This month we celebrate the career of Jean Marsh who is soon to return to our-screens in, perhaps, her most memorable role; that of Rose Buck in Upstairs, Downstairs.
Not only did the actress star in the LWT drama but she also co-created it along with Eileen Atkins; and in the 1990s the similar series House of Eliott for the BBC. We take a look at the career of Jean Marsh from the memorable period drama to her roles in Doctor Who, The Ghost Hunter and a wide range of other roles.
For many Jean Marsh is remembered for two things; Upstairs, Downstairs and her several roles in Doctor Who. The two seem quite separate but both were hugely successful and popular in their day with fans around the world and legacies that continue to this day. Indeed Doctor Who was successfully revived for television in 2005 by writer Russell T. Davies while next year a revival of Upstairs, Downstairs will be brought to our screens by the BBC – we’re sure that with Jean Marsh onboard the project it’ll be a success.
Jean Marsh’s earliest television roles were in the 1950s when television really was in its early days. While there had been a limited television series in the 1930s the outbreak of the war in 1939 saw it suspended and service did not resume until the late 1940s. Even then only the very rich had television sets and there were few programmes broadcast – and limited broadcast hours. It wasn’t until the Coronation of Queen Elisabeth II in 1952 that television really came into its own with the televised coronation thousands, if not millions, of brits rushed out to buy a television to watch the ceremony on. This was the true birth of popular television and wide-spread access to it; just three years later in 1955 the first commercial channel in the UK was launched in the form of ITV.
The birth of television in America was very different, of course, and television was growing in popularity from the early 1950s – especially was the transferring of popular radio-soaps to television such as Guiding Light. Film companies such as Disney quickly moved into the new medium and exploited it through shows such as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Colour – in which Jean Marsh appeared in twice. Other popular programmes of the times included The Twilight Zone in which the actress also appeared. Her earliest role on television was in 1952 in The Infinite Shoeblack and subsequent roles included The ITV Playhouse, The Third Man, The Third Man and The Moon and the Sixpence.
In the 1960s the popularity of television was assured thanks to the rise in many popular dramas – many of whom were within the spy/espionage genre tapping into the Cold War fear of spies in our midst’s and those who combated them. This was evident in cinema through the launch of the James Bond film franchise in the 1960s but on the small screen such examples can be found in The New Avengers, The Saint and Dangerman. Between 1964 and 1968 Jean Marsh appeared in The Saint four times playing different characters and her other roles around the same time included The Wednesday Play, I Spy, Adam Adamant Lives and the series The Informers in which Marsh played Sylvia Parrish in 17 episodes. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Marsh appeared in Department S, UFO, Jane Eyre as Mrs Rochester (released as a film in the UK but shown on NBC in America), The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and The Persuaders.
In 1965 the actress made her first appearance in the BBC Television series Doctor Who in the four-part historical story, The Crusades. The actress played Lady Joanne opposite Julian Glover as King Richard the Lionheart – Joanne was his sister. Between 1955 and 1960 the actress had been married to future Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee. Her appearance as Lady Joanne obviously impressed the producers of Doctor Who because later in the year Marsh returned. However, this time the actress was playing another role; that of Sara Kingdom in the epic story The Daleks Masterplan – which ran to 12 parts.
Sara was considered by the producers as a companion to the Doctor (William Hartnell) for the duration of the story but at its conclusion Sara was killed off – leading some debate amongst fans as to whether or not Sara is a proper companion or not. Despite being killed off in the series finale the actress has reprised the role several times since – but not for the television series. Instead Marsh has played Sara Kingdom again for the Big Finish series of Who audio drama’s under The Companion Chronicles strand.
In 1989 Marsh made her third and final appearance – so far – in the series in the story Battlefield. The actress played Morgaine in a Doctor Who take on the legends of King Arthur – in the story Morgaine and Arthur are from an alternative dimension and the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is the wizard Merlin. The story saw the actress play alongside Nicholas Courtney, in his role of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart but the actor had also appeared in The Daleks Masterplan as another character; Bret Vyon – the brother of Sara Kingdom! The story was the opener for what would be Doctor Who’s final season, of the original series, on-screen and is evokes mixed reactions from fans.
In 1971 Jean Marsh and her friend Eileen Atkins came up with the original concept for what later became Upstairs, Downstairs. Originally the two conceived the idea as a comedy set in an Edwardian London town-house but when the idea was taken to LWT it was reworked as a serious drama and it became Upstairs, Downstairs. Script writer Alfred Shaughnessy and John Hawkesworth helped to shape the concept into what became the popular drama. Originally Eileen Atkins was to appear in the series as troublesome new maid Sarah but was unable to and so the role was given to Pauline Collins instead.
Upstairs, Downstairs was set in 165 Eaton Place, a London townhouse, and followed the lives of the Bellamy’s upstairs and their household servants downstairs. Jean Marsh played Rose Buck, one of the maids downstairs, with Gordon Jackson as the Head Butler Hudson and Angela Baddeley as Mrs Bridges, the cook. Upstairs was ruled by Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney) and Lord Richard (David Langton) with their two children; Miss Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) who Rose had a close friendship with and James (Simon Williams) with whom Sarah had a relationship with.
