Original Series Tribute
From the happenings at 165 Eaton Place to the nuances of the Edwardian era, Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke offered compelling insights in his weekly introductions and thoughtful closing essays.
Watch introductions from the first and last episodes of Upstairs Downstairs along with one from Series III.
Read a sample of Alistair Cooke's closing commentaries for context on some of Upstairs Downstairs's major historical and social themes. For more on the private and public life of Masterpiece Theatre's iconic host, visit The Unseen Alistair Cooke: A Masterpiece Special.
Select a topic from the list below or choose Show All to see all of Alistair's essays.
Upstairs Downstairs original series
Alistair Cooke's Closing Essay #13, Series I
Episode: A Family Gathering
In one of the truest, and the last, gestures of the Edwardian age, the Queen sent for the King's mistresses to be with him by his death bed.
And he was succeeded by his son, who was as different — by way of morals, temperament, style, everything — as Edward had been from Victoria and Albert.
The new man was nothing if not "worthy." But he was hardly known to the people, for he had spent his life at sea. They tried to fix a dashing label on him by dubbing him the "sailor king." But as an exercise in public relations, the problem there is that you're not home much.
George the Fifth was a solid, stolid, old country gentleman with three manias. His stamp collection and his wife, the formidable Princess Mary of Teck, who devoted her life to him and to the advancement of women's welfare, foundling children's hospitals, and the betterment of nurses.
Respectability was enthroned again, and was to stay so into our time. And when the second war came, Britain was grateful to see through the bombed out windows of Buckingham Palace a microcosm of its own ideal: a devoted father and mother and their two gallant little girls, one of whom — in her turn — married a sailor prince and lived a close family life unmarred by affliction or scandal.
There was — for a very brief reign — one throwback to the Edwardian days. The genes of Edward the Seventh reasserted themselves in Edward the Eighth. But neither the families in Britain, nor the family men who presided over the Empire and Commonwealth, could by then tolerate a royal mistress or the King's marriage to a women twice-divorced. So, after a tumultuous week of public rumor and private pain, he had to go. But all this was in the invisible future, well beyond the next ten years that Elizabeth idly wondered about.
What did lie ahead in the next decade?
The senior Bellamys, and their kind, nestled into the assumption that Britain would go on ruling the world under a more stable King. When in the next year or two the London posters kept billing the dull phrase "naval estimates," they never dreamed that it was an omen responding to the more terrifying omen of the King's cousin: the German emperor, who had his own notions of who should rule, not the world perhaps, but Europe.
Nobody, as late as the beautiful spring of 1914, guessed that at the feet of the Edwardians lay the ruins of their society in the yawning pit of the First World War. Into it would fall at first the James Bellamys and then a territorial army and at last all the young and the ailing — six million of them, and kill off two million of them in the trenched fields of France.
In the euphoria of the Armistice there was a year or so of rousing idealism. It had been, after all, the war that would end all war. So said the new trans-Atlantic hero, President Woodrow Wilson, who very soon turned from a prophet into a preacher.
The Bellamys looked at a famished Europe and had nightmares about the rise of Communism. But in a year or two, it seemed to be confined to barbarous Russia. Exhausted England prospered again and drew a hectic sort of vitality from lively pleasures imported from across the Atlantic, over which presided not the King, away from his shooting lodge in Norfolk, but the world's Prince Charming, their own David, Prince of Wales.
Neither the upstairs or the downstairs could guess then that his fate would be sealed by himself, and their own by a brooding little Austrian housepainter who had ambitions beyond those even of the exiled Wilhelm the Second.
Upstairs Downstairs original series
Alistair Cooke's Closing Essay #5, Series I
Episode : A Pair of Exiles
The soldier and the servant girl. It's been the staple of romantic literature from the Middle Ages to Bernard Shaw. The operettas of the Edwardian Age had no more reliable cliché than the handsome officer — with a ringing tenor voice — and the artless country girl who worshipped from afar till she brought him down with the final curtain.
Well, what we've just seen is closer to the cynical version of the Edwardian music halls, and a good deal closer to the truth. At one time, the orphanages of Great Britain were powerfully recruited from the little lapses of the brigade of Guards. And, considering the sort of life led by the soldiers and the servant girls, it was perhaps bound to be so.
Something it's hard for us to remember is that up to the First World War, the British had a very small regular army, and until the end of Edward's reign no territorial army at all. You didn't have to defend the homeland. Britain was an island. And for over two centuries after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Navy was its shield.
But in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, no army roamed so far and wide. As Britain became the great industrial nation, she found the raw materials to feed her machines by simply annexing vast stretches of India and Africa. Till one-third of the world belonged to Britain. And the new British soldier was seen as a romantic missionary — going off to civilize "the lesser breeds without the law."
