You're looking
at the person who's being executed but he's not seeing you.

GROSS: It's hard to single out not being able to make eye contact as the
thing that's unfair about execution, but it does seem like okay, so
you're executing the person, shouldn't they at least be allowed to make
eye contact with family or friends? Is there like a reason why it's one-
way glass and they're not allowed to see you?

Prof. DOW: The reason that it's one-way glass is simply because if it
weren't the witnesses would be able to see into the other witness rooms
and I...

GROSS: Oh, I see so - Mm-hmm.

Prof. DOW: Yeah. And so I think the idea is that they don't want, for
example, the relatives of the person who's being executed to be able to
look into the room and observe the family members of the murder victim
and vice-versa. They don't want the family members of the murder victim
to be able to look into the room where the relatives of the person who's
being executed are located. So I think that's just the practical reason
that they do it. But the truth is that it goes beyond not being able to
make eye contact.

When people arrive on death row they lose their opportunity to have
contact visits with anyone. In some cases the lawyers can have contact
visits with their clients but they're not permitted, any longer, to have
contact visits with their family members. So when somebody gets
executed, he has to tell his family goodbye by talking to them on a
telephone. I was talking earlier, about my client Christian Oliver who
was executed last November.

His execution was witnessed by four members of his family - his mom, his
dad, his brother and his sister - and he had to tell them goodbye by
essentially talking to them on a microphone. He wasn't permitted to hug
them; he wasn't permitted to kiss them. I think that that aspect of the
way that we carry out executions in the U.S., and in Texas, in
particular, is an aspect of these executions that has been particularly
bothersome to me.

DAVIES: David Dow, a lawyer who represents death row inmates in Texas,
speaking last year with Terry Gross. Dow's memoir, "The Autobiography of
an Execution," is now out in paperback.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: We're listening to an interview with David Dow, a lawyer who has
represented over a hundred death row inmates. His memoir, "The
Autobiography of an Execution," is now out in paperback.

Here's Terry Gross.

GROSS: You know, I found it really interesting in your book that you
often warn your death row clients that if they appeal they're probably
not going to win. And if they lose they might be executed very shortly
after they lose and they're not going to have time to prepare for their
death. Why do you tell your clients that?

Prof. DOW: I was talking earlier about how, in most cases, we are
litigating up until the very end; we're trying to find something else
that we can file, something else that we can do. But at the same time,
even if we find something, I know we're going to lose. And so I think
that it's incumbent on me as a lawyer to tell the clients that we're
going to lose. And I do that for two reasons: one of them is altruistic
and one of them isn't. The altruistic reason is that I believe in being
honest with my clients. I don't want to tell them that I think that
we're going to win if I don't think that we're going to win. I don't
want to mislead them. I don't want them to put off doing things that
people who know the date that they're going to die might want to do. I
don't want them not to write goodbye letters to people they want to
write letters to. I don't want them not to say goodbye to their loved
ones. I don't want them not to make plans for disposing of their body if
that's important to them. So, one of the reasons that I'm honest is just
so that my clients can tie up the loose ends the way many people would
want to.

The second reason is that I'm the one who has to call them after our
final appeals have been turned down by the Supreme Court and that
typically happens at 5:30 in the afternoon or 20 to 6:00 and the
execution is scheduled for 6 o'clock.


Prof. DOW: And I pick up a telephone and I call the prison where they're
going to be executed at that time. My clients are still in a holding
cell, which is immediately adjacent to the execution chamber and I
identify myself to the warden's assistant who answers the phone,
although I think she knows my voice by now, and then she patches my call
through to the telephone that's right next to the holding cell. And a
guard picks it up and I identify myself to the guard. I think he knows
my voice as well by now, and then I talk to my client. And I tell him
that we lost.

Sometimes the conversations are very, very short. Sometimes they're a
little bit longer. One of the reasons that I'm so clear when I tell them
that this is the way the cases are probably going to develop, is that I
have in fact had the experience of calling someone who was not prepared
to die. And I called him and told him that we had lost and he started
crying and the crying turned into something that was close to hysteria
and he was begging me to do something else, to file something else, to
think of something else to try to do for him. And those are horrible
conversations to have. They're terrible for the inmate, of course, but
it was also, frankly, terrible for me and I don't want to have anymore
conversations like that.

