This month our Flashback strand takes a look at the LWT drama series Upstairs, Downstairs; hugely popular both here in the UK and in America the period drama has left a lasting legacy with many costume shows hoping to capture the success enjoyed by Upstairs, Downstairs.
The drama ran for five seasons between 1971 and 1975 and when producers decided to end the series LWT reportedly were begging for Upstairs, Downstairs to continue – but the producers knew best and it ended on a high. Next year will see the return of the drama after 35 years off-air as the BBC revives it with Jean Marsh reprising her role of Rose Buck. So with that in mind we take a look back at the original and classic series of Upstairs, Downstairs.
The original concept of Upstairs, Downstairs was developed by actresses and friends Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins who envisaged it as a comedy revolving around two housemaids in a large country house during the Victorian era – they called their comedy Behind the Green Baize door. However, the addition of an ‘Upstairs’ family was quickly made as the two realised that servants had to serve someone. Marsh and Atkins then took their idea to Sagitta Productions which was run by John Hawkesworth and John Whitney. Although they liked the idea they reworked it feeling the concept would work better as a serious drama – they removed the comedy from the idea and brought it out of the Victorian era and into the Edwardian period. The two also decided to set the drama in a London house as it would be easier to film with sets and location shooting rather than having to create a large stately home.
With the concept reworked the idea was taken to Granada Television who rejected it because they have their own period drama in development – A Family At War. Although that series was set during the Second World War the bosses at Granada felt they didn’t need two period dramas on at the same time – and so passed. The idea was then taken to LWT and was accepted by Stella Richman, the controller of programmes, and she commissioned the first series in April of 1970.
Alfred Shaughnessy was appointed as script editor to the series by John Hawkesworth and the new editor quickly set to work re-writing several characters to make them more realistic. At the same time casting for the series was also being considered. The idea was for Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins to play two maids in the series but other commitments prevented Atkins from being able to take part. Instead Pauline Collins was cast in the role of the troublesome new maid Sarah – Jean Marsh remained part of the production as Rose Buck
Reportedly Honor Blackman, who had made a new for herself in The Avengers, was considered for the role of Lady Marjorie while George Cole was considered the role of Head Butler, Hudson. The drama had developed by this point to be about the Upstairs family of the Bellamy’s and the downstairs collection of servants headed by Hudson and the cook, Mrs Bridges. The Bellamy’s were made up of Lady Marjorie, who was part of the wealthy and aristocratic Southwald family, and her Tory MP husband Richard. Their two children, Elizabeth and James, would also be introduced during the season. Elizabeth was being educated in Germany at the start of the series.
Rachel Gurney was cast in the role of Lady Marjorie with David Langton as her husband Richard. Simon Williams was cast as the troublesome James Bellamy with Nicola Pagett as Elizabeth. Completing the “Upstairs” set were the recurring roles of family friend Lady Prudence (Joan Benham) and family solicitor Sir Geoffrey Dillon (Raymond Huntley). Downstairs Gordon Jackson took on the role of the Scottish and proper head-butler Hudson with Angela Baddeley as Miss Bridges, the cook. Cheeky Edward was played by Christopher Beeney while Emily, the put upon kitchen maid, was played by Evin Dotrice with Lady Marjorie’s lady’s maid Roberts played by Patsy Smart. Completing the downstairs make-up was George Innes as Alfred and Brian Osbourne as Pearce.
The first series of Upstairs, Downstairs covered the years between 1903 and 1910 – the end of the Victorian period and the Edwardian period. The 13 part series was filmed in a mixture of Black and White and Colour – with the first few episodes filmed entirely in black and white. The mixture of episodes being filmed differently is because of an industrial despite over the introduction of colour cameras to studios.
In the latter part of the 1960s various television companies in the UK slowly switched over to colour production – many of the ATV productions of the 1960s were already made in colour for overseas sales. However, the process was a slow and difficult one because of the unions who believed that their camera operators should be paid more for filming in colour – some companies resisted switching to colour such as Granada. However, in the end the move to colour was unavoidable one and the unions probably took advantage of this and demanded more money.
This dispute affected the filming of several shows such as Upstairs, Downstairs and also other productions such as Timeslip by ATV. Once the dispute had been resolved and filming in colour began the decision was taken to go back and re-record the first episode. When re-filming the opening episode two endings were shot with either being shown depending on whether the black and white episodes were to be aired. This was probably primarily for overseas sales as many broadcasters would have opted out of the black and white episodes – skipping over the first few episodes. If this was the case the alternative ending of the premier could be shown to bridge the gap between the storylines.
