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It is a widely held belief that Upstairs Downstairs was television at its
finest, and the most popular tv drama in the world. But why precisely is
good? It is almost entirely studio bound and looks like it should be just
another worthy but squeaky clean period drama. This is why it is very hard
to convince anyone unfamiliar with the series of why it is so special. But
John Hawkesworth, the producer, believed television was electronic
not second rate film, and this allows the stories to concentrate on words,
emotions and intense acting.
The grittiness of the series, the performances and its skill at depicting
human emotions were its chief assets. Gordon Jackson's magnificent
performance as Hudson is a display of a modest, warm actor who made a
character who stood for all he disliked totally loveable. David Langton's
charming, liberal Richard Bellamy was a far less snobbish and severe man
than his butler, but his first wife, the statuesque Lady Marjorie
made up for him. Simon Williams' portrayal of Lord Lucan lookalike James
Bellamy showed real development over the years, the haughty, caddish son
is changed forever by the war and plays his final episode "All The King's
Horses" nothing short of brilliantly. Lesley Anne-Down and Jacqueline
introduction, the Christmas story "Goodwill To All Men" in many ways sums
the series up, combining a devastating look at the London poor with the
escapist charm of a traditional Edwardian Christmas, leading to a
bittersweet conclusion offering an idyllic scene of Georgina being giving
her presents as the snow falls outside, just after her grandmother's wise
observation that her outing to help the needy was more out of a need for
adventure than real charity. If the first season was the series finding
feet and the second was it settling down to more of the same, the third
season is the oddest of them all. It reflects a period of change both in
pre-war Britain and behind the scenes, as Elizabeth and Lady Marjorie were
both written out at the actors' requests. This leaves the upstairs
of the house unsettled, and the series is dark and sombre, as James'
marriage and Richard's bereavement make the house seem a far cry from the
high society gatherings and royal dinners of the early seasons.
Although the fourth series, which depicts the war years so powerfully is considered the best, I would personally dispute this. Good as it is, what is most interestiung is the fifth series, as Britain's social structure is collapsing, and the full impact of the war is felt. The roarring twenties try to blot out the horrors of the trenches but leave James and many like him haunted, directionless, forgotten and despairing. The fifth series also introduces a new wife for Richard in the form of the delectable Hannah Gordon. Her interpretation of Virginia is a joy to watch; beautiful, witty and poetic. The daring storylines provide all the characters with moments to shine in, from Lady Marjorie's adultery in the excellent "Magic Casements" which deals unconventionally with an age-old theme, to the heartbreaking "I Dies From Love" which details the suicide of a kitchen maid. The sexual attitudes of the day were explored in "A Suitable Marriage", the bleak "A Cry For Help" and the astonishing "Whom God Hath Joined." Some of the wildest plotlines should not have worked but did, such as Hudson's hopeless affair with a parlour maid in "Disillusion" and Mrs Bridges' breakdown in "Why Is Her Door Locked?" There are really only two unsuccessful episodes of the entire sixty eight, but many masterpieces. "The Glorious Dead" and "Another Year" are devastating essays on the tragedies of the war, and "Distant Thunder" is a superbly claustrophobic episode, as war looms both in the household and in Europe. "The Sudden Storm" ends the third season with war declared, Daisy crying with the fear of what is to come while the rest of the world seems to be celebrating. The final episode, "Wither Shall I Wander" ended the series marvellously, with a perfect mixture of the happy and the sad. The pomp of Georgina's wedding allows a diversion from the sale of the house and the loss of James. Hudson delivers a tremendous speech to Edward on the tradition of service now dying out, and one can't help but be swept along with the fever of the episode. The final scene, as Rose is left alone in the house with the ghosts of the past echoing around her, is both a fine depictuion of the sentimentality of leaving a lifestyle behind and a cunning wallow in nostalgia. The like of Upstairs Downstairs will never be seen again. This type of television, like the England it depicted, is gone forvever.
