Enjoy the Familiar
I do believe a great strength of Upstairs, Downstairs is that you can dip into it again and again. It’s like a book you can re-read, a classic book. And you can re-look at one episode, or five, and still find new things in it, and still enjoy the familiar.
—Meg Wynn Owen, “Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special”
In 1977, the UK was in debt to the International Monetary Fund and committed to making harsh cuts in public spending. The number of people out of work had reached 1,600,000 and was climbing steadily. The Sex Pistols were burning down Buckingham Palace. Margaret Thatcher had her cold steel gaze fixed firmly on the exposed throat of the Labour Party’s Prime Minister, James Callaghan. And the BBC was presenting a critically acclaimed adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
This last is hardly surprising. The BBC was long known for excellence in historical drama, and throwing yourself under a train must have seemed an entirely appropriate response to the state of the nation. In many ways, however, Anna Karenina was the culmination of a process that had begun 10 years earlier. Eric Porter, who played Karenin, had been the figurehead of the BBC’s superb 1967 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. And Nicola Pagett, who played Anna, had established her credentials as Elizabeth Bellamy in London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, a series inspired by the success of The Forsyte Saga.
Upstairs, Downstairs - Collector’s Edition Megaset: The Complete Series Plus Thomas and Sarah brings together all five seasons (68 episodes), plus 13 episodes of the inferior spin-off Thomas and Sarah. It also includes a bonus documentary, the affectionate but far from revelatory “Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special” (in which the biggest secret shared is Simon Williams’ explanation that his character, the perpetual loser James Bellamy, seldom smiled because of the adhesive used to attach his handlebar moustache). Unforgivably, there are no captions to identify the interviewees or their roles. I understand that other, less “mega” season-based collections recently released in the UK feature both episode commentaries from key figures and more extensive documentaries, but these are not available for Region One at present.
The original idea for Upstairs, Downstairs came from Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. They first conceived a comedy series, called Behind the Green Baize Door, based on the exploits of a pair of housemaids working in a Victorian country house. TV producer John Hawkesworth renamed the show Below Stairs, changed the focus from comedy to drama, and moved the whole shebang to an Edwardian townhouse in London. Obviously, he was a big fan of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade. After a rejection from Granada TV in Manchester, London Weekend Television (LWT) commissioned a first series of 13 episodes with an option for a second.
By the time Upstairs, Downstairs aired, it had gone through almost as any revisions as changes of name (these include Two Little Maids in Town, The Servants’ Hall, and 165 Eaton Place). Further, the LWT hierarchy changed during the production of the first season, and the incomers were less than sympathetic to the series. According to Hawkesworth, new Controller of Drama Cyril Bennett said, “It’s very pretty, but it’s just not commercial television. They’ll switch off in the thousands”. Consequently, the series was shelved for six months before finally being awarded a late slot on Sunday nights. It debuted at 10.15pm on 10 October 1971, following the late night news.
The rest is history.
Industrial action at LWT caused the first six episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs to be taped in black and white. When the color facilities became available again, the first episode, “On Trial”, was re-recorded. Apparently, there are two different edits of this color version, only one of which is included here. “On Trial” was written by Fay Weldon, and won her a Writers’ Guild Award for the Best British TV Series Script of 1971. Unsurprisingly, it features syllable-perfect dialogue and a set of bold female characters, including those two housemaids, the ever capable Rose (Jean Marsh) and the headstrong Sarah (Eileen Atkins was playing Queen Elizabeth I in the stage play Vivat Vivat Regina at the time, so Pauline Collins got this part instead).
Set in November 1903, well into the Edwardian Age, the opening scene shows the as-yet unnamed Sarah approaching 165 Eaton Square and ringing the front door bell, which is answered by Hudson the butler (Gordon Jackson). He immediately recognizes the haughty-seeming girl for what she is, and sends her Downstairs to the servants’ entrance without a word. Below stairs, she’s welcomed, if that’s the right word, by Rose.
Girl: “I’ve come about the position. House parlourmaid, was it?”
Rose: “Under-house parlourmaid. I am the house parlourmaid.”
In only a few minutes, we’re made acutely aware that the servants are every bit as class conscious as their masters, if not more so. The girl calls herself “Clemence”, claims a French heritage and gives herself “airs”. Hudson refuses to speak to her until he is informed that she is being engaged, on trial, and that her mistress, Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney), has renamed her “Sarah”.
