Up until forty years ago British period dramas reflected the lives and loves of the gentry. Proper pronunciation was deemed to be ‘Queen’s English’ – and it spoke implicitly of privilege. Televised classics of English literature paid scant regard to life ‘below stairs’ – a battalion of servants that kept the upper class characters impeccably dressed, warm and well fed, and ensured their homes were always fit for a King – should he chance to visit.
Sherlock Holmes, Mr Rochester in 'Jane Eyre', Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – even his intended, Elizabeth Bennet, who was considered to be ‘inferior’ in social standing to her eventual husband – all of the iconic English heroes and heroines of costume drama were ‘well bred’, and well off.
During the 1960s there was a style revolution in Britain, and social change dictated that anyone could do – or be – anything. This myth of mass equality was strengthened by a famous few. The Beatles –loveable lads from Liverpool. Twiggy – cockney girl made good. Working class boys and girls were offered social mobility and world acclaim on an unprecedented scale. British trades unions ensured that workers had a strong voice, and grammar school boys stormed the stuffy Edwardian maze of the political establishment, and the formerly exclusive upper class echelons of parliamentary privilege.
For period dramas it was business as usual, however, and in the late sixties, the Forsythe Saga on BBC TV introduced the upper middle class Forsythe family at the turn of the twentieth century. It was hugely popular – but still the ancestors of the ‘ordinary’ 1960s British TV viewer were far more likely to have worked ‘in service’ than to have swelled the ranks of the landed gentry.
Upstairs, Downstairs was to herald a dramatic change in English televisual period stereotypes however – even though in 1971, when the Edwardian based drama was first broadcast on British TV channel LWT, it was placed in the unpromising slot of late Sunday evenings, having already sat in storage for nearly a year while the station decided when they should transmit it to best effect. It was clearly seen as a risk, and not expected to be a ratings hit.
The brainchild of actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, the drama crucially took a peek below stairs at the domestic staff who smoothly - and largely unseen - ran the home lives of their wealthy employers. The servants’ lives - and loves - became as integral to the Belgravia home of the titled Bellamy family, as the society intrigues of the lords and ladies they served. The drama proved to have massive, and lasting critical and popular success, winning very many awards and selling around the globe.
In 2010, in view of the ratings success earlier that year of Downton Abbey, the most expensive TV costume drama ever produced, and a faithful tribute to the original Upstairs, Downstairs ground breaking formula - the BBC broadcast a sequel to this iconic, seminal series. This 2010 mini series of Upstairs Downstairs is set once again in 165 Eaton Place, and follows the lives, above and below stairs, of the household of Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes Holland.
Set in 1936, the time of the abdication of Edward VIII to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and during the run up to the Second World War, the story neatly follows on from the 1970s series, which ended circa 1930. The first scene shows Jean Marsh, series creator and actress in the original drama, surveying the dusty, shuttered Belgravia mansion of 165 Eaton Place. Parlour maid Rose is back - though she is now the housekeeper, and in one pivotal scene, King Edward VIII is eagerly anticipated as a guest at the house.
Broadcast on the BBC in Britain over three nights from Boxing Day, 2010, viewing figures were strong and a six part follow up will be shown in 2012. A Beeb insider has promised a ‘huge shock’ in the storyline. Meanwhile, American channel PBS transmits the Upstairs Downstairs sequel in April 2011.
Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series - 40th Anniversary Collection [DVD] US
Upstairs Downstairs 2010 Mini Series [DVD] US
Eileen O'Sullivan recommends these DVDs from Amazon US. She watched the original and follow up series of Upstairs Downstairs on British TV.