Class Act

The beloved master-servant drama Upstairs, Downstairs is back

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Courtesy PBS Masterpiece Theatre/BBC

In the show's heyday, a billion people worldwide watched Upstairs, Downstairs, the saga of a family of London aristocrats who shared a house at 165 Eaton Place with a fleet of salt-of-the-earth servants. The series, which aired in a reported 70 countries, won seven Emmy Awards and two BAFTAs and became such a fixture of the cultural landscape that when the Muppets spoofed it on Monsterpiece Theater, Alistair Cookie (Monster) welcomed viewers to "Episode 793." He was exaggerating: there were actually 68 episodes over five seasons, the first of which began airing in Britain 40 years ago. Which means that this spring, Upstairs, Downstairs is having an anniversary celebration with all the trimmings, including a box set and a revival.

What gave the original not just iconic status in television history but also bragging rights as the Queen Mother of every master-servant production from Gosford Park to Downton Abbey was the attention it gave to what went on "below stairs" at 165 Eaton Place, where the cook Mrs. Bridges, the butler Hudson and a gaggle of maids and footmen shared cups of tea, gossip and occasionally heated arguments over the sense of duty vs. the sense of self. History from the series' time span of 1903 to 1930 — World War I, the suffragist movement, the stock-market crash — was expertly woven into the story, elevating it above soap opera. But it was the astute examination of the bonds and divisions between the Bellamy family and its staff that made Upstairs, Downstairs so influential, and not just in Britain. Have you seen Driving Miss Daisy? Read The Help? Without Upstairs, Downstairs, you might not have.

Where Are the Servants?

The show began, as so many of the strongest works of art do, as a retort to what had come before it. The co-creators, actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, had watched another U.K. hit, the late-1960s miniseries The Forsyte Saga, with some dismay. Who was ironing all those beautiful clothes and cooking those sumptuous meals? They envisioned a new series that would include characters they knew well from their cockney heritage: maids, cooks, domestics.

"The most important thing for us was that the servants would be as important as the upstairs people," says Marsh, 76. "That you should see the politics of the day through the servants' eyes as well." Marsh played the loyal house parlor maid Rose Buck throughout the series, having extracted a promise that she'd do more than just tidy up for the Bellamys. "I had it written into my contract that Rose would have at least two episodes where she would play the lead," she remembers.

The Bellamys' staff got about a third of the series' screen time, but the class differences were conveyed so effectively that Lesley-Anne Down, who played Lady Georgina, a vivacious young Bellamy relative, remembers fans responding in kind: "With the people who played the downstairs people, [fans] would just rush up to them, shaking their hand and being chatty, as if they were old friends. But with the upstairs people, they would be so much more reserved and respectful and not in your face at all."

Marsh has recently gone back into service, reprising the role of Rose in a new miniseries of Upstairs, Downstairs, slated to begin airing April 10 on PBS's Masterpiece. The year is 1936, six years after the Bellamys vacated the Belgravia mansion. It is under new ownership, and Marsh appears onscreen with Atkins, who plays the haughty matriarch of the new family in residence. (Atkins was to have played the second housemaid, Sarah, in the original, but the part went to the wonderful Pauline Collins after Atkins' theatrical opportunities kept her away.)

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