UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS

British Serial Drama

Upstairs, Downstairs, originally produced in England by Sagitta Productions for London Weekend Television (LWT), became one of the most popular programs in the history of Masterpiece Theatre on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service and was beloved throughout much of the world. The series presents the narrative of the upper class Bellamy family and their servants during the turbulent first third of this century in Britain. Their stories, focused individually but always illustrative of complex and intertwined relationships, unfold chronologically, highlighting members of both the upstairs biological family and the downstairs "work family" of servants.

The series accurately represented and mirrored the societal milieu of its time and has been greatly acclaimed for the producers' and authors' meticulous attention to accurate period detail. Historical events served as the context for the characters' situations and actions in a narrative that carried them from 1903 Edwardian England, through World War I and the political upheavals of the twenties, to a conclusion set soon after the stock market crash at the summer of 1930. Upstairs, Downstairs captured and held a rapt television audience through 68 episodes in Britain and 55 in America. It was the most extensive series on Masterpiece Theatre and brought a new and refreshing image of British television to many Americans whose only perception of British programming, not necessarily correct, was of ponderous adaptations of dated British literature. In so doing, the series brought a great many new viewers to PBS and Masterpiece Theatre.

According to long-time Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, quoted in Terrence O'Flaherty's Masterpiece Theatre, "I loved Upstairs, Downstairs. When I first saw it, my reaction was, 'I'll be amazed if this thing doesn't really hit the headlines. It's marvelous. It allows you to identify with the downstairs people while vicariously enjoying the life of the upstairs people.'" Followed closely episode by episode, the upstairs and downstairs families became a part of "our" family. The audience genuinely cared about the characters, came to know them intimately and developed a strong empathy for them.

The Bellamys and their staff of domestic servants resided in a five-story townhouse at 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, in London, an address well known to the series' many fans. The upstairs family includes Lord Richard Bellamy (David Langton), his first wife Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney) who dies tragically on the Titanic, their two children James (Simon Williams) and Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett), Richard's second wife Virginia (Hannah Gordon), James' wife Hazel (Meg Wynn Owen) who dies in a flu epidemic, and cousin to James and Elizabeth Georgina Worsley (Lesley-Anne Down). Among the most memorable of the downstairs staff are Hudson the butler (Gordon Jackson), Mrs. Bridges the cook (Angela Baddeley), Rose (Jean Marsh), Ruby (Jenny Tomasin), Edward (Christopher Beeny) and Daisy (Jacqueline Tong). Among the many other characters who appeared in a number of episodes perhaps Sarah (Pauline Collins), Watkins (John Alderton), Sir Geoffrey the family solicitor (Raymond Huntley), and Lady Pru (Joan Benham) are the most fondly remembered by viewers. The large cast, only partially noted here, is considered to include some of the best actors from British stage, film and television. The series earned the respect of professional peers as well as that of the audience. Its cast won numerous awards, both in Britain and America, including 8 Emmys, Writers Guild of Great Britain Awards, American Drama Critics Circle Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and a Peabody Award. Angela Baddeley (Mrs. Bridges) received the C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire), awarded in the Queen's 1975 New Year's Honours List. According to Queen Elizabeth II, Upstairs, Downstairs was her favorite program in 1975 and Mrs. Bridges her favorite character. In addition, Gordon Jackson (Hudson) received the coveted Queen's Order of the British Empire Award.

The idea for the series came from actresses Jean Marsh (who played the role of house-parlour maid Rose) and Eileen Atkins. The series was developed by John Hawkesworth, whose long and distinguished career in film and television extends from art director on the film The Third Man to producer of the well regarded Sherlock Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett. This was the first program from LWT to be purchased for Masterpiece Theatre and only the second non-BBC program to be scheduled. Upstairs, Downstairs was one of the first series of its type to be produced on videotape rather than film (though certain scenes, mainly exteriors and location shots, were shot on film). It was one of the first series on Masterpiece Theatre that was not biographical or based on a written work. It was created purely for television. As originally produced for British television each episode in the series was written in three acts. On Masterpiece Theatre each episode was shown without interruption.

