Upstairs Downstairs Series 1

  • Series Title:  Upstairs Downstairs
  • Season: Series 1 (Season 1)
  • Episodes:  13
  • Discs:  4
  • Cast:  Gordon Jackson, Jean Marsh, Angela Baddeley, David Langton, Simon Williams, Rachel Gurney, Christopher Beeny, Nicola Pagett, Pauline Collins
  • Network:  ITV (UK) – Granada

Upstairs Downstairs is a British drama series about the Bellamy household who live at 165 Eaton Place in London – both the upper middle class Bellamys and their servants who work downstairs. At first glance, it may seem the series idealizes the role of servants in Edwardian England. However, even in this first season that really isn’t the case, and the series often includes clever, yet subtle social comment on the social situation of both the servants and the masters.

The series starts with a young woman approaching the house, in search of a servants job. She calls herself, Clarmont, and carries a recommendation letter from a servant’s placement service. Lady Marjorie Bellamy interviews her, then hires her as under-house parlour maid, re-naming her Sarah. As the newest member of the household, the audience is introduced to everyone through her eyes, both upstairs and down. Sarah is a headstrong young woman, who constantly tells the other servants stories – that she’s half French, that she’s a gypsy, et cetera, all stories designed to get her attention and make her sound more interesting. Sarah sees Mrs. Bridges, the Cook, give a chicken to an old beggar woman who comes to the door, and later she also steals a chicken and gets caught.  Rose, the Upper House Parlour Maid (who had explained to Sarah what her duties were) and Mr. Hudson (the butler) demand that Sarah write out her confession for “the master”. Sarah breaks down in tears – she can neither read or write. When Rose says, “Surely, you went to school?” It turns out Sarah had raised her younger siblings from the age of five.  The incident is forgotten – but it won’t be the first time the new maid gets in trouble.

The first season of Upstairs Downstairs is very episodic, and deals with many different topics. After a few episodes with only Lady Marjorie and Mr. Bellamy in residence in the household, first their son, James comes home from “the regiment”, and later their 17-year old daughter, Elizabeth, returns from a German boarding school. In an early episode, Elizabeth falls for a German baron, only to discover he was a spy trying to find out information about British defenses (Mr. Bellamy, as an MP, was on the Defense Committee) and is not only caught out as a spy – but is caught, in flagrante delico with a footman. The baron is thrown out of the house, and the footman dismissed immediately without a reference. Another story finds a kitchen maid falling for a footman from another household. The footman’s employer, a very stuck-up older woman with a strong foreign accent, disapproves. She insists the footman drop his “affair”, and bribes him with a better position and new uniform. Not only does he stop seeing the maid, Emily, he has another servant return her love letter unopened. The maid commits suicide. Still another story has a new maid join the household, only for it quickly to become apparent she’s pregnant. It turns out she was raped by her employer’s son in her previous place of employment. Mr. Bellamy tries to help her out, even going so far as to get the son (who’s father is an Earl) to take responsibility for the child. This doesn’t work out well, as the son threatens to sue Bellamy for libel – and make it look like he was the one to get the maid pregnant. In the end, the maid is dismissed with her wages and a healthy “bonus”. She takes the wages she’s earned but not the bonus out of pride (I somehow suspect that extra money found it’s way to her eventually.)

Even the members upstairs are not free of controversy and scandal. Lady Marjorie has an affair after getting angry that her husband, a Tory MP, intends to abstain rather than vote with his party to block an education bill. Lady Marjorie, a very wealthy woman, and daughter of a Tory MP, is much more Conservative than her husband, who had risen through the ranks, and obtained his position through his wife’s money and influence. Eventually, Marjorie drops her affair and she and her husband make up – when he does what she wants. James, the elder son, returns when his parents are out to the country – and finds the servants partying. He plays the identity of Hudson the butler, but has the servants get even more drunk, then peaks as Sarah changes out of one of Lady Marjorie’s dresses into her own. He kisses Sarah, then (albeit accidentally) tears her uniform dress – her only one. Elizabeth, the younger daughter, would rather read German philosophy and change the world then attend balls and fit in to society. She runs off from her debut, and later begins to keep company with a group of Bohemian artists. Eventually, at the end of the season, she runs away from her parents household, lives with a socially active modern friend, and falls in love with a poet. The poet, however, is just as much a member of the upper crust as she is – and he and James knew each other from the regiment. Elizabeth and the poet, Lawrence, marry.

Again, season one is very episodic – each episode has a title card listing the date and explaining what is going on. I had watched Upstairs Downstairs in high school, on PBS, and I don’t know if I watched the first season – most of it didn’t seem familiar. I also remember it being much more interconnected from episode to episode (Like the modern series that is modeled on it, Downton Abbey). But it also seems they were very much finding their feet – thus the wide variety of stories. the cast also didn’t seem to settle until the end (the Bellamy’s go through an awful lot of under house maids, scullery maids, and footmen). But that there’s so much turnover in servants makes sense, it’s more realistic, and the series would acquire a larger and more settled cast