The departure of a Highland regiment for the Crimea brought out the bands and the flags...and from the popular paintings and the magazine covers, the people could imagine the color and bravery of the battles they fought. But from the newspapers, the people soon learned different. A selfless nurse named Florence Nightingale shocked the country with the news that the war was a continuous nightmare of "rancid food, erysipelas, fever, gangrene, no hospitals..." and "one man in two dying of acute dysentery."
For a few years, these hideous facts understandably hobbled the work of the recruiting sergeant. But the pride of Empire, and the supply of sentimental painters, was sufficient to enlist a new batch of heroes for the Indian Mutiny.
After that, there was a long peaceful pause in the golden afternoon of an Empire under firm control. And the army became once again a haven for people with nothing else to do. The ranks were filled by poor men with no particular skill and a taste for mischief. The officers were recruited from three types: serious staff college pros; fifty patriots like the Duke of Cambridge, who once said, "I don't like staff college officers...they have brains...I don't like brains." And, thirdly, and mostly, by the younger sons of the rich who were feckless — and brainless.
(When I was in college, I had a friend — a very nice man but no Einstein — who intended to become a lawyer. At the end of his second year, he took his law qualifying examination and did the worst paper known for thirty-two years. When he came back the next fall, he wore a bristly mustache and started throwing the windows open. I asked him what in blazes was going on. He said, "I'm taking Military Subjects A." He went into a Guards regiment.)
There's such a feckless only son I recall. He was at the bottom of his class at Harrow School. He had an aristocratic background. His father was an obsessed politician of raging ambition. His mother was a stunning beauty caught up in the world of fashion. He was — at eighteen — an expendable nuisance. So they got him a commission in the Guards and he went off to Africa to stick pigs and play polo. He was Winston Churchill.
But then the Boer War broke out, and when that was over, fathers passed the word to sons that war was more hell than glory. And again, the army was not a popular place to be.
When there was no war to fight, the rankers got drunk. And behind the impressive faŤade of Wellington Barracks, the officers lived in seedy quarters. After the daily chores, they were free to gamble in the officers' mess, to drink, to visit the music halls, to start something with an actress.
James Bellamy was just the type. And, of course, it was the recipe for a lot of trouble — of the sort we've seen. Since the registration of births was not compulsory, there is no way of knowing how many thousand of illegitimate children were born to music hall performers and servant girls. But it was a huge number — and (the medical care of the poor being what it was) one in four of all working class children — legitimate or not — died in infancy.
The rest — as the phrase went — "put out" to a villager or fed into so-called orphan schools, like the one in Nicholas Nickleby — Mr. Squeers' villainous Dotheboys Hall.
What, I think, will shock young people about the episode we've seen is the almost hysterical attitude of Lady Marjorie and Mr. Bellamy, and Sarah's pitiful acquiescence in it. But throughout the reigns of Victoria and Edward — respectability was the keynote, was the religion of the people both religious and irreligious. "What people would say" was the bogeyman that haunted every household. And if all the Bellamys' friends and neighbors had known about the scandal, they would have agreed that banishing James to India and Sarah to exile in the country was the only sensible and decent thing to do.
Upstairs Downstairs original series
Alistair Cooke's Closing Essay #7, Series I
Episode: Guest of Honor
Whenever a motion picture or a television company films a period piece, they usually overdo things — the costumes, the sets, the general grandeur — for the sheer joy of dressing the show up. But though the dinner that we've just seen sounded very tasty, I doubt that the budget for this series could have run to the actual dinner the Bellamys would have put on when King Edward was the guest of honor.
We forget how the Edwardians ate. Every nation takes for granted its own current habits in food. Not only what to eat but when. And yet, these customs change slowly and dramatically; and once they've changed, they never change back again. The Elizabethans had two meals a day, the last in the early afternoon. In the Eighteenth Century in England and America — the evening meal, if you took it out, was finished before dark — and it remained so until Sir Robert Peel invented the policeman who made it, after centuries of routine muggings, safe to go home in the dark.
Well, we — with our three courses for a full-blown meal — have to strain to imagine the enormous appetites of the Edwardians. The British appetite grew with the Empire. All these countries with a vast variety of produce to ship — by Dickens' time there could be four of everything, and food was the prevailing hobby of the upper and middle classes.
I remember, as a boy, you didn't just ask for sugar — you specified cane, Demerara. and bananas — Canaries, Jamaicas. There were about a score of separate species of apple — Rennets, Colvilles, Margarets, Codlins, Russets...Beef, of course, came from Scotland, and lamb from England — but it also came from Argentina and New Zealand.
[Image of Edwardian lunch setting] This is a modest setting for a middle-class meal for eight — but the interesting things is, it's set for lunch! Even tea — which is now a cup and a cookie — would require a silver tea service even when you roughed it in the country. By the time you rise to the upper classes, the appetite expands accordingly.
