Show name: Upstairs Downstairs
Release date: 1971, 2010
Genre: Period drama
Starring: Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard, Jean Marsh, Gordon Jackson
Studio: ITV, BBC
Upstairs, Downstairs ran for five seasons between 1971 and 1975 on ITV. It was both popular at the time and influential since.
The series was revived by the BBC in 2010 with a new cast, and I’ll be reviewing both productions here.
The original Upstairs, Downstairs production was created by Jean Marsh (who played one of the maids) and Eileen Atkins.
Both Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins starred in the BBC revival.
Marsh returned in her old role as Rose Buck, now a housekeeper. Eileen Atkins portrayed a brand-new character, the mother of the house’s new owner.
Back in 1903, when the 1971 series opens, the Bellamy family lived at 165 Eaton Place. Richard is the patriarch and his wife is Lady Marjorie, daughter of an earl and the epitome of grace and beauty.
They have two children, both adults. James is a soldier and Elizabeth is coming out as a debutante.
The family of domestic staff below stairs is every bit as important as the family upstairs, and just as traditional and hierarchical in their outlook.
Butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) and cook Mrs Bridges (Angela Baddeley) keep the other staff in line. This includes a succession, over the years to 1930, of maids, footmen and chauffeurs.
The care shown by Hudson and Mrs Bridges to their young colleagues is every bit as loving and compassionate as a mother and father would show their own children.
Arguments flair, and sometimes tempers create real havoc below stairs, but no one can be in any doubt as to the genuine strength of emotion they all feel for each other.
Upstairs can be every bit as fraught, too. James is feckless and irresponsible, as the impregnation of one of the maids (Pauline Collins) attests. Elizabeth is ahead of her time and rebels against the social restrictions of time and class.
When Lady Marjorie is lost in the Titanic tragedy, Richard is left to steward his adult children and staff through the aftermath as best he can.
The tone of the original series is very patriarchical and traditional, reflecting the times in which it was set and, to a lesser extent, the era in which it was filmed.
Richard is a Conservative MP and later peer who believes utterly in the class system and its continuation.
Perhaps surprisingly, many of his domestic staff share his beliefs.
The Bellamy family are propelled inexorably towards the stockmarket crash of 1929, and the consequences of their changed circumstances are felt above and below stairs.
The series was wonderful. Plenty of new characters came and went in the London townhouse, and there was never a stale feeling. Lots of famous actors of the time starred in it for a season or two, and the arc of time made for a great deal of variety over the five seasons.
The revival in 2010 starred Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes Holland, also an earl’s daughter, and Ed Stoppard as her husband Sir Hallam. They inherit the house from Hallam’s father, who was in India and never set foot inside the house. He bought the lease from the Bellamys.
The new series is set in 1936 (season 1) and 1938-9 (season 2)
Only six years might have passed since the final episode of the original series, but 165 Eaton Place is very run down and needs an entire refurbishment.
The household must also be formed anew as there are no domestic staff there when the new series opens.
Rose Buck, previously maid, becomes the housekeeper and recruits a full range of staff as cheaply and quickly as she can. Unlike the 1971 series, where the house was already occupied and had a full range of staff already, the new series looks at the formation of a family home, both in terms of décor and in terms of staffing.
Lady Agnes’s inexperience with staff is explained by the fact that her father the earl was impoverished. Sir Hallam’s family are new money, but she is determined to be economical with wages.
This leads to some interesting challenges. Agnes has plenty to learn, something that is made far harder by the disapproving presence of her mother-in-law.
The new series of Upstairs, Downstairs was far harder hitting than the original. The Hollands are criticised for their lack of experience and inadvertent letting down of staff in a way that simply never happened with the Bellamys, who were always presented as ideal employers.
The Holland marriage is also far more complex than the Bellamy ones (Richard eventually remarries). All of this is far more realistic and there was plenty of complexity to sustain a second season.
The coming war looms over season 2 of the new series in the same way that the First World War did for parts of the 1971 series. Agnes and the other women respond very differently to their forebears in 1914, indicating just how much changed during the interwar years.
I loved the whole Upstairs, Downstairs experience. The two series were very different, partly a contrast between BBC and ITV treatment of similar material and partly a reflection of how much TV’s presentation of recent history has changed in the last fifty years.
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