The iconic series Upstairs Downstairs premiered in 1971. Co-created by Jean Marsh and Dame Eileen Atkins, forty years later, the saga at 165 Eaton Place continues.
In the storyline it’s now 1936, and the Bellamys who lived in Eaton Place are long gone. Written by Heidi Thomas, who also penned the popular Cranford, the new series stars Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes as Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes Holland, who have just moved into the house, hiring former parlor maid Rose (Jean Marsh) to assemble a new staff.
How did the whole Upstairs Downstairs franchise get started?
Eileen Atkins: Jean and I used to sit and watch The Forsyte Saga, and we enjoyed it enormously, as everybody else did. We said, ‘Yes, but our poor parents would have been ironing those frocks and blacking those grates and washing up all that stuff, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was series about the downstairs people?’
Originally, it was just going to be about downstairs. And then we realized you couldn’t have downstairs without upstairs. And so we had to let the rich people in. But unlike Mike Leigh, we decided to be quite nice to the rich people.
Jean Marsh: From time to time.
Did Mike Leigh’s working-class dramas from the last 20 years have any impact in the way you approached the show differently this time?
Jean: I don’t think Mike Leigh affected us directly. But the new one, of course, is different because it’s made 35 years later with all new techniques. It’s different in that suits us today like the one made in the ‘70s suited us then.
It’s now a bit faster, a bit snappier, very up-to-date. The content and the style is different. You can tell it’s Upstairs Downstairs because it’s only six years later, but it’s being done in the electronic age, I mean, not like Sherlock, we don’t have cell phones or anything like that.
Can you talk about your fondness for both the upstairs and downstairs people?
Jean: I think both series have made human beings of people that were dark, bad-tempered, considerate. I think they’re all rounded. I don’t think in any way that they’re black and white.
Was there anything from the original show you were able to put in there?
Jean: Yes, they used the wreath that was in the morning room, which was idolized by fans. But I don’t think anything else is there.
Has anyone from the original cast come to you to either play their role again or play a different part in the new Upstairs Downstairs?
Eileen: I was about to say they’re all dead! There is hardly anybody left.
Jean: Simon Williams wanted to be in it, but he shot himself in the last series! (she laughs).
He’s so definite-looking that, if he’d come back, we’d have to have done a convoluted thing about, ‘Oh my God, you he look like Master James,’ and to [have him be] his great-uncle or something.
We all agreed it’s a bit touch and go to have me in it 35 years later, let along if you fitted anybody else in, it wouldn’t have been the new Upstairs Downstairs.
Eileen: Heidi said, quite rightly, ‘I want Jean and the house, and if I have Jean and the house, I can bring a whole fresh thing to it.’ And I think she’s been very clever the way she’s done it.
With this era it always seems like the women were faced with a lot of restraint, clothing, social propriety. How do you see the men of this era?
Ed Stoppard: Do you mean in terms of their conduct?
Yes, what’s expected of them.
Ed: Yeah, I think particularly in those classes, the upper echelons of social classes, yeah. Absolutely, there was a degree of that which one had to adhere to, although, this is sort of an interesting period. It’s sort of a transitional period in that sense.
The Edwardian era is now behind the country, and it felt to me, obviously now we realize the war was just around the corner and all the social liberations that was going to stir up.
You sort of feel it starting even in this period in the mid-30s coming out of the Depression and that kind of thing. So there is a sort of shift, I think, at this time, but still the kind of previous sort of social structure is still very much in place.
Would you be comfortable in this era yourself?
Ed: Would I personally be comfortable being an aristocrat in the 1930s, yeah, I think I’d love it! Particularly if I had Jean to run my household. That would be terrific.
Keeley, would you like to be back in that era as an aristocrat?
Keeley Hawes: Mostly, I think I’d like to be back there because the moment Agnes finds out she’s prenant, she spends the rest of the series in peignoir, which is a nightdress, sits around smoking in her nighty.
Not that I would want to do that, but, no, actually I just think 1936 isn’t that long ago. It’s not like doing something set in the Victorian period. It felt very modern, and I just loved it. It was very elegant.
What do you admire about the women of that era? That they were taking charge?
Keeley: I don’t know really. Agnes wasn’t really taking charge, talking about her. She doesn’t take charge terribly well. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but she takes charge very badly actually, which is one of the problems where Jean comes in.
Had you thought about Rose over the decades and where and how her life had evolved? Or was it just as a series was suggest, you began to fill in the character and what she had gone through?
Jean: Because it was 35 years in real time and it will be six years in television time, I wrote my own back story filling in those five or six years. And obviously I did that because I thought that’s what Rose would do.
She went back to Southwold where she was born, and she nursed an aunt who died, and then she had the courage to go back to London. And interestingly enough, she goes back and starts her business in one room very near where she was the happiest in her life, in 165 Eaton Place.
That’s where she felt comfortable, and she obviously knew the servants around there. So in a way, I was only filling in six years. If I was filling in my last 35 years, it would take a long time.
How do you take something that was on for such a long thing and make the new series just in three nights?
Jean: It will possibly go on. The first three episode are establishing it, establishing the house being renewed, establishing all the new staff, the upstairs people, and then, if we all like it, we’ll do more.
Eileen: It’s what they do now. It’s what they did with Sherlock. They try three and see if it takes, and I’m sure it’s going to take and we’ll do more.
Is there any sort of resolution at the end of the three episodes?
Eileen: It does have a finish, but nevertheless, you either like this family, both upstairs and downstairs, and you want to know more about it or you don’t. There is no resolution to life except death, is there? What a cheery thing to say!