GROSS: Now, you write in your book that the people you meet on death
row, they're not monsters; they're people and often they're transformed
people 'cause the crime that they committed - the monstrous crime they
may have committed - was years ago and they often change between the
time of the crime and the time of the execution. Yet, at the same time,
you write in your book: I believe in evil. When you use the word evil
and say that you believe in it, what do you mean?

Prof. DOW: I do believe in evil. I believe that there are some people
who are just bad and they're never going to be made good. And I think I
say in the book, I hope I say in the book, that I don't know how they
got to be that way. I don't know whether they were born that way or
whether they were broken at such a young age that that's how they came
to be that way, but from the point of view of society it doesn't really
matter. It doesn't really matter why a person is inveterately bad. And I
think that there are people like that. I don't think that we need to be
executing them. But I do believe that they're people in prison who can
not possibly be made good - who can not possibly be rehabilitated.

GROSS: And what's your role as a defense attorney when you're
representing somebody who you not only believe is guilty but who you believe is evil?

Prof. DOW: My role as a defense lawyer is to try to persuade the court -
the judges - that my client should've been sentenced to life rather than
death. And I will say this, that even in those small number of cases
where I've been representing somebody who I really believe is or was an
evil person, even in those cases, there were appalling constitutional
violations. And one of the things that I noticed about those cases is
that the fact that my client seems to be evil, seems to make it easier
for the judges to ignore the fact that there were constitutional
violations. They just don't care about it. They say, here we have a bad
person; this is a bad person. There's no way this person is ever going
to be fixed or better or rehabilitated. Let's just be done with him. And
I represent those people because I don't accept that analysis. I don't
think that that's the way United States legal system is supposed to
work. Even my bad evil clients are human beings who are entitled to have
their rights protected.

GROSS: David Dow, thanks so much for talking with us.

Prof. DOW: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: David Dow, speaking last year with Terry Gross. His memoir, "The
Autobiography of an Execution," is now out in paperback. You can read an
excerpt of his memoir on our website,

Here's an update. In 2010, 17 prisoners were executed in Texas. David
Dow's practice represented 13 of them. There were six stays of execution
in Texas last year. Three of them were litigated by Dow's office. He and
his colleagues at the Texas Defender Service are currently representing
some 40 death row inmates in the state. The next execution is scheduled
for May 3rd. Dow's office is assisting in that representation.

(Soundbite of music)
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Upstairs, Downstairs' Returns To 165 Eaton Place


This Sunday on PBS, the Masterpiece Classic Anthology Series begins
presenting new installments of "Upstairs, Downstairs" for the first time
in 34 years.

Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: To me, the only depressing thing about the return of
"Upstairs, Downstairs" - which ran on what was then called Masterpiece
Theatre from 1974 to 1977 - is that I reviewed it the first time around.
How time flies when you watch too much TV. But I loved it then - and in
this new, surprisingly fresh-yet-faithful sequel, I love it now.

"Upstairs, Downstairs" was one of the first miniseries hits, years
before "Roots." It told of life at 165 Eaton Place, a posh residence in
London, with a dual focus on the privileged folks who lived there and
the servant staff that waited on them - Hence the title. And both the
upstairs and the downstairs were full of intrigue, comedy, drama and
very lively and unpredictable characters.

One of them was Rose, the maid played by actress Jean Marsh, one of the
co-creators of the series. Back in 1974, in the opening scene of the
very first episode, we met Rose greeting a new job applicant for the
household staff - at the downstairs servants' entrance, of course.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Upstairs, Downstairs")

Unidentified Actress: Mrs. (unintelligible) agency sent me.

Ms. JEAN MARSH (Actor): (as Rose) So?

Unidentified Actress: I've come for that position. As parlor-maid, was

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) I'm the house parlor-maid. I am the house parlor-
maid. Well, come in. I'll tell Mr. Hudson you're here.

Unidentified Actress: Who's Mr. Hudson?

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) The butler.

Unidentified Actress: Oh, the bloke holding black(ph) at the front door.