The first series of Upstairs, Downstairs was filmed partly in black & white and colour – the original opening episode was re-filmed in colour for overseas broadcast when it became clear the show was popular. Due to the mixture of colour and black & white episodes when repeated the series is rarely shown in full – broadcasters usually skip the black and white episodes. As the first episode was refilled in colour with a slightly alternative ending, to allow for black and white episodes to be skipped if chosen, there is sometimes some confusion surrounding the time-line of the drama.
Upstairs, Downstairs was a huge hit and not just in this country but also in America where it was hugely popular with audiences and won several Emmy awards. The first series was set during the Edwardian period but the episodes advanced too quickly through the years and so producers decided, on the second series, to “roll back” the years slightly. The series covered many of the important historical events of the time such as the death of King Edward VIII (who was played by Lockwood West in a well remembered episode of the series), the sinking of the Titanic (in which Lady Marjorie was killed off) , the rise of the suffragettes (a storyline saw Miss Elisabeth involved with such a movement), the First World War, its aftermath, the General Strike and the collapse of Wall Street in 1929 and the great Depression that followed – the series ended at this point with the suicide of James after he lost a fortune in share collapses.
Rose Buck, Marsh’ character, was one of the central characters in the drama appearing in all five seasons and being involved in several big storylines such as her fiancée being killed in the First World War, to being arrested for being a suffragette alongside Miss Elizabeth and finally, in the last season, losing all her money that James had badly invested for her. The very last scene of Upstairs, Downstairs saw Rose walking through 165 Eaton Place heading to the front door to leave for the final time – with memories haunting her. Such was the popularity of the series that LWT were keen for it to continue but the producers were firm – Upstairs, Downstairs was to end.
As the main drama was ending several spin-offs were considered; the first one was to feature Mr Hudson, Miss Bridges and kitchen maid Ruby (Jenny Tomasin) starting up a boarding house on the coast. The death of actress Angela Baddeley in 1976 ultimately prevented this spin-off form making it to screen but had the actress lived it seems certain the spin-off would have happened. The second spin-off considered was still set at 165 Eaton Place but with Georgina (Lesley Anne-Down, introduced in season three) buying the place with her new husband – the actress though declined on the grounds the spin-off would not have featured the likes of Hudson or Miss Bridges. A spin-off involving Rose in America was also considered but in the end the only spin-off to be produced was Thomas & Sarah in 1979. The short-lived drama followed Pauline Collin’s character of Sarah who had left at the end of season two with fellow servant Thomas (Collin’s real life husband John Alderton).
The success of Upstairs, Downstairs in America lead to further roles in the country for Marsh with appearances in The Waltons, See China and Die, Hawaii Five-O, The Love Boat and Nine to Five as Roz Keith in 1983 for 29 episodes. Marsh also starred in the film Return to Oz in 1985 – the sequel to the Judy Garland 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In 1988 the actress also appeared in the film Willow as Queen Bavmorda and No Strings, the series, as Rosie.
The 1990s saw Jean Marsh continue to work in television appearing in the revival of the children’s show The Tomorrow People – originally from the 1970s – in which she played Doctor Culex. The actress also played Matron in The All New Alexei Sayle Show. In 1991 she collaborated once again with Eileen Atkins to create another drama – The House of Eliott. The drama was this time created for the BBC and focused on two sisters (Louise Lombard and Stella Gonet) who decide to create their own fashion range – and later fashion house – following the death of their controlling father. The House of Eilott was set in the 1920s and touched upon many of the themes covered in Upstairs Downstairs such as the General Strike, class struggle, suffragette movement and the difficulty women faced running their own businesses.
As well as co-creating The House of Eliott Marsh also wrote several of the scripts. Starring alongside Stella Gonet and Louise Lombard in the series were Cathy Murphy as Tilly, Judy Flynn as Madge, Victoria Alcock as Agnes and Aden Gillet as Jack. The drama ran for three seasons between 1991 and 1994 and was the last major production of its kind filmed at BBC Television Studios. It was expected to be renewed for a fourth season – with a cliff-hanger ending the third – but surprisingly the BBC declined to order another season. While not as popular as Upstairs, Downstairs and not was widely remembered the series is still a gem and has been released on DVD and repeated on digital channel Yesterday recently.
Marsh’s most memorable role of recent times was as the villainess Mrs Croker in Ghosthunter – the BBC children’s drama. The actress has continued to appear in a wide range of roles though with Dangerfield, Holby City, Kavanagh QC, Doctors, Crocked House and as Lizzie in Sensitive Skin.The actress has also recorded commentaries for the Network DVD boxsets of Upstairs, Downstairs and took part in the specially filmed documentary series The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs – also by Network DVD for their boxsets. Over the years several programmes have documented the drama with Must See TV, The Story of Costume Drama, Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered, Happy Birthday Bafta and After Upstairs, Downstairs some of the programmes that Marsh has appeared on to discuss the series.
Fans can look forward to seeing her next play Rose Buck once more in the BBC revival of Upstairs, Downstairs which will finally see Dame Eileen Atkins appear in the drama and the two will be joined by Anne Reid, Keeley Hawes, Art Malik, Nico Mirallegro, Ed Stoppard and Claire Foy in a three-part series written by Heidi Thomas who has previously adapted Cranford and Ballet Shoes for the BBC.