09 April 2011

‘Upstairs, Downstairs’

Jean Marsh as Rose Buck

Reports that a new series of Upstairs, Downstairs is now being broadcast in America (on what used to be called Masterpiece Theatre, on what’s left of PBS) unexpectedly moved me: after all, it’s not often that I get teary-eyed reading the Arts & Leisure section. However, the original series made a profoundly emotional impact on me when I was young, and something more than nostalgia comes into play whenever I look back on the show.

I began to get a sense of this several years ago, when Masterpiece Theatre reran the original Upstairs, Downstairs. The Bellamy household at 165 Eaton Place had been home to my boyhood imagination, but of course the door was locked shut when Rose Buck (Jean Marsh, the series co-creator) took her last look at the place, in the series’ final episode. At least until the advent of DVDs and online video, “You can’t go home again” was a saying that rang especially true to the homes we knew on television: most viewers couldn’t revisit old episodes, much less recapture the special alchemy that resulted when we watched the first time, and were caught up in the spirit of the place. Eaton Place seemed like a dollhouse, and like children in our imaginations, we could fit inside and share in the adventure — for a while.

One last look
Photos in this post come from the indispensable
Upstairs, Downstairs Web Pages

The sheer quality of the production is one factor in my enduring, affectionate admiration. The scripts were literate, interesting (even when soapy), and well-crafted, planting seeds in one episode and reaping the harvest several episodes (or seasons) later. Apart from a few missteps at the start (Mrs. Bridges steals a baby? Really?), the series progressed with the inexorable force of history itself — and of course the show was brilliantly acted. It’s one measure of great characterization when even minor, recurring roles such as those of the kindly busybody Lady Prudence Fairfax (Joan Denham) and the dour barrister Sir Geoffrey Dillon (Raymond Huntley) register so strongly.

Witnesses to History
Among those on the balcony are Elizabeth Bellamy (Nicola Pagett), Richard Bellamy (David Langton), Lady Prudence and Lady Marjorie

Moreover, Upstairs, Downstairs shared with us a world where rules mattered, and from knowing those rules came satisfaction, even comfort, for the viewer. Needless to say, this isn’t the case in our own lives, and as for me, I’d surely chafe if ever I were subjected to the rigidly hierarchical rules of Edwardian society. Yes, Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson) and Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddely) were adorable to watch, but they’d have been tough bosses to work for — as the series frequently acknowledged, usually in humorous exchanges involving the junior servants, particularly the scullery maid, Ruby (Jenny Tomasin).

The series’ writers consistently aimed to make the Bellamys’ world seem less cosy to us. While certain characters in the series succeed very well by knowing the rules, playing by them, and subverting them skillfully to their own private purposes, it’s to be noted that those characters were, without significant exception, the upper-class folks — and if you or I were transported back to Edwardian London, there’s no assurance we’d find ourselves Upstairs. We might just as easily find ourselves Below Stairs, where the rules promised not so much prosperity as punishment, if ever they were broken.

Collins and Williams as Sarah and James

As I look back on the show, I’m struck by how often the characters who aspired to rise above their stations were smacked down, sometimes brutally. Sarah (Pauline Collins) dallied with James Bellamy (Simon Williams), but the result was not a Cinderella marriage but a pregnancy that might have ruined her forever, had it not been for Lady Marjorie’s (Rachel Gurney) skill in sweeping the secret under the rug. (Probably the only sweeping that lady ever undertook.) Another chambermaid, Daisy (Jacqueline Tong), made a determined bid to climb the social ladder, and in the process humiliated herself and nearly wrecked her marriage.

Hazel’s (Meg Wynn Owen) rise from the bourgeoisie proved exceptionally rocky; she was unable to fit in, or to compete with her husband’s posh friends and ex-lovers, and when she died in the Influenza Epidemic, it was almost a blessed release from a painful daily struggle to be that which she was not. Even Rose’s modest attempt to find security came to sad ends, first in the death of her middle-class Australian fiancé, Gregory Wilmot (Keith Barron), and then in the loss of her inheritance to James’ investment scheme on the eve of the Wall Street Crash.