Probably the best TV series ever! For someone Anglophile like me it is the perfect time machine to enter a typical household of the Victorian/Edwardian era. Although it shows an "upper class" household, the focus is on the "downstairs" personnel. The problems and stories of the kitchen maidens, footmen etc are much more colorful and sympathetic than the actions of "her ladyship" and Lord Bellamy upstairs. Nevertheless absolutely all characters are designed thoroughly, sympathetic and authentic. Furthermore this series shows a sort of real "theater" which has left TV long time ago and will never appear again! Long close-ups which show the affection of every actor, long dialogs with full sentences and - long pauses between them to enable the actors and the viewer to reflect everything. In addition the fine set design, the costumes, the "funny stuff" around, for example an early - hand-crafted! - vacuum-cleaner! Another extraordinary fact is the combination of fictional characters with real history: Everything finds its way into the story, the death of Queen Victoria, the Titanic Disaster, WW I, the Spanish Influenza, Wall Street and so on. A period of nearly 30 years is described, and with the last episode you are crying, just because you wish to know how everything will continue... But, that was a lack of this absolutely brilliant series: The main characters hardly age during the decades! Butler Hudson and cook Mrs. Bridges for example are already "old people" in the first episode, playing 1901. In the last episode - 1929 - they have not changed in any way, they even plan to "start a new life", running a small guest-house. After having seen it in German TV, where several episodes are not shown, I bought the complete DVD edition and can only recommend this to everyone!
Having first watched this series as a mere boy of 10 years in the early
70's, it is indeed a pleasure to see it being repeated on UK cable TV as I
To me, it has lost none of it's charm and appeal, particularly the richness of characters, characters which were allowed to develop fully over the period it was screened.
If you haven't seen this, make an effort to do so - it was and is one of the most beautifully written and acted British drama series to grace the screen.
It wasn't a huge budget that made this series great, immensely popular,
honored, and the biggest hit in PBS history. It was the fabulous writing
the rich characterizations presented to us every week. All these people we
cared about, even negatively in the case of James. And that's why even now
there is a U/D web site.
Interwoven were the historical events of Edwardian England stretching
through World War One into the Twenties. The series reached it's peak
halfway through the war with "Women Shall Not Weep" - a magnificent
available on video. By the Twenties the upper class was cracking more than
the lower - a theme of the series.
U/D was such a hit America tried its own hand at the wealthy/servants
scenario with "Beacon Hill" - highly touted but dismally written
Special credits to Jean Marsh as Rose (who never found happiness, but
wouldn't have been happy anyplace but the world she was brought up in!);
Marsh also was a creator of the series. It was an absolute joy.
P.S. In case the credits don't reflect this, Daisy's last name was 'Peel".
Set from pre-World War I to the late 1920s, this series ran for five
years and was a cornerstone of ITV drama in the UK.
Co-created by Jean Marsh and debuting in good old black and white, before moving into colour, 'Upstairs, Downstairs' remains the best (and the soapiest) drama of above and below stairs.
Too many people in the cast to mention, but kudos should go to David Langton, who played Richard Bellamy throughout, to the two Lady Bellamys, Rachel Gurney and Hannah Gordon, to Simon Williams and Nicola Pagett as James and Elizabeth, and Lesley Anne Down as Georgina.
Below stairs there were three key characters - Gordon Jackson as Hudson the butler, Angela Baddeley as Mrs Bridges the cook (a character so famous she had her own range of biscuits and preserves for many years), and Jean Marsh as Rose, the house-parlourmaid. I also remember Karen Dotrice as Lily, Jacqueline Tong as Daisy, John Alderton and Pauline Collins as Thomas and Sarah (who got their own spin-off series), and Christopher Beeny as Edward.
Full of drama - the Titanic disaster, debt collectors, intrigue and affairs, and of course the obligatory conflict between ranks, this series had it all. It enjoyed several repeat runs on TV and now has a new life on DVD, well-deserved.
