A classic British costume drama
, set in the years 1903 to 1930, telling the tale of a society
and their servants downstairs
. No mere soap opera, this was one of the most admired of all such dramas, seeming to give us an iconic, realistic picture of what life was like then for both classes. The characters were equals on the screen, and many of them aged and developed through the great events of the time: the end of the idyllic Edwardian
period, the Titanic
, the Great War
, the General Strike
, and the stock market crash
Sir Richard Bellamy, later Lord Bellamy, is the head of the house, 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, London. He is an up-and-coming politician, married to an aristocratic wife Lady Marjorie. They have two children, a son James and a daughter Elizabeth. Downstairs is ruled by Mr Hudson, the butler, and equally dominated by the cook Mrs Bridges. Next in seniority is the maid Rose.
This is how it begins in 1903, in the timeless world of privilege when all good families had splendid houses and armies of servants. The people upstairs assumed their place by right, and those downstairs knew their place. There were no heroes or villains in Upstairs, Downstairs: everyone was a well-rounded person with a complex life of their own beyond the needs of the plot. Hudson is a stern but good man, who sometimes falters, and seeks to impress a sense of their position on younger staff; Rose is a stalwart: sometimes not highly regarded enough, but always there and usually in control. Sir Richard is kindly to his staff; James Bellamy is a weak man and could have been a cad if he were more morally black and white.
Other long-serving characters downstairs were Ruby and Daisy, the footmen Edward and Frederick, and the sexpot Sarah and the scheming chauffeur Thomas: the last two, played by a real-life married couple, not only ended up with each other, but achieved the only spin-off from the series, Thomas and Sarah. With the departure of the two upstairs females, replacements were introduced in the person of Richard Bellamy's ward Georgina Worsley, his secretary Hazel Forrest who eventually becomes James's wife, and to replace her in her turn as mistress of the house is Richard's second wife Virginia Hamilton. Outside the house the main character was the Bellamys' man of business, Sir Geoffrey Dillon.
If you don't want any more SPOILERS than this, I'll now give the cast list and episode details, then follow with more story detail that you shouldn't read.
Sir Richard Bellamy: David Langton
Lady Marjorie Bellamy: Rachel Gurney
Elizabeth Bellamy: Nicola Pagett
James Bellamy: Simon Williams
Georgina Worsley: Lesley-Anne Down
Hazel Forrest (Bellamy): Meg Wynn Owen
Virginia Hamilton (Bellamy): Hannah Gordon
Mr Hudson: Gordon Jackson
Mrs Bridges: Angela Baddeley
Rose: Jean Marsh
Ruby: Jenny Tomasin
Daisy: Jacqueline Tong
Edward: Christopher Beeny
Frederick: Gareth Hunt
Sarah: Pauline Collins
Thomas: John Alderton
Sir Geoffrey Dillon: Raymond Huntley
165 Eaton Place: 65 Eaton Place
was created by Jean Marsh
and Eileen Atkins
in 1969. Their original idea was a comedy in which they would play two maid
s. The plan changed in the hands of producer John Hawkesworth
and script-editor Arthur Shaughnessy
until it became the serious Edwardian drama we know now. London Weekend Television
began production in 1970, and the first episode was transmitted on 10th October 1971. Atkins was unable to appear because of a commitment in a play, but Jean Marsh played the formidable Rose from this one till the very end, when she closes up 165 Eaton Place for the last time.
Series 1 covered 1903-09 in thirteen episodes (the first few in black and white), and as it was such a success LWT commissioned more. There were five series in all. The first series had had Edwardian title cards giving explicit dates; the second series dispensed with these and dwelt around about the end of the era, 1909-10. Later series are dated by the external events they cover: series 3 is 1912-14, series 4 is 1914-18, and series 5 is 1919-30. Because the great house was increasingly an anachronism by this time, and servants were not so much used, and the main characters would be getting on in age too much from 1903, John Hawkesworth declined to produce a sixth series, but closed the show by extending the usual thirteen episodes of the fifth series to sixteen. The final episode was aired on 21st December 1975.
Apart from Hawkesworth and Shaughnessy, script writers included Fay Weldon, Rosemary Anne Sisson, and Jeremy Paul. Three of the episodes were so remorselessly edited by Shaughnessy that the writers all asked for their names to be removed.
The cast is crowned by, above all, Gordon Jackson as Hudson: the honourable, proud, fastidious, sometimes vacillating, sometimes foolish butler. Upstairs, Downstairs is unimaginable without this Mr Hudson at its centre. Astonishingly, the producers originally considered George Cole!
I am indebted to The Upstairs, Downstairs Web Pages at www.updown.org.uk. You will find many photographs there to stir memories, and a lot more detail.
The Grim Reaper cuts a swathe through the upper household
, leaving the faithful servants largely alive, though damaged. Here are the pivotal events of the house. Lady Marjorie sails off in the Titanic
at the beginning of the third season; Hazel succumbs to the influenza
epidemic at the end of the fourth; and James, having lost all Rose's money in the stock exchange crash, puts a period to his existence. She had inherited wealth from her Australian farmer fiancé, killed in the War. In order to pay off James's debts, Lord Bellamy decides that Eaton Place must be sold. The last scene of the last episode has Rose wandering sadly through the empty rooms reminiscing over the thirty years she had spent there.
No children of any note came into the series. There were, of course, pregnancies. Elizabeth had a baby, but she didn't remain in the series for long enough after for it to grow up. A little inter-stairs how's-your-father saw Sarah pregnant to James. Hazel miscarries. The distressed Mrs Bridges at one point stole a child from a pram and the matter had to be hushed up. There was a fair bit of, if not actual blackmail, hushing up and pulling of strings and threatening of parliamentary careers. Lady Marjorie had a dalliance with an artist who was painting her, and with a friend of James's. James and Georgina got rather close; Hazel was tempted. There were a few sinister or salacious foreigners (a French countess for Richard; a German homosexual spy for the footman Alfred; a Swede for Sarah to add to her collection).
The main marriages were of Elizabeth to the avant-garde poet Lawrence Kirbridge, when she was mixing with socially unsuitable radical females. Then she dropped out at the end of the second series, explained as "gone to America". Sarah, pregnant by Thomas this time, pairs off with him and into their own series, Thomas and Sarah, at the same time. James settles down and marries his father's secretary Hazel, and she therefore fills the gap now that Marjorie and Elizabeth are gone. Edward and Daisy get engaged, Edward goes off to war and is devastated with shell-shock, and they eventually return to Eaton Place. After this Richard marries Virginia, and in the final series Georgina ends up marrying the Marquis of Stockbridge. Even Mr Hudson unbends to one of the younger servant girls.
When the house is shut up at last, Rose goes off to be Georgina's maid, while Hudson and Mrs Bridges agree to tie the knot and open a seaside boarding house.