The death of Hazel Bellamy

The ostensibly simple matter of friendship across class lines likewise met with repeated failure, notably in Georgina’s (Lesley-Anne Down) well-meaning relationship with Daisy. Ultimately, Georgina was more appealing to James than his own wife was: they were from the same background, and that counted more for him than Hazel’s endearing charms or a legal marriage contract. But Georgina was also James’ cousin, and while that might not have posed any obstacle under an even older order, it proved insurmountable now — one more sign of changing times for which James was fatally unprepared.

Daisy (Tong) and Georgina (Down)

It will be interesting to revisit the series now, when folks in the United States are increasingly aware of the widening gap between rich and poor in their own country, as well as of the societal changes that have begun already to grow out of that gap.** When Upstairs, Downstairs first aired in America, it all seemed rather remote and pretty, and many of us may have fallen under its spell as we do for the British monarchy’s: it’s nothing we’d ever want to live under, but we like to watch it, and to fantasize about it. Today, it’s harder than ever to deny that America has a class system, and some of the messages of Upstairs, Downstairs must seem more urgent than they did in 1977.

The Cast, Season 1

The old series is being rereleased on DVD, with extra features such as commentary and “making of” documentaries. This is all to the good, since the original American audience got extra features, too, in the form of Alistair Cooke’s illuminating commentaries before and after each episode on Masterpiece Theatre, as well as appendices like modern performances of Edwardian music-hall numbers.***

The new series is set in the 1930s, a few years after the Bellamys left 165 Eaton Place, though Rose (the only character from the original series to play a major role in the new one) will have aged mysteriously.**** I’m glad that the series’ co-creator, Eileen Atkins, a formidable actress, gets to participate onscreen at last, and I read that the BBC has already commissioned a second season. All in all, I’m looking forward to crossing the threshold once again.

In the kitchen: Edward (Christopher Beeny, left) with Rose,
Mr. Hudson, and Mrs. Bridges

*NOTE: I have much the same response to Hope and Michael Steadman’s home, in thirtysomething.

**There have been a number of articles on this subject in the American press in recent months; this is one of them, by Joseph E. Stiglitz in Vanity Fair.

***The music-hall numbers were taped at the Players’ Theatre in London, and tacked onto the end of each episode in the first couple of seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs on Masterpiece Theatre. I have vivid memories of one artiste, Sheila Bernette, who performed “Why Am I Always a Bridesmaid?” and “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow” to perfection.

****On the other hand, Rose would have been pushing 30 years old when the original series started, making her 55 or so when it ended, and she didn’t look it. Now she will have caught up. I once had the immense pleasure of seeing Jean Marsh onstage — as Eliza in Shaw’s Pygmalion. She was even better than you imagine.


Anonymous said...

Check out Downton Abbey (first season) if you can ... another updated kind of USDS. Even has a gay character, but, alas, the biggest scoundrel of the bunch.

John Yohalem said...

One major difference between the world of Upstairs, Downstairs (the Edwardian+ era, not the era of its filming) and ours is that a noble household (Lady Marjorie is an earl's daughter; her husband is a commoner though eventually entitled) could and would have employed a dozen live-in servants and such a medium-income albeit upper class household today would never have more than one. This means the other dozen (especially the men) must seek gainful employment elsewhere than "in service," a subject casually hinted at in the film Gosford Park.

In today's world, of course, it is almost unknown for anyone of the ruling race and ethnicity in any country to "serve" as Rose et al. did. Servants are taken from the servant ethnicities (which vary) or from foreign countries; they are second-class citizens because they are often not citizens at all, and are not eligible for the position of citizenship. More and more occupations to which "ruling" races regard themselves as superior are therefore consigned to an underclass (staff in nursing homes, cleaning staff) in all the industrialized countries and more and more "developing" ones.

That's an idea for a series, somebody ...