Although Upstairs, Downstairs had been commissioned by Stella Richman the show suffered from opposition with LWT with some who felt the series would flop. As such the drama sat on the shelves for a while before being dusted off and aired as a last minute schedule addition. Despite an somewhat graveyard slot of Sunday evening at 10.15pm the show became a hit – an unexpected hit – and LWT were quick to commission a second season.
During the course of the first season the character of Alfred (George Innes) was written out mid-way through when he ran off with a German Baron; Klauss Von Rimmer. The Baron had arrived at 165 Eaton Place to woo the young Elizabeth whose parents were keen to find a suiter for her. However, not only was the Baron having an affair with the footman but was also a German spy who hoped to use his marriage with Elizabeth to get vital information from Richard who was, at that time, a government minister. The affair between Klauss and Alfred was revealed though, discovered by Rose, and the two fled. However, later in the season Elizabeth did find a suitor in the poet Lawrence (Ian Ogilvy) and the first season ends with their marriage. Other important storylines during the course of the first season included Lady Marjorie’s affair with a young Captain and chambermaid Sarah begins her on/off affair with James Bellamy.
When it came to writing the second series of Upstairs, Downstairs the producers released they had a problem – time. By the conclusion of the first season it was 1910 within the timeline of the drama which meant the end of the Edwardian period with the death of the King, Edward VIII, during that year. However, the producers were reluctant to move out of the Edwardian period just yet – they didn’t want to begin the countdown to the 1914-1918 war too soon.
Instead the producers decided to do what is now termed as “retcon” – they rewrote established continuity slightly by rolling back the years. Therefore the second series is set in the latter part of the Edwardian period – allowing the producers to feature King Edward himself in a fan favourite episode. The second season saw the exploration of the marriage between Elizabeth and Lawrence as the two moved out of 165 Eaton Place and into a home of their own – taking Rose with them. A new man-servant for Lawrence, Thomas (played by John Alderton, the real life husband of Pauline Collins) was introduced.
The series quickly established that the marriage between Lawrence and Elizabeth was a sham; Lawrence didn’t want to consummate the marriage with Elizabeth. Although Lawrence strongly denied he was homosexual throughout this it was hinted at none the less. Elizabeth had an affair and fell pregnant and the marriage eventually fell apart. Elizabeth, Rose and Thomas returned to 165 Eaton Place.
The relationship between James and Sarah resulted in her falling pregnant and giving birth at the house – while King Edward was visiting. The child did not survive the birth and James was sent on military service to India while Sarah was employed as a nanny for Elizabeth’s child. Downstairs new kitchen-maid Ruby (Jenny Tomasin) was introduced who constantly managed to wind Miss Bridges up – the character was something of a comical one for the series. The affair between Lady Marjorie and her the young Captain came back to haunt her as Thomas became on possession of the lover letters and tried to blackmail Richard and Marjorie over them. The season ended with Sarah and Thomas having left 165 Eaton Place to start afresh elsewhere; Sarah once again having fell pregnant. James had returned from India with a finance and the death of the King is announced.
During the course of season two a feature length film was suggested – the setting before being the series started during the late Victorian period and only featuring a handful of characters from the TV series (such as Lady Marjorie and Hudson). However, despite there being much talk of a film it eventually came to nothing but for a long time it was considered a very real possibility.
The departures of Pauline Collins and John Alderton at the end of series two were added by Nicola Pagget who decided not to return as Elizabeth. Rachel Gurney had also decided to quit her role of Lady Marjorie as she was unsatisfied with the character – dubbing her Lady Wasp. The actress felt that David Langton’s character of Richard was far more sympathetic than her own and would have liked more sympathetic scenes but in the end decided to leave the series. Gurney did agree to return for the season three opener though so her character could be satisfactory written out – onboard the Titanic.
The third season dealt with the pre-war years of 1912 to 1914 starting with the sinking of the Titanic in the season opener to the declaration of war in the season finale. With Rachel Gurney departing the series it was also decided to write out her maid Roberts (Patsy Smart) after the second episode. Joining the series though were Meg Wynn Owen as Hazel Forrest; Richard’s secretary who James falls in love with and marries. Later in the season Lesley Anne-Down joined the cast as Georgina Worsley, the ward of Richard; Georgina and James are clearly attracted to each other something which is referred to and developed across the remainder of Upstairs, Downstairs run. Actress Jacqueline Tong also joined the drama as new servant Daisy whose romance with Edward would later lead to marriage during the fourth season.