Highly recommended if you've never seen it; if you have you don't need convincing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the best dramatic series ever produced in Britain or aired on
PBS. It chronicles life at 165 Eaton Place, depicting the personal
lives of the aristocratic Bellamy family above stairs and their
servants below. Actual historical events are incorporated into the
story, including the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the
Titanic, World War I, the General Strike, and the Wall Street Crash. It
paints a vivid portrait of the discrepancy in social status of those in
service as compared with their wealthy, titled employers. Nevertheless,
we see the loyalty and affection these servants frequently have to the
family they serve.
The master of the household is Richard Bellamy, a Conservative Member of Parliament and clergyman's son who married above his station in life. He is a man of both professional and personal integrity, whose political views sometimes come into conflict with his wife's titled family, the Southwolds. His wife, Lady Marjorie, is the Earl of Southwold's daughter, an elegant and gracious lady, the very epitome of poise, who can handle any situation with admirable aplomb.
Their tall, dark, and handsome son and heir, Captain James Bellamy, is transformed from a haughty, aimless cad to a wounded, anguished officer devastated by war. Really, much of the series is a depiction of James's struggle to "find himself". The spoiled and rebellious daughter, Elizabeth, disdains the debutante life expected of her, opting instead for charitable and feminist causes, frequently setting the household into a stir. Eventually she makes an ill fated match with the poet Lawrence Kirbridge.
The middle class comes into play when James marries his father's stately, radiant, and dignified secretary Hazel, a kind and giving individual who is neglected and rejected by her husband in favour of his step-cousin, Georgina Worsley. Georgina is a stunning but absolutely self absorbed creature, initially engrossed with the social whirl of her own season. Her sole redeeming behaviour is her wartime nursing but alas, she follows it up with a decade of partying, cigarette holder in one hand and cocktail in the other.
After the untimely death of Lady Marjorie on the Titanic, the genuine chemistry at Eaton Place is between Hazel and her father-in-law Richard, who hold the fort together while James is off soldiering. Later Richard marries a Scottish widow, Virginia Hamilton, a rather willful individual I never much took to. She lacks both Lady Marjorie's grace and Hazel's earnest integrity, making an uninteresting lady of the manor when compared with her two predecessors. Once again 165 is home to children after Virginia moves in with her two young offspring, Alice and William.
Frequent upstairs visitors include Lady Prudence, Lady Marjorie's loyal and outspoken friend, the most overbearing creature on earth and provider of comic relief, and Sir Geoffrey Dillon, the Southwold family solicitor. I quite enjoyed the character of this harbinger of financial gloom and discrete maker of "arrangements" to cover up the frequent family scandals.
Downstairs the servants form a family unto themselves at their own kitchen table, with Mr. Hudson presiding in state at its head. Hudson is the stern Scottish butler who takes pride in the Bellamy family upstairs, manages their household efficiently, and puts the other servants in their proper place when necessary. The cook, Mrs. Bridges, is queen of her own domain, the kitchen. She can be maternal, but is generally in fine scolding fettle, always in a huff over some outrage, culinary or otherwise, and shouting at her poor scullery maid.
Rose, the longtime parlourmaid, is one of the real stars of the entire series. We see much of life at "good old 165" through her eyes. She is such a kind, hard working, and loyal soul and deserving of so much better than life in service offers. She longs for a husband and children of her own, and has her own ill fated romance with Australian sheep farmer Gregory Wilmot. There's also the blossoming romance and marriage between the vulnerable housemaid, Daisy, and her footman, Edward. During the series, we witness Edward's progress from cheeky young footman to shell shocked soldier to struggling unemployed husband to new chauffeur to butler-in-training.
