Some of the greatest prime time dramas revolved around families of influence and affluence. If I were to mention the family surnames, you could hear the theme music pulsing in your head. The Ewings. Yep, you can hear that “Dallas” theme now, can’t you? How about the Carringtons. Ah, there’s the fluglehorn intro from “Dynasty.” The Bellamys…
Surely you’ve heard of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” haven’t you?
Okay, pull up a chair.
Back in the early 1970’s, the Public Broadcasting System was still trying to establish itself as a broadcast alternative to the ABC-CBS-NBC television troika. And this was in the days of “B.C.” – Before Cable.
One of the shows PBS aired during that time was the legendary “Masterpiece Theater,” with host Alistair Cooke. Cooke would introduce several British drama shows (and an Australian drama or two, such as “A Town Called Alice”). The drama would air, then Cooke would return and give some background history of the show’s time period for us Americans.
Well, one of those shows was a British imported show about the goings-on at 165 Eaton Place, home of politician James Bellamy and his wife, Lady Marjorie Bellamy. The drama, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” featured the Bellamys and their two grown children, socialite Elizabeth Bellamy and military man Captain James Bellamy, as the family lived and prospered in Edwardian England.
But the show itself wasn’t just about the Bellamys. That was the “Upstairs” portion of the show. As the Bellamys kept a staff of servants, their lives were also featured as part of the “Downstairs” of the show. For how could a well-mannered household run without a strong and loyal staff as butler Angus Hudson, diligent house parlourmaid Rose Buck, cheeky footman Edward Barnes, slow-witted scullery maid Ruby Finch and versatile cook Kate Bridges?
In six seasons, the show brought the Bellamys and their servants through 30 years of British history – from 1903, when the Bellamys hire a new under-house parlourmaid Sarah, through 1912 when Lady Marjorie Bellamy sails aboard the Titanic; through the Great War (James Bellamy and Edward Barnes are both called into service) and the Roaring 20’s.
The show was extremely popular in England, and airings of “Upstairs, Downstairs” were a ratings bonanza on “Masterpiece Theater.” In fact, “Upstairs, Downstairs” won three Emmy Awards as best drama, claiming the title in 1974, 1975 and 1977. The show also earned Emmy Awards for Jean Marsh (Best Actress, Drama, 1975 as Rose Buck) and Gordon Jackson (Best Supporting Guest Actor, Drama Series, 1976).
The show also spawned a copycat program on CBS, called “Beacon Hill,” about the Lassiter family of Boston and their servants. Unlike the show it tried to emulate, “Beacon Hill” limped along for 13 episodes and was quickly cancelled.
The show is still remembered fondly; when PBS conducted a poll, asking their viewers which show they felt was the most popular “Masterpiece Theater” series, “Upstairs, Downstairs” won by a landslide over shows like “Poldark” and “A Town Called Alice.”
Here are some video clips of “Upstairs Downstairs,” in case you’ve never seen the show before. I’ll try to put these little YouTube clips in perspective.
This is a clip of the very first episode, “On Trial,” in which we are introduced to a new underhouse parlour maid in Sarah Moffatt (played by Pauline Collins). Through her, we get to meet both the Bellamy family and their servants.
This is a clip of one of the show’s most beloved episodes, “Guest of Honour,” in which the Bellamys will host King Edward for dinner, and all the preparations inherent thereto.
This episode, “Another Year,” shows the effects of the Great War on the men who fought in it; Edward the footman has served in the trenches and is coming home – but still deals with the aftershocks of shell shock. By this time in the series, Edward and the new underhouse parlourmaid, Daisy, are romantically involved.
This is the second-to-final episode of the series. It’s 1929, and James Bellamy has invested his money – and Rose’s money – in the American stock market. The crash took every cent, leaving James broke. This argument between James and his father Richard Bellamy – and the resulting aftermath – is one of the highlights of the show’s final season.
Over 30 years after the last episode of “Upstairs, Downstairs” was produced, the BBC announced that there will be several new episodes of the series, set in the mid-1930’s during the King Edward abdication crisis. Jean Marsh will reprise her role as Rose, this time now as the housekeeper of an upper-class family with diplomat Sir Hallam Holland and his wife, Lady Agnes. The shows will air first on the BBC, and then will be broadcast in America on “Masterpiece Theater” (now known as “Masterpiece”).
For more information on the series, visit the “Upstairs, Downstairs” fan website at this link.