Last spring, the first season of an updated Upstairs, Downstairs premiered on PBS, decades after the series’ initial American television run ended in 1977 (1975 for its original ITV broadcast). In his otherwise positive review of the revival, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz asked his readers to “take a moment to acknowledge that Americans’ continued fascination with this sort of story is more than a little bit sick.”
The “sickness” he identified was American viewers’ fondness for “a stratified society that the United States supposedly fought a bloody revolutionary war to escape.” Earlier this year, PopMatters’ Terrence Butcher offered a related argument in a column about Brideshead Revisited: “Perhaps Americans yearn for… storied nobility which never existed, and the relentless elevation of media celebrities into such roles is somehow inadequate.”
My perspective of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, now available from Acorn Media in a “Complete Series: 40th Anniversary Edition”, is shaped in part by Sherry B. Ortner’s research on class and culture, specifically about the American middle class. In “Generation X: Anthropology in a Media-Saturated World”, Ortner observed, “Starting in the 1970s… the middle class started pulling apart at the middle…The top and the bottom of the middle class began pulling away from one another.” Although Ortner’s conclusions about the political roots of this widening gap are debatable, her articulation of a “middle-class abyss” across which lower class and upper class stare at one another is valuable in understanding viewers’ embrace of Upstairs, Downstairs in the ’70s and beyond.
While the generation at the center of Ortner’s research is historically and behaviorally removed from the milieu of Upstairs, Downstairs, her assessment of the “abyss” might well describe the fictional drama that unfolds from 1903 to 1930 at 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, London: “Depending on which edge one is standing on, the configurations of anger, fear, anxiety, and resentment will vary.” What remains fascinating about Upstairs, Downstairs is the realization that there is often no true security on either side of a pronounced class divide, and that each side’s life is inexorably linked to the fates and fortunes of the other.
“To know one’s place” is a major theme that connects the series’ upper and lower classes. To not mind that principle is to risk falling into the abyss, and in the earlier seasons, several episodes involve direct references to the positioning of masters and servants. At the most basic level, the physical geography of the house establishes the boundaries of individual social mobility.
That viewers’ introduction to the series takes place through the eyes of Sarah (Pauline Collins), a new under-parlour maid, allows the writers to establish these boundaries around a “low” character with very “high” pretenses. When Sarah arrives, she calls herself Clemence, fictionalizes her origins, and is shameless in her apparent aspirations for moving upward. She does experience minor moments of transcendence (such as modeling her Ladyship’s dresses for a portrait artist), but the lesson Sarah repeatedly learns is that one pays for trying to shake up the established order.
Upstairs, privileged daughter Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett), daughter of Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney) and Sir Richard Bellamy (David Langton), learns the same lesson from the other vantage point. Unlike her staid family, Elizabeth wants adventures of the bohemian sort. She seems to have a heart for the poor and less fortunate, but her commitment to social causes doesn’t prevent her from enjoying the fruits of her family’s wealth. These contradictions bring her into conflict with Rose (Jean Marsh), the head house parlour maid and arguably the lead character of the ensemble.
Rose’s place within the household is one of the most interesting aspects of Upstairs, Downstairs. This is not surprising, considering that Marsh co-created the series. Although Rose, like everyone else downstairs, falls under the stern guidance of butler Angus Hudson (Gordon Jackson) and cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), she’s more mature than the other younger servants. At various points in the series, she serves as a kind of maternal figure to several young women, both upstairs and downstairs. The sacrifices she makes for the sake of being a good servant provide much of the show’s pathos.
When taken as a whole, the five seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs’ original run form a grand cycle of opportunities presented, lost, and then regained. Elizabeth’s prospects for a happy married life are complicated when her husband, the insufferable poet Lawrence Kirbridge (Ian Ogilvy), turns out to be wholly incapable and uninterested in satisfying her needs. His orchestration of events to save the marriage exploits Elizabeth’s naivety and leads to one of many scandals that the Bellamy children create for their parents. As Rose now “belongs” to Elizabeth, their fates are connected, and it is not long before everyone returns to 165 Eaton Place to weather the fallout.
Elizabeth’s brother James (Simon Williams) is likewise responsible for bringing Sarah back into the home, pregnant with his child and eventually losing the baby. Her surprise arrival coincides with King Edward’s visit — a dramatic (and slyly humorous) blending of the most elite guest of honor with a most tragic character in need of help.