It is the fourth season that is perhaps the highest regarded by fans and the most memorable as it dealt with the First World War. James Bellamy and servant Edward both enlist and are sent to France to fight in the trenches – both feeling the full horror of the war. During one of James’ returns home he describes the horror of the situation to his father and Sir Geoffrey. Edward suffers from shellshock and during a Christmas/New Year episode of the series has a breakdown in a truly moving scene.
However, the series didn’t just explore the contributions to the war made by the solders but also those at home with Richard returning as a Government Minister, Hudson becoming a special constable, Ruby leaving to work in a factory and Rose becoming a conductor. Georgina trained as a nurse and was sent to France to the frontlines to nurse the soldiers – where she came across James who had been reported as missing presumed dead. Hazel and Lady Prudence are shown to hold and organise charity events for the sick and wounded soldiers.
Every regular character in the series is shown, in some way, as having been affected by the war but also contributing towards it. As the series progresses the terrible losses experience by people were shown as James was reported missing – although was discovered later – and Rose’s finance is killed in action. New characters introduced during the season included Virginia Hamilton (Hannah Gordon) who turned to Richard and Meg for help when her son was charged with cowardice. Also introduced in the season was James’ manservant in the army Frederick (Gareth Hunt). At the season conclusion Richard and Virginia were married and Hazel died in the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed nearly 50 million people between 1918 and 1920 following the end of the war. The producers killed off the character as they believed Hazel would not fit into the “swinging” 1920s.
The fifth and final season of Upstairs, Downstairs covers the “swinging” 1920s, the General Strike of 1926, the collapse of Wall Street in 1929 and touches upon the Great Depression that followed – the series concluding in 1930. The aftermath of the war and its impact upon society is touched upon in the series as Georgina throws herself into partying and enjoying the rising social scene of the 1920s.
James meanwhile tries various jobs to keep him occupied following his departure from the army including standing for parliament but ultimately fails in this. The rise of film in the 1920s is also touched upon as Georgina and Frederick (re-introduced as a regular character; a servant at 165) both land film roles while Ruby is seen to enjoy visiting the movies. Society in the post-war years changed with servants gaining more freedom and many leaving service to start new jobs in rising and new industries – this is once again covered with the departure of Frederick mid-way through as he left to seek his fortune. Edward and Daisy meanwhile have to rejoin 165 Eaton Place as servants following their failed attempt at finding a life and jobs outside of service. New maid Lily (Karen Dotrice, child-star of Mary Poppins) is introduced and enjoys a brief romance with Mr Hudson but eventually leaves after the romance is discovered by Rose.
The series concludes with the crash of Wall Street in 1929 and James committing suicide in the wake of it; having lost his own money and Rose’ which he unwisely invested. The death of James and his debts force the Bellamy’s to sell off the house to pay them off. However, the series does end on a happy note as Georgina marries Robert Stockbridge (Anthony Andrews) and Hudson and Mrs Bridges also announce their intention to marry. With 165 Eaton Place sold and the staff disbanded the break up of the Downstairs and Upstairs families begins. Hudson, Mrs Bridges and Ruby leave to run a boarding house on the South Coast while Georgina and her new husband set up home elsewhere. Edward and Daisy obtain new jobs with another wealthy family while Rose goes with Richard and Virginia to their new home. The final scenes of the drama end with Rose going through the empty rooms of the house with memories of her times there flooding back to her.
LWT were determined that Upstairs, Downstairs should continue due to its popularity both in the UK and America. However, the producers decided that to continue into the 1930s would be unrealistic as many of the characters would simply be too old. LWT reportedly offered the producers more money for the drama which they turned down. However, the prospect of spin-offs was discussed. It was almost a certainty that a spin-off following Ruby, Mrs Bridges and Hudson in their Boarding House would have made it too screen but the death of actress Angela Baddeley in 1976 meant the spin-off never came to life. Another spin-off discussed was having Georgina and her new husband Robert buy 165 Eaton Place and move back there – with the spin-off using the same setting as the series. However, actress Lesley Anne-Down turned down the spin-off because off the absence of key actors from the parent show.