There was breakfast in any country house where Edward the Seventh had been, or might be, a guest. They always kept a special kind of bath salts he preferred, a certain brand of French pastry; and for the night table some ginger cookies he liked that you could get only from Biarritz. They had an equally substantial lunch, and three hours later — to keep them alive for dinner — a snack of tea: egg sandwiches, pate sandwiches, cucumber and watercress sandwiches; and Scotch scones; and chocolate cake, and walnut cake, and coffee cake — and cake.
Then they took a snooze and dressed for dinner — the really substantial meal — between ten and fifteen courses, with every sort of fish and meat, and thrown in at intervals — game. Since the principal outdoor occupation of the upper classes was banging away at birds — and Britain was then a forest of them — there was always grouse, and partridge, and pheasant and quail — and always, always ptarmigan — a species of grouse that lived only at a certain high altitude of Scotland. It seems to have been shot out, or all eaten up.
Well, after all that it's almost embarrassing to remind ourselves that this story is as much about downstairs as upstairs. But I ought to mention that in the heyday of this luxurious gluttony — there appeared a survey called "Life and Labor in London." It looked at the depressed half of the nation that bought tuberculous milk on the streets...and raised a bakery wagon for bread...and stood in line to buy the gristle and trimmings from the butcher's waste bin. One Londoner in three suffered from malnutrition.
It was another good reason for Mr. Hudson and his staff to put up with the demands and tantrums of the Bellamy family. At least, they had the leavings from the Bellamys' table.
Upstairs Downstairs original series
Alistair Cooke's Closing Essay #10, Series I
Episode: A Special Mischief
You don't have to be very old — certainly no older than this century — to remember the big hullabaloo in this country and in Britain over votes for women. The thing that cinched it, both in America and Britain, was the enormous response of women to doing every sort of job, short of combat, in the first World War. In Britain, women got the vote a day or two after the war was over, in 1918. In the United States, Tennessee was the deciding vote to ratifying a Constitutional amendment, and the women got the vote in the summer of 1920, just in time to elect the monumentally handsome, if inept, President Harding.
But to most of us the Suffragettes are now recalled, like many another serious historical movement, as a comic legend. In the early years of this century, the idea of women having a vote and equal rights to jobs was thought so droll that the cartoonists — all male — had a field day.
[Cartoon drawing #1] John Bull resisting the whole movement with the line "Not if I know it."
[Cartoon drawing #2] The Angel in the House of Commons — the result of female suffrage.
[Cartoon drawing #3] And a militant suffragette who's just failed to light a kitchen fire: "And to think only yesterday I burnt two pavilions and a church."
The movement started, way before Britain, in this country. It was women who made possible the settling of the prairies. It was women who held civilian life together during the Civil War. Even before that, the Quakers had held a women's rights convention so early as 1848. But in this country, the movement was routinely defeated down the decades.
It was London that got the world's attention because there the movement was — strangely — more violent than here. It started, seriously enough, with campaigns for birth control and socialism, but in the Bellamys' time it concentrated all the energies on the suffrage.
Big public meetings and marches eventually gave way to an attack on Buckingham Palace and other strident tactics, some of them frankly impractical. A favorite was chaining yourself to the railing of the Prime Minister's or some other bigwig's house. But this often involved the awkward job of taking the railings along with you to prison. So the movement was lead by upper and upper-middle class women of maddening poise and inflexible courage.
Pretty soon, the protests went from meetings to burnings and bombings. A priceless Velasquez was slashed in the National Gallery.
Mrs. Emily Davison committed suicide by throwing herself under a horse at the Derby. Her funeral was a dramatic advertisement for the Suffragettes. As their tactics grew more alarming, the penalties matched them in severity. The worst punishment became a public scandal: it was the practice, in the prisons, of forced feeding.
As I mentioned, the United States was really the pioneer of women's rights. An incredibly dauntless couple — Miss Susan B. Anthony and one Mrs. Stanton — joined forces in 1851, and for the next half century — literally spoke at over 50 conventions of their women's suffrage associations. But in America the movement was a long, slow grinding labor for heroines, mostly unsung.
The British leaders were more formidable, more dramatic in their tactics and made splashier headlines. So that when the movement was taken up here, American males spawned just as many asinine big jokes. The American graphic for 1910 defined a suffragette as "one who has ceased to be a lady and not yet become a gentleman."
I remember in my household, my father, who was an incurable Lloyd George liberal, was all for the women's vote (though he may have had private reservations about my mother getting it). Anyway, it happened, on the understanding that there'd be another vote for Lloyd George. My mother, however, depressed him by voting then, and ever afterwards, Conservative. So the effect of the long heroic campaign in our family was to cancel out the vote all together in every subsequent Parliamentary election.