Various other servants come and go from 165 Eaton Place, including the feisty, brazen Sarah who both causes trouble in the household and induces it upon herself; the crafty chauffeur Thomas; Lady Marjorie's aloof and snooty personal maid Roberts; the deranged footman Alfred and the smug one Frederick; the naive parlourmaid Lily; the embittered governess Miss Treadwell; the tragic Irish scullery maid Emily and her later replacement, poor dear Ruby.
Upstairs Downstairs depicts society galas, country house weekends, and an elegant dinner party fit literally for a king. It features five series, which can be divided into three groups based upon who is mistress of the household. Series 1-2 with Lady Marjorie involves almost a scandal an episode! Series 3-4 sees Hazel as the new mistress and casts a darker, more serious tone with her marital difficulties and all the drama of the Great War. The final Series 5 features Richard's new wife Virginia, Georgina's flapper years, and focus on James's post war wanderings. The characters do not age during the thirty or so years spanned by the series, from the latter Victorian era to the Roaring Twenties.
It's an absolutely magnificent series that boasts both wonderful screen writing and acting, as well as authentic period costumes and decor. It flawlessly captures a past era, contrasts graphically its titled and servant class distinctions, and involves the viewer emotionally in the fate of its characters, both those above and those below stairs.
My wife and I are just starting the fifth and last season. Last fall we
started going through all the episodes on DVD in order. We do around 3
I never saw the series in the 1970s, though I heard of it. Some time in the mid 80s the local PBS station in New York showed most of them in order, a couple per week. I was absolutely enthralled. It's been about 20 years so we decided to have another look.
They absolutely stand up well. Better than well. I will emphatically repeat the judgment I made twenty years ago: this series is the finest thing that has ever been on television.
Yes, I know, you can't compare "apples and oranges" like that. I suppose the single ONE best thing that's ever been on television (in the sense of a one day or briefer event) in my experience was the moon landing in July 1969.
Still, in spite of that, all in all, if I had to pick, Upstairs-Downstairs is the best PROGRAM that has ever been on television. Far and away. If you are new to it, I envy you. I am already mourning the last episode, which I will see again in a few weeks at most. My only consolation is that in twenty years, I can watch it all again.
No other television drama made in any country has equaled or surpassed this one in quality from the beginning to the end of the series. Interesting and relevant themes, historical background, outstanding writing, plots, characters, sets, direction, acting, photography, editing - every aspect is executed brilliantly and and so well that you don't even notice them. And yet it's more than just the sum of those elements - it's a complete package that is compelling and unforgettable. What else can you say? This is a milestone in television production. If you haven't seen it, you're missing a major event in television history. Get the entire series, and watch all 68 episodes, in order. You will never forget this show.
I would just like to say that Upstairs Downstairs has got to be one of
my most favorite British Soaps of all time. It's such a shame that it
had to end. The era is fascinating to me, and I really enjoyed the way
the servants interacted with each other and the occupants of the
The story lines were believable, as were the characters. And when the Titanic was mentioned as the cause of death to the first Mrs. Bellamy, it brought a sense of reality to the show.
The whole premise of the show was brilliant, because I'm sure that was the ways it really was in those days. What with the class distinctions and all.
Over all I truly enjoyed the entire production.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Upstairs, Downstairs' was the surprise television drama hit of 1971
despite originally going out late on Sunday nights with very little
fanfare. The Edwardian drama was the brainchild of actresses Jean Marsh
and Eileen Atkins, inspired by the immense popularity of the B.B.C.'s
'The Forsyte Saga'. Set at 165 Eaton Place, it told of the lives of the
Bellamy family and their servants. Marsh played 'Rose Buck', the ever
so-prim head parlour maid, with Atkins earmarked for 'Sarah a.k.a.
