Upstairs Downstairs

Original Series Tribute

Jean Marsh, original Upstairs Downstairs co-creator and actress; Heidi Thomas, screenwriter of the new series and Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton offer their personal remembrances of viewing and/or participating in the original series.

Jean Marsh

My favorite part of the original series is definitely the first episode because it was written by a great English novelist, Fay Weldon. [Show More] Everybody was introduced so cleverly, and all the characters were so beautifully established. It was amazing to have it produced from the beginning so beautifully. I always liked working downstairs very much — I liked working with the cook, the butler — those were highlights.

There are two other episodes, with such wonderful writing, that are among my favorites. There was an episode in which Master James, the upstairs young man, lost all Rose's money in the crash of 1929. (Not that Rose was rich, but she'd been engaged to an Australian sheep farmer who'd been killed during the war, and he'd left her his sheep.) She let Master James invest her money and he lost it all. So there were two very good scenes written: one upstairs, with Rose talking to Master James and he said, "I've lost all the money." Rose was very stoic, nodded and didn't say very much. When she was downstairs, back in the kitchen, she was quite shocked.

It was an echo of an episode when Rose's Australian fiancé had died, and again, Rose had been, in public, stoic about it, but when she was with Mrs. Bridges, the cook, and was comfortable downstairs, she just sobbed and rocked her body.

I thought it would be intimidating [to watch the whole series in preparation for the new], so I watched just two or three episodes of the last series, to see how Rose had grown. In TV time, it was only six years, 1930-1936. Whereas in real time, it was 35 years! In the six years, I wondered if she would change, if she'd be a new creation [for the reprise of Upstairs Downstairs]. I think I fell into a compromise between the six years and the 35 years.

The only way I can explain it is that Jean and Rose fused. Early on in the first episode [of the new series], Rose walks into the house, which is almost derelict, and however Rose would react, I would react too, because as I stepped in to the kitchen and then upstairs, it was incredibly emotional. I did feel that Rose had kept a reasonable status because she was running a tiny servants agency, only from one room, but I felt proud of her, proud of myself, and then it was very rewarding to be asked back as housekeeper. I felt, and Rose felt, "Well, that's good. It's a step upstairs."

Jean Marsh is a co-creator of the original Upstairs Downstairs, and portrayed Rose in the series. Marsh can also be seen in the 2011 version of Upstairs Downstairs, reprising her iconic role.

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Heidi Thomas

It was watching [the original Upstairs Downstairs] that made me want to bring it back. I was quite a small girl when it went out in England. [Show More] I missed the very first series because I was too young to stay up that late. By the time the second series came around, we had a babysitter who could be bribed, and I said, "I promise if you let me watch Upstairs Downstairs, I'll go to bed without any bother!" At the age of about nine, I was so mad about the program that I used to make a little hat from my mother's dressing table mat — a frilly mat — and pin it to my head so that I would look like Rose.

When you're a child, you form a passionate tie with, not the series as such, but the people in the series. The characters felt very real to me. And when the household was closed down in 1930, I felt it like a personal loss. I remember crying that there would be no more stories from that address. And it all came full circle because, lo and behold, 30 years later, I'm writing it myself!

The original series gave me a passion for two things: it gave me a passion for good television drama, which eventually became my career, and also a passion for history — particularly British history — in the 20th century, which drove the series, and in many ways, was what it was all about. I do think that it actually drove me to become a TV writer because the quality of the storytelling was so good.

Looking back, I identified much more strongly with the downstairs characters than I did with the upstairs characters. I don't know if that's because my own family was from a working class background — my grandmother was in service — though I wasn't particularly aware of that at that time, as my family had worked its way to be quite comfortable by the time I was watching Upstairs Downstairs. But definitely the working class characters, the servants, grabbed me: Ruby and Rose and Mrs. Bridges and Mr. Hudson.

I loved all the detail about the food and the cooking and what the people were going to have. And I think that comes through in my version as well. But I think it was the minutiae of the domestic detail in the original series that really did capture me in a major way, rather than the details of the lives of the privileged and rich. And yet I had friends who preferred the upstairs characters.

At every stage of writing the new series, I've been very aware of the love that people have for the original and the responsibility of communicating that love. It is all about sharing something that many people feel passionate about and that is completely sacred to them. It is a huge honor and privilege but it is a responsibility as well.

Heidi Thomas is the screenwriter and executive producer of the 2011 version of Upstairs Downstairs. For Masterpiece, she also authored Cranford, Return to Cranford and Madame Bovary.

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Rebecca Eaton

Even before I worked at WGBH, let alone Masterpiece, I was watching Upstairs Downstairs. I remember Sunday nights... [Show More] and just like everyone else, I had to get home to see it.

At the time, I was single, living in Cambridge, Mass., and had a big group of friends. When they heard that I worked at WGBH, they begged me to bring them to the station and watch old tapes. Somehow, we had tapes of missed episodes (because that's the only way you could see it in those days), and a bunch of them had missed some of the episodes. So we snuck in one evening and had a secret Upstairs Downstairs marathon screening.

I remember Alistair Cooke's introductions, because I think that's when I fell in love with him. I was hypnotized by his introductions, which were four-minute essays that he had memorized — they were not off the teleprompter. He was born in the Edwardian era himself, so it was really his time, even though he was born in north England and was certainly not gentry, neither upstairs nor downstairs, but somewhere in between stairs. He was very close to it, and the thing he loved best was explaining England to America and America to England.

I also loved the house. Even though it was just a set, it convinced me that it was a beautiful townhouse in London. And, it didn't hurt that it was called Eaton Place! I loved watching Mrs. Bridges cook, make pies and cakes, the way she would knead the dough. I just wanted to learn how to cook like that. And they always looked so comfortable when they would plop down after doing a large dinner and have a cup of tea and chat.

And then of course upstairs, I did love Lady Bellamy. There's something in her: a lovely, maternal nature. Hannah Gordon was Lady Bellamy, and was so beautiful and perfectly calm, and elegant, and I just loved watching her. And then I met her: She came out to Los Angeles to do some press for us. So here we are in the blazing hot sun in a rented convertible, and all she wanted to do was get one of those maps of the stars' homes. So I was driving Lady Bellamy around Hollywood in a convertible rubbernecking, looking at the movie stars' homes!

And I also loved the feisty housemaid Sarah. The episode I loved was when Sarah ran into a little trouble and got pregnant and managed to hide it. But she went into labor and started having her baby the night the king came to dinner. That was just a great episode! How this house was managing these two events.

Upstairs, Downstairs was a big part of my life in the '70's, and it's a VERY big part of my life now... I suspect I'm not alone!

Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer of Masterpiece on PBS.

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What are your favorite moments and most cherished memories of the original series? Share your own Upstairs Downstairs recollections.

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