With the arrival of BritBox on Amazon Video, I’ve been indulging in a glorious back-catalog of classic British TV shows. One I remember fondly from my childhood is the original Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975), having seen the last few seasons on PBS and in repeats. Catching the series now, it’s just as entertaining and rather enlightening to see exactly how much this series influenced everything that came after. If you like Downton Abbey (2010-2015), The Forsyte Saga (2002), Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016), even Another Period (2015-), and any other serials that have mixed masters and servants, British upper and lower classes, in the past 40 years, you’ll recognize characters, plot lines, and tropes lifted directly from Upstairs, Downstairs first produced in the 1970s.
Set in the years from 1903 to 1930, the show follows the aristocratic Lady Marjorie Bellamy and her husband, Richard Bellamy. He’s a Member of Parliament, thanks to Marjorie’s father’s money and connections. They live at 165 Eaton Place in the posh Belgravia area of London with their children James and Elizabeth. At the start of the series, James is a Calvary officer and Elizabeth has just returned from finishing school in Germany and makes her debut in London society.
However, it’s the servants who get more screentime at a rate of at least 60/40 or more. Mr. Hudson is the butler who runs a tight ship. Miss Roberts is Lady Marjorie’s personal maid, fussy and nosey. Mrs. Bridges is the cook, always harried by the butler or harassing her kitchen maid. Rose Buck is the head house parlormaid and sometimes lady’s maid to Elizabeth. There is a rotating cast of footmen and under-parlormaids who each serve as interesting plot points.
And what are some of those plots? Well, they’re familiar now because they’ve all been used many times since Upstairs, Downstairs first brought these to your TV screens. Ideas such as:
- The crusty butler who puts upstairs family name above all else.
- Renaming the servants because it suits the upstairs family better.
- A gay footman having sex with an upstairs visitor.
- Servants dressing up in the master’s clothes and getting caught.
- A parlor maid getting raped by an aristocratic visitor.
- A kitchen maid falling in unrequited love with footman.
- The cook with failing eyesight causing a crisis.
- Important characters dying during the Spanish Flu epidemic.
- Important characters dying in the Titanic sinking.
Even a young flapper cousin moves into the house in the 1920s! Of course, when Downton Abbey began, a revival of Upstairs, Downstairs was in the works, causing a ruckus in the press. Too bad Downton had to riff so broadly on the original Upstairs and couldn’t come up with enough new ideas.
Because, despite these stories now being so over-used as to become cliches or jokes, there are plenty of juicy stories in Upstairs, Downstairs that feel fresh and fascinating. I particularly enjoy the way women like Lady Marjorie, her daughter Elizabeth, and head parlormaid Rose are written. At first, Lady Marjorie seems like the typical upper-crust society woman, concerned only with appearances and trivialities. But she shows a depth of self-knowledge and understanding of how society shapes and restricts her, and this comes out in some of her conversations. Some of this comes out when she has an affair with a soldier friend of her son and is tempted to run away with him.
Elizabeth Bellamy has a wild side and toys with social causes, even getting involved with a militant suffragette group. She resists an early marriage and avoids more ‘acceptable’ partners in favor of a poet husband, a choice that backfires and turns miserable. Throughout it all, her maid and companion Rose is warning voice, more calming and less confrontational than Elizabeth’s mother, and often more insightful. They’re a ying-yang pair, far more engaging than Lady Mary and Anna Bates in Downton Abbey.
This series has fewer characters than something like Downton, so the focus is tighter on either the servants or the masters (and a bit more often on the downstairs). The interaction between the two feels more realistic — they aren’t one, big, happy, family, they are quite clearly employer / employee, and the upstairs knows and cares very little about the downstairs life. But, due to the nature of their jobs, the downstairs folks know a lot about the upstairs.
Costumes in the original Upstairs, Downstairs
The on-screen credits are incomplete and don’t mention Sheila Jackson, head of the costume department at London Weekend Television, where she designed costumes for all 68 episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs. The first season (part of which was filmed in black-and-white due to a strike) shows a bit of that early ’70s bouffant hair, but the look, style, and fit is accurate for the 1900s to 1930s. The level of historical accuracy only gets better as the seasons continue. This was in the same era of British costume dramas as Elizabeth R, so expectations were high, and LWT didn’t cut corners once they saw they had a hit in both the U.K. and across the Atlantic. There are admittedly some questionable fabric choices and color schemes, although I think some of that may be theatrical to suit the not-HDTVs of the 1970s. It’s hard to tell.
In interviews, actors commented that the costumes required layers of period-appropriate undergarments which changed according to the decade the show was portraying. Jackson says she used period patterns to design women’s gowns and even used vintage materials when available, such as buttons on the maids costumes.
This documentary video (below) “After Upstairs Downstairs” was filmed in 2002 and is filled with behind-the-scenes chatter from the cast who was still around, as well as costume designer Sheila Jackson (who died in 2011). The fansite Updown.org has tons more info about the series and more photos.
Do you remember Upstairs, Downstairs before Downton Abbey?