Before there was Gosford Park or the recent hit series Downton Abbey, there was Upstairs, Downstairs, the 1970’s series that created the template for masters and servants mingling on screen, wearing fussy Edwardian clothes, getting into all sorts of scandalous adventures, from a servant with dirty gloves (the horror!) to stolen babies, suicide, illegitimate children, adulterous affairs. All those scandals and more are in Upstairs, Downstairs. Jean Marsh, who played the maid Rose (photo above), and Eileen Atkins – yes, the actress – created the series’ inspired formula, which many others have shamelessly borrowed.
Now Acorn Media is releasing a huge 40th anniversary edition of all five seasons of the original, and you might be surprised at what you find. Some episodes seem visually quaint, with a video stiffness that hasn’t aged well. A handful of episodes in season 1 were even shot in black and white because of a technician’s strike. But the stories, intrigues and characters reveal why so many people were captivated by the downstairs servants and the upstairs Bellamys, especially the dashing son James (Simon Williams, interviewed on many of the DVD features) who recklessly took up with maid Sarah (Pauline Collins) .
A new Upstairs Downstairs, set in the 1930’s, arrives on PBS’ Masterpiece on April 10th, with Marsh returning as Rose. But Marsh is also the star of the “Making of …” features on these DVD’s; she’s wonderfully commonsensical and blunt about what she did and didn’t like about the original production.
And it’s fascinating to see that in the early episodes, the servants actually express some resentment of the upper classes; they weren’t always cheerfully subservient.