Clemence', the cheeky Cockney girl who brings scandal and shame to the
Bellamy household. When she proved unavailable, Pauline Collins ( fresh
from the first series of 'The Liver Birds' ) replaced her. With all due
respect to Atkins, its impossible now to think of 'Sarah' being played
by anyone else. I loved the way she stood up for herself, dreamt
constantly of a better life, and gave as good as she got. Gordon
Jackson played the strict Scottish butler 'Angus Hudson', with Angela
Baddeley as 'Mrs.Bridges', who ruled her kitchen with a rolling pin of
iron. Tory M.P. 'Richard Bellamy' ( David Langton ) seemed a decent
man. In addition to him, there was his elegant wife 'Lady Marjorie' (
Rachel Gurney ), their caddish son James ( Simon Williams ) and wayward
daughter Elisabeth ( Nicola Pagett ).
When not working, the servants used to discuss what was going on upstairs, such as James' money troubles ( 'A Pair Of Exiles' ) or The King coming to dinner ( 'Guest Of Honour' ) or Miss Lizzie marrying an impotent poet ( 'For Love Of Love' ). One of the strongest episodes was 'I Dies From Love' in which Irish scullery maid Emily ( Evin Crowley ) hanged herself after being cast aside by a footman. To add insult to injury, we then found out that her body had been earmarked for medical experimentation despite her Catholic upbringing. There was no equality in those days even in death.
Other servants were cheeky footman 'Edward', played by Christopher Beeny, and Jenny Tomasin as dimwitted scullery maid 'Ruby'. John Alderton came aboard in the second season as chauffeur 'Thomas Watkins', a fairly straight character to begin with, but who then evolved into a devious con-artist - witness his fleecing of the Bellamy's when a blackmailer came on the scene with Lady Marjorie's love letters to Captain Hammond ( David Kernan ). Thomas and Sarah later got their own show. Poor Lady Marjorie went down on the Titanic ( funny how James Cameron never mentioned this ) at the start of Season 2. Her replacement was the tasty Meg Wynn Owen as 'Hazel Forrest', Richard's secretary. Elisabeth's successor was 'Miss Georgina Worsley' ( Lesley-Anne Down ), a vacuous deb who eventually enlisted as a nurse during The Great War. One of the great things about 'Updown' was that, as well as being top-notch drama, you got a history lesson as well. The Great War episodes were fabulous. One of the most moving scenes ever shown on television was when Edward came back from the trenches with shell-shock. Full credit should go to script-editor Alfred Shaughnessy and producer John Hawksworth, who both took all the major creative decisions. The wonderful Strauss-like theme tune was by Alexander Faris.
'Updown' caught on in America, despite five Season 1 episodes being omitted due to being made in black and white. The Americans attempted their own version, the unsuccessful 'Beacon Hill'.
After five seasons, 'Updown' ended in 1975. A lengthy repeat run then followed, and 'Guest Of Honour' was chosen as part of I.T.V.'s 'Best Of British' season in 1982. It is presently to be found on I.T.V.-3.
Sagitta Productions moved to the B.B.C. in 1976, where they did the equally popular 'The Duchess Of Duke Street'. 'The Two Ronnies' did an 'Updown' parody, as did Stanley Baxter ( filmed on the same sets used in the show! ), the 'Carry On' team spoofed it in two editions of 'Carry On Laughing', and it inspired Jimmy Perry & David Croft's last sitcom 'You Rang Milord?'. Perhaps the most inane spin-off was 'Russell Harty Goes Upstairs, Downstairs' in which the late chat-show host was seen dropping in on the residents of Eaton Place for tea and a chat.
Forty years after it first appeared, 'Updown' remains compelling, powerful ( it tackled difficult subjects such as homosexuality, adultery, suicide, mental breakdown, and the aftermath of war ), sometimes humorous, always entertaining viewing. in 2010, the B.B.C. revived 'Updown' with Jean Marsh reprising her role as 'Rose' and a new family at Eaton Place. Despite it boasting superior production values, it failed to grab the imagination the way the original did, and was axed two years later. T.V. bosses would do well to take a long hard look at the original in order to learn how to do a show of this kind. It managed to pull in big audiences without insulting anyone's intelligence.
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