Significant confusion was created when the series was shown on American television because thirteen episodes of the first 26 produced for British television were not shown. This created a rather bizarre lack of continuity. Six of the first original British episodes had been taped in black and white due to a strike. Masterpiece Theatre only wanted episodes in color and so the first episode ("On Trial") was revised and reshot in color for American television. Of the first 26 original episodes shot for British TV, Episodes 2 through 9, 11 and 12, 16, 19 and 20 were not shown on American television. These "lost" episodes were not made available for American viewing until 1989. The original black and white version of episode number one has never been made available to American television.

Upstairs, Downstairs was first shown on British television in 1971 and continued through four series of 13 episodes each (two Edwardian series, a later pre-war series, and a World War I series) and a fifth series of 16 episodes (post-war) making a total of 68 episodes produced and broadcast. On Masterpiece Theatre the original 26 Edwardian period episodes, pared down to 13, were first shown 6 January-31 March 1974. From 3 November 1974 to 26 January 1975 the post-Edwardian pre-war series of 13 episodes was broadcast. The 13 World War I episodes were shown 1 January- 28 March 1976. The final series of 16 post-war episodes was broadcast 16 January-1 May 1977 making, in all, 55 episodes shown on Masterpiece Theatre. The 55 episodes were later repeated on Masterpiece Theatre and selected episodes were shown as a part of a "10th Anniversary Season Festival of Favorites" and as a part of the "Twentieth Anniversary Favorites" series early in 1991. Upstairs, Downstairs was the inspiration for the short-lived CBS television series Beacon Hill that concerned a well-to-do Boston family and their domestic staff during the 1920s (broadcast fall, 1975).

Upstairs, Downstairs is one of the highest rated programs in the history of PBS. The series has been syndicated to both commercial and non-commercial stations in America and is one of the most successful and watched dramatic series in television history. It is estimated that approximately one billion people in over 40 countries have enjoyed Upstairs, Downstairs and the series is still in active syndication.

-Steve Runyon


Upstairs, Downstairs
Photo courtesy of Goodman Associates

CAST

Lady Marjorie Bellamy .............................Rachel Gurney
Richard Bellamy
.......................................David Langton
James
..................................................Simon Williams
Elizabeth
................................................. Nicola Pagett
Hudson
................................................ Gordon Jackson
Mrs. Bridges
........................................Angela Baddeley
Rose
.......................................................... Jean Marsh
Sarah....................................................
Pauline Collins
Emily........................................................
Evin Crowley
Alfred
....................................................... George Innes
Roberts.....................................................
Patsy Smart
Pearce...................................................
Brian Osborne
Edward
.............................................Christopher Beeny
Laurence
.......................................................Ian Ogilvy
Ruby
..................................................... Jenny Tomasin
Watkins..................................................
John Alderton
Hazel.................................................
Meg Wynn Owen
Daisy
...................................................Jacqueline Tong
Georgina Worsley..............................
Lesley Anne Down
Virginia
.................................................Hannah Gordon
Alice.........................................................
Anne Yarker
William
.................................................Jonathan Seely
Frederick
...................................................Gareth Hunt
Lily
..........................................................Karen Dotrice

PRODUCERS   Rex Firkin, John Hawkesworth

PROGRAMMING HISTORY  68 50-minute episodes

ITV
10 October 1971-5 March 1972
22 October 1972-19 January 1973
27 October 1973-19 January 1974
14 September 1974-7 December 1974

FURTHER READING

Cooke, Alistair. Masterpieces (A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre). New York: VNU Books International-Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Floyd, Patty Lou. Backstairs with Upstairs, Downstairs. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Hardwick, Mollie. The World Of Upstairs, Downstairs. New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

________________. Upstairs, Downstairs III: The Years of Change. New York: Dell Publishing, 1987.(A novel based on the third series of thirteen episodes.)

Hawkesworth, John. Upstairs, Downstairs. New York: Dell Publishing, 1973. (A novel based on the first series of thirteen episodes.)

Hawkesworth, John. Upstairs, Downstairs II: In My Lady's Chamber. New York: Dell Publishing , 1987. (A novel based on the second series of thirteen episodes.)

O'Flaherty, Terrence. Masterpiece Theatre: A Celebration of 25 Years of Outstanding Television. San Francisco, California: KQED Books, 1996.

 

See also British Programming; Jackson, Gordon; Miniseries