This collision course between classes continues throughout season two, as even Hudson, who is the firmest in his opinion about the proper place of servants, succumbs to putting on airs. He does so to impress his brother, a successful bridge-builder/construction engineer, who comes to town with his wife, a woman obsessed with high society.
In a parallel story, Sir Richard Bellamy’s brother judges the moral universe of his family and household, citing the (interconnected) indiscretions of his children and servants. He sees Sir Richard’s charitable attitude toward servants as “moral cowardice”. When Hudson is inevitably caught playing a role above his station, he is ashamed of attempting to surpass his position.
Thomas (John Alderton), a chauffeur who makes no secret of his ambitions to succeed in life, manipulates several situations for maximum personal gain. He plays upon the Bellamy’s notions of confidentiality while running interference to keep Lady Marjorie’s love affair from going public. When Sarah becomes pregnant with his child, he cannily dodges the truth of the situation while simultaneously pledging to take responsibility for it. Thomas’ will to graduate to a better life creates his pathway out of service.
The midpoint of the series builds upon the class consciousness of the early seasons to establish a changing social order, both inside the house and outside of it. The middle class arrives in the person of Hazel Forrest (Meg Wynn Owen), a typist working for Sir Richard Bellamy. Her introduction to 165 Eaton Place coincides with a number of other significant changes. The King has died, Elizabeth has moved to New York, James is single and living at home, and Lady Marjorie leaves for an ocean voyage to the United States.
James’ affections for Hazel are representative of the overall sense of upheaval, and the prospect of that relationship in particular aggravates Hudson’s crisis of identity. He says to Rose, “I wonder what you or I or any of us are doing in domestic service?…If a hired typist can sit at luncheon in this dining room, drinking the master’s best claret, I might as well go out and stand for Parliament…Proper standards must be maintained in this household, Rose…or there’s no future for any of us.” The events of the third season heighten the dramatic stakes of the series, with tragic deaths, the complications of romance between classes, various public scandals and the oncoming war.
The fourth season of Upstairs, Downstairs explores the equalizing force of World War I. The social stratification of the house becomes less of a concern as the threat of raids, invasions, and other rumors of war frighten the servants and force characters of all classes into different forms of patriotic duty. With extravagance a thing of the past, the house begrudgingly opens to refugees and charities. Hazel is faced with an increasing number of decisions upstairs, as she temporarily loses James to war and other competing forces. Even the normally steadfast Rose is traumatized when the war affects her dreams for the future. All in all, season four is an overwhelmingly depressing arc for several of the major characters, accurately reflecting the futility of hope in a time of war.
When season five begins, the fog has lifted, and Virginia Hamilton (Hannah Gordon), one of the few rays of sunshine to be introduced in the previous season, steps into the household role previously filled by Lady Marjorie and Hazel. While most of Lord Richard Bellamy’s political difficulties seem to be behind him, son James is poised for a series of failures. His inability to learn from mistakes of decades past finally catches up with him. And although the end of the war means that the servants are put back in their pre-war place, the abyss across which characters see each other has significantly narrowed.
We see the fulfillment of a prediction spoken by Hazel in season four. As the series’ foremost middle-class character, she observed to Richard that the servants constituted a sort of family. She wondered if the upstairs and downstairs would all join into a single family someday. Small signs of this new direction occur throughout season five. In one instance, Hudson’s sickness brings a concerned Richard Bellamy into his room, where they recite poetry together. At another point, characters from either side of the social divide meet on a film set, where they’re expected to act out a romantic scene.
Nothing unites the upper and lower classes of 165 Eaton Place as powerfully as the closing events of the series, triggered by the stock market crash but also cumulative with regard to the twisting fortunes of three decades past. The final episode uses a collection of dialogue snippets from past episodes to illustrate Rose’s remembrances as all of the characters make a final exit. This invites the audience to see those past events with the benefit of hindsight, but also to reflect on the ups and downs of the house as the ebb and flow of a full and ultimately happy life. In the end, this is the lived-in, dramatic power of Upstairs, Downstairs: To make viewers of any class or era feel as if they have resided in the series’ home.
The 40th anniversary DVD presentation of this highly influential drama series is an outstanding package for viewers new to the series or for past viewers who don’t already own previous DVD releases. Bonus features include a five-part documentary called “The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs”, a separate 25th anniversary retrospective, interviews with the actors, composer and editor, and an alternate pilot episode. There are also 24 episode commentaries, in which the actors sound much like their on-screen characters as they fondly remember creating the series.