BIANCULLI: The first "Upstairs, Downstairs" miniseries covered the years
from 1903 to 1909. Four additional miniseries followed, covering World
War I and the Roaring '20s. All five seasons, by the way, have just been
released in a wonderful new DVD box set by Acorn Media. And now, 34
years after "Upstairs, Downstairs" left PBS, it's back. And so is Jean
Marsh as Rose.

But she's the only returning character from the original series - unless
you count the house, which you should. It's one of the smart moves in
this new sequel: using Rose and the old address to introduce us to a
whole new world of characters and plots, but not too new. In the world
of "Upstairs, Downstairs", we rejoin the story in 1936, only six years
after the old series ended. Rose, when we first see her in this new
version, looks old and weary. But the second a visitor to the employment
agency she runs mentions a familiar old address, Rose brightens
considerably. The visitor is Keeley Hawes, playing Lady Agnes, whose
husband has just purchased a long-dormant property in the neighborhood.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Upstairs, Downstairs")

Ms. KEELEY HAWES (Actor): (as Lady Agnes) We require a butler with
(unintelligible) and a housekeeper, of course, to oil the wheels behind
the scenes. Then a parlor-maid and a chauffer (unintelligible) and
absolutely the best cook you can find me.

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) Very well, my lady.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) Oh, what a splendid teapot.

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) It was a gift, my lady, from my late employer, Lord
Bellamy of Haversham. Do you have a budget in mind for staff?

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) This is what my husband suggests.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) I see. Well, if you don't mind my saying so, with a
professed cook, you'll be wanting a kitchen maid, as well, and a pantry
boy who can double as a footman. You'll need to account for a wage for

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) Yes. But they'd be very juvenile and grateful
for the experience, surely. The house is at Eaton Place, number 165. So,
not far to walk when you come to carry out the interview.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) I usually do that here, my lady.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) I'll be supervising builders. Meeting at the
house will be the most convenient thing. May I assume this is all within
your powers?

Ms. MARSH: (as Rose) Yes.

Ms. HAWES: (as Lady Agnes) Hm. Splendid.

BIANCULLI: The time frame for the new "Upstairs, Downstairs" allows it
to play against some major world events, such as the rise of fascism and
the abdication of the king. If you want, you can think of this not only
as a sequel to "Upstairs, Downstairs," but as a prequel to "The King's

But also, there are events that take place and precedence from inside
the walls of 165 Eaton Place: a flirtation between a pampered upstairs
society girl and a headstrong downstairs chauffeur, an unexpected live-
in mother, played delightfully by Eileen Atkins - the actress who, along
with Jean Marsh, concocted the original miniseries in the first place.
Other standout stars in this new volume include Keeley Hawes as Lady
Agnes, who hires Rose, and Claire Foy as Agnes' spoiled sister. There's
even a meaty role for Art Malik, whom I remember as a scene-stealer from
another landmark PBS miniseries import, "The Jewel in the Crown." But
hey, I've been watching these things a long, long time.

This new "Upstairs, Downstairs," though, does indeed seem new. It's not
weighed down with nostalgia or sentiment. There's some real danger
dramatized here, and lots of shocks and twists. And just when you think
you know these characters, they surprise or disappoint you.

In both the master suites and the serving quarters, there are characters
to love and characters to hate, but all of them are characters you want
to spend even more time with. My only criticism of this "Upstairs,
Downstairs" sequel is that they've returned with only three new
episodes. Clearly, the partners in this new enterprise - Britain's BBC
and WGBH's Masterpiece - should make more, many, many more.

They have proven that Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. And
if your home address is 165 Eaton Place, you should.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of and
teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Your Highness," a raunchy comedy set
in medieval times starring James Franco, Natalie Portman and Danny

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Your Highness': Low Comedy's Crowning Glory?


The director David Gordon Green and writer and actor Danny McBride have
been friends since their college days in North Carolina. They
collaborated on the stoner comedy "Pineapple Express," which featured
James Franco. Now the three have reunited in "Your Highness," an R-rated
comedy set in the Middle Ages, which also stars Natalie Portman.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The humor in the medieval, sword-and-sorcery spoof
"Your Highness" is low, lower than - it's hard to find an adequate
simile: the deepest, rankest pits of Adam Sandlershire, the filthiest
pools of Kevin Smithport. The crude and gratuitous sexual references
cease only during battle scenes featuring geysers of gore, and even then
there are things involving, say, minotaur anatomy of which I cannot
speak here. What makes "Your Highness" such a riot is that it's all
played - well, I'll let you hear how it's played.