Sarah: “Mister Hudson, do I have to be called ‘Sarah’?”
Sarah: “But I don’t like it.”
Hudson: “It is not for you to question your betters.”
Sarah: “Are you my better?”
Hudson: “Indeed I am.”
Sarah: “What makes you better than me? I’m not being rude, I just want to know.”
Hudson: “I am older than you, and therefore wiser. And I have learned humility.”
Hudson: “It is a hard lesson, but once learned, never forgotten.”
Sarah: “How did you learn it?”
Hudson: “My grandmother was a proud woman, and died of starvation.”
This first episode touches on divorce, feminism, and poverty. It also reveals that Sarah doesn’t want to be better than she is, just seeks “some escape”. She eventually leaves the household, returns, then leaves once more to find her escape first on the music hall stage and then in the arms of James Bellamy.
Despite this pleasing if unlikely dramatic symmetry, the first season of Upstairs, Downstairs only hinted at what was to come. Some episodes, like the swindle scandal, “The Swedish Tiger”, are less than coherent. In later seasons, the series slowly takes on the air of a very well written soap opera, as the episodes form arcs rather than distinct segments. In the second season, Sarah comes and goes again, this time heading off with chauffeur Thomas (John Alderton) towards her very own spin-off show. Subsequent storylines include troubled marriages, doomed romances, stolen and lost babies, disasters, and financial shenanigans that include the Edwardian equivalent of insider trading. The best episodes focus on the significant events of the period, such as the Great War (all of Season Four), the Titanic, the Depression, the General Strike, and the suffragette movement.
Upstairs, Downstairs may not have been startlingly original, but its primary strength lay with its complex characters—like Hudson, Rose, and the cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley)—and class-based construct. Despite the strict protocols, borders between the two worlds become blurred, especially with the third season’s introduction of middle-class secretary Hazel (Meg Wynn Owen). When Elizabeth Bellamy runs away with her poet lover and threatens to shame her family, it’s Rose who brings about a family reconciliation and a wedding. And then when Elizabeth returns to Eton Square, distraught at her husband’s lack of interest in sex, she fiercely distinguishes her unwanted celibacy with Rose’s voluntary and presumably lifelong virginity: “At least I’ll never end up like you!”
Elizabeth’s marriage raised questions about the series’ dedication to a “realistic” calendar. Apparently, the intention was to restrict the series to the Edwardian era. Unfortunately, Edward VII died in 1910, and the first season ended in June 1909 with the wedding. Applying a curious logic known only to the entertainment industry, H.G. Wells, and Doctor Who, the second season begins in 1908 and we see Elizabeth and her husband Lawrence returning from their honeymoon before they’ve even swapped rings. By Season Three, the Edwardian constraint had been abandoned, however the characters simply were not aging with the chronology of a series that began in 1903 and ended in 1930, but was recorded over just 49 months.
When Upstairs, Downstairs ended, there was a multitude of proposals for spin-off series. One American company wanted Hudson and Rose to emigrate to the United States to work for a new employer. And it’s likely that only Baddeley’s untimely death prevented a show in which Hudson, Mrs. Bridges, and the scullery maid Ruby (Jenny Tomasin) ran a seaside boarding house together.
As it was, however, the only spin-off to make it into production was Thomas and Sarah, included here as part of this “megaset”. This show had everything going for it. Collins and real-life husband Alderton had already made two successful series together since leaving Upstairs, Downstairs, and their characters brought residual goodwill. Unfortunately, like the early Upstairs, Downstairs, their show didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, a class-conscious drama or a comic adventure series, so it ended up being pretty much nothing at all. Not that it did much harm to either star’s subsequent career.
The true heirs of Upstairs, Downstairs (and The Forsyte Saga before it) have been the subsequent outstanding period dramas made in the UK. Among these, I count The Duchess of Duke Street, created and produced by Hawkesworth in 1976, and Atkins and Marsh’s The House of Eliott (1991-1993). Not to mention Brideshead Revisited (1981) and movies such as Howards End (1992) and, of course, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), in which Atkins finally played a below stairs role, Mrs. Croft, a cook who owed a considerable debt to Baddeley’s Mrs. Bridges.