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Set in an elegant Belgravia (London) townhouse at 165 Eaton Place, this period drama about a wealthy family was devised by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who both had parents who had been in service.
In cosy, soap opera style, Upstairs Downstairs depicted the household’s struggles to win through in times of adversity, whether social – such as a visit by the King for dinner – or real (when Rose’s fiancé was tragically killed in the Great War).
The series began in November 1903, shortly after the death of Queen Victoria, and ran through until 1930. Over six seasons the show followed the family and servants from the imperial days of Edward VII through World War I and the social changes of the 1920’s.
Along the way it reflected all the early fads and fashions of the early 20th century, from the Suffragette movement to the jazz age, writing actual historical events into the plot.
The owner of the house was Lady Marjorie Bellamy, a Prime Minister’s daughter. Her husband, Lord Richard, was a Tory MP much helped by his wife’s money. The other members of the upstairs family were James, their amorous son, and Elizabeth their rebellious daughter.
Below stairs was a formidable hierarchy of servants, watched over by the dour but softly-spoken Scottish butler Hudson (in the days before he joined CI5).
Next in seniority was Mrs. Bridges the grumpy plumpy warm-hearted cook, followed by Rose, the loyal. level-headed and discrete chief housemaid (later to become a lady’s maid); Sarah, a feisty, daydreaming, pert parlour maid, and at different times Edward the footman, housemaid Daisy (later Edward’s wife), Thomas the chauffeur and Ruby, a slow-witted scullery maid.
Angela Baddeley (who played Mrs. Bridges, pictured at right) weighed only 7½ stone, so was padded for the part. She died only months after the series ended, in February 1976.
Following Lady Marjorie’s death (she went down on the Titanic), Lord Bellamy remarried to Scottish widow Virginia Hamilton. His ward Georgina moved in to replace the petulant Elizabeth, and other characters came and went – both above and below stairs – before disaster struck at the end of the series.
The family’s wealth was lost in the 1929 Wall Street crash. James committed suicide and the house had to be sold, and the family members and staff scattered.
The final episode saw Hudson marry Mrs. Bridges and, together with Ruby, set off to run their own guest house.
Edward and Daisy became butler and maid to Georgina and her new husband, the marquis of Stockbridge, and Rose was the last to leave, wandering through the rooms of 165 Eaton Place and closing up the house, with voices from the past reminding her of events, happy and sad, that had dominated her life there.
Much praised, widely acclaimed for its historical accuracy, and fondly remembered, Upstairs Downstairs was one of the most financially successful shows of all times with 300 million viewers in 50 countries.
It spawned a spin-off series, Thomas and Sarah, and in 1975 CBS attempted an American version of the show called Beacon Hill set in Boston in the 1920’s. It was unsuccessful and lasted only three months.
Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins also created the 1990’s series The House of Eliott set in a 1920’s fashion house.
Lord Richard Bellamy
Richard David Langton
Mrs. Kate Bridges
Lady Marjorie Bellamy
Meg Wynn Owen
Capt. James Bellamy