This James Franco as the gallant crown prince Fabious, who's embarked on
a quest to rescue his fiancee, Belladonna, played by Zooey Deschanel
from Justin Theroux's villainous Leezar. He's accompanied by his pudgy
brother, Prince Thadeous, the protagonist: a cowardly braggart and
incorrigible lech, and played by the movie's star and co-writer, Danny

(Soundbite of movie, "Your Highness")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): (as Fabious) It's a gift from Belladonna, a
symbol of her virgin purity. I hold it and savor it.

Mr. DANNY MCBRIDE (Actor): (as Thadeous) You do that instead of have sex
with her?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Fabious) Belladonna isn't like any maiden in the
kingdom. When I first heard her voice, a tear came to my eye. And that
tear turned to ice, and I kept that frozen tear, far from my heart that
burns with passion.

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Thadeous) Just say we are too late and Leezar has had
his way with her. Would you still be able to be with her?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Fabious) I don't want to think about that.

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Thadeous) But just say that we were moments late and he
was able to get her cookies.

Mr. FRANCO: (as Fabious) Shut up.

EDELSTEIN: The first thing to observe is that Franco plays it straight.
His Fabious is hearty and generous-natured, every inch the medieval
knight with just a whiff of dreamy surfer cool. And McBride plays it
straight, too, in the sense that Thadeous speaks earnestly, his diction
formal apart from the odd insertion of disgusting slang, and that he's
believably consumed from morning till night with either having or
talking about sex.

What's missing is camp - the wink and the leer, the fey exaggeration
that was once the province of drag shows and is now the stuff of
mainstream sitcoms. McBride, Franco and director David Gordon Green love
the sword-and-sorcery genre as much as they love making a travesty of
it, so "Your Highness" actually works as an action-adventure picture: a
cunning weave of low and high, regal and smutty, splendiferous and
splattery, with grand settings and special effects both awesome and a
shade tacky.

Franco is a marvel - as he often is, outside certain awards shows - and
he'd have walked off with the picture if not for a couple of genius
clowns, among them a skinny, rubber-faced performer named Rasmus
Hardiker, as Thadeous's servant.

But "Your Highness" belongs to actor and writer Justin Theroux. His evil
wizard has the requisite grand manner - the sculpted gestures, the
thunderous elocution - until he tips into hysteria and gives you a
glimpse of the embittered nerd beneath. He's so unhinged, he's actually

Then there's Natalie Portman as Isabel, a fearless warrior, crack archer
and fiery avenger who joins the knights midway through the picture and
shortly thereafter takes a semi-naked swim. Frankly, Portman comes off
like a middling high-school actress, her voice thin, her accent wobbly.
It's hard to tell if she's acting badly or playing the kind of bad
actress you see in B movies of this ilk. Whichever, it works like
gangbusters. She looks fetching in her Robin Hood get-up, and has the
perfect, swift-yet-tinny cadences for fending off McBride's Thadeous by
the campfire.

(Soundbite of movie, "Your Highness")

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Thadeous) What exactly is your problem? You cannot even
enjoy yourself for one moment?

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (as Isabel) My quest affords me no such

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Thadeous) Not even on the tender night like this? The
moon's glimmering.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Isabel) On a night just like this, I returned home from
a hunt to find a bloodbath. Nothing remained of my six beloved brothers.
I wear this bracelet, forged of the seal of their shields for constant
reminder of my vow to avenge them.

Mr. MCBRIDE: (as Thadeous) My only advice would just be to keep your
head up, hang in there, live every day to the fullest. Have sex as much
as you can by campfire when you're all alone and your brother is out
gathering wood. Just simple things like that.

EDELSTEIN: I love this movie, but be warned: It's a long way from the
sophisticated Oxbridge silliness of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" or
the Jewish Catskills drollery of "The Princess Bride." In his zest to
show the dark side of machismo, McBride is often merely gross. But if
you yourself are a gross-minded juvenile, or like, well, me, "Your
Highness" delivers on its title: It gives you a royal high.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter
@nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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