Spin-offs featuring Rose and Frederick in America were also discussed but in the end only one spin-off made it to screen; Thomas and Sarah. In 1979 a single season with Pauline Collins and John Alderton reprising their respective roles was produced by LWT – a second series was ordered but cancelled when filming was disrupted by a prolonged strike which lasted for three months.
The memorial opening title cards of each episode featured a cartoon from the magazine Punch with the lettering drawn by Terry Griffiths. The first season titles accompanied the date of the episode was set along with its title – this was scrapped from the second season onwards partly because series two retcon established continuity slightly by turning back the years. The theme tune was composed by Alexander Faris and titled The Edwardians – it won an Ivor Novello Award. The theme was used for the Music Hall song “What Are We Going To Do With Uncle Arthur” which was sung by Pauline Collins on several occasions during seasons one and two – the actress later released the song as a single in 1973. The theme tune has become one of the most instantly recognisable television themes around and is considered a masterpiece by some.
Over the five years many writers contributed scripts to the series with regular writers being; Alfred Shaughnessy, John Hawkesworth, Fay Wedlon, Jeremy Paul, Rosemary Anne Sisson and husband & wife duo Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham. Upstairs, Downstairs won Best Drama Series at the Baftas in 1972 and 1974 while in America it won several Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. It won Outstanding Drama Series in 1974. 1975 and 1977 while Jean Marsh, in 1975, won Best Actress at the Emmy’s. At the Golden Globes it won the 1975 award for Best TV Show – Drama and was again nominated for the category in 1978.
Despite its popularity, or because of it, the series has been spoofed several times and perhaps most memorable by Stanley Baxter. His spoof, Upstage Downstage, was filmed on the actual set of the drama and wonderfully sent up characters such as Rose, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges. ATV’s Carry On Laughing series, the television spin-off from the film franchise, also featured two spoofs of the drama with Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor and Sherrie Hewson amongst the cast of the two episodes.
After the series ended Alfred Shaughnessy created the drama The Cedar Tree for ATV. Clearly inspired by Upstairs, Downstairs the ATV daytime drama was set between the wars and was set in Larkfield Manor. It ran for three seasons between 1976 and 1979. John Hawkesworth created the BBC’s answer to the drama – The Duchess of Duke Street. The drama was set between 1900 and 1925 in a Hotel and ran for 31 episodes between 1976 and 1977. In 1977 Gordon Jackson was cast as George Cowley in the police-drama series The Professionals which ran until 1983 – the role was quite different to that of Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and alongside that of the Scottish Butler is one that the actor is still remembered for.
Lesley Anne-Down went on to enjoy success in America with major roles in North and South, Dallas, Sunset Beach, Days of our Lives and since 2003 the CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Pauline Collins memorable appeared in the 1989 film Shirley Valentine in the title role while her husband John Alderton has since appeared in numerous programmes such as Please Sir, Forever Green, The Mrs Bradley Mysteries and most recently Little Dorrit. Jenny Tomasin joined the ATV soap Crossroads and most recently appeared in Emmerdale. Gareth Hunt appeared alongside Joanna Lumley and Patrick McNee in The New Avengers – a sequel to the highly successful 1960s series The Avengers. His other credits include the LWT 2000’s soap Night And Day; the actor sadly passed away in 2007.
In the 1990s Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins once again collaborated to create the fashion based period drama The House of Eliott. The series was set in the 1920s and starred Stella Gonet and Louise Lombard as two sisters who, following the death of their father, decided to set up their own fashion range – later a fashion house. The drama covered many of the themes and topics that Upstairs, Downstairs did with the suffragette movement, the General Strike of 1926 and the rise of cinema all covered. The House of Eliott ran for three seasons between 1991 and 1994 before being unexpectedly cancelled by the BBC.
To this day Upstairs, Downstairs remains popular in America, in the UK and around the world with repeats airing regularly on channels across the globe. In the UK it has been repeated on Granada Plus and ITV3 and Network DVD have released all five complete seasons – each season comprising of a “making of” documentary titled The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs. The excellent five-part documentary features contributions from most of the surviving cast, writers, producers and crew that worked on the series.
The success and legacy of Upstairs, Downstairs is clear to see today and its hardly surprising that the BBC has decided to revive it for three new episodes to air next year. The new episodes have a lot to life up too but with Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins involved there is every chance they will.