Time Passing

March 6, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Rachel Gurney, the titian- haired British actress who portrayed Lady Marjorie Bellamy on the British television series “Upstairs/Downstairs,” died late last year.

ACTRESS: Oh, and by the way, the sauce for the poached clams…

ACTRESS: Oh, I thought I’d make the maidoc sauce, milady.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Lady Marjorie presided over a fine, if not grand, house in Edwardian London. Here she is conferring with Mrs. Bridges, the cook, about the menu for an upcoming royal visit.

ACTRESS: And you’ll ask Hudson to telephone to Jackson’s for the peaches.

ACTRESS: Very good, milady.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Critics have compared “Upstairs/Downstairs” to soap opera, but its true subject was not romance, but the class structure of England in the early 20th century. These servants, gathered below stairs, were as crucial to the plot as the family they served upstairs.

ACTOR: There he is now. Open the door, Hudson.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In the most famous show from the series, the bloated King of England has arrived for dinner on the same night that Sarah, an ex-maid, has shown up pregnant after an affair with Lady Marjorie’s son. Helping Lady Marjorie handle the crisis is the butler, Hudson; always Hudson, as much a snob as she, for theirs truly is a conspiracy of the two social classes in the name of propriety.

ACTRESS: Did something happen?

ACTOR: There is a situation requiring your attention below stairs.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Some of the things we viewers learned from Lady Marjorie: Never argue in front of the servants, never wear diamonds in the country, never tolerate married servants. There is now, at least, one American generation too young to know what I am talking about.

But, of course, time– time passing– is one of the persistent themes of “Upstairs/Downstairs.” During the three decades that the series was set, the old order of privilege was passing. This ritual of a high society dinner party, so lovingly arranged by the servants, was giving way to an American century of middle-class values.

ACTRESS: Dorothea, you look divine. What are you?

ACTRESS: The Statue of Liberty.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Which raises the question: Why did the world of “Upstairs/Downstairs” interest so many of us Americans, when we were the point of its undoing?

ACTOR: Oh. Sorry for disturbing you.

ACTOR: Oh, no, no. We’re quite finished, sir.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: William Thackery– in my opinion, 19th century England’s finest novelist– once remarked: “There is about a free-born Briton a lick-spittle awe of rank that does not exist under any tyranny in Europe and is only to be found in America.” Thackery meant the remark sarcastically, I think. But truly in America, where the middle class rules and social mobility is our point, one is sometimes oddly left in awe and not a little nostalgic for manners and ordered society.

ACTRESS: Ruby, whistle.

ACTRESS: Who is it? Ow!

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Brash America began intruding into the late episodes of “Upstairs/Downstairs.” American technology, American money, and American celebrity…

ACTOR: That’s everything in the motor, milady.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Rachel Gurney tired of her role as Lady Marjorie, so the producers wrote her out of the script.

ACTRESS: Take care of everything, my dear Hudson.

ACTOR: Indeed, milady.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In this, our last vision of her, she sweeps out the front door under the watchful eye of Hudson. She is on her way to America aboard the “Titanic.”

Tourists still come to Belgravia to see 165 Eaton Place, where Lady Marjorie presided. London cabbies will tell you, “mainly it’s the yanks who come.” It’s the yanks who are disappointed to discover that the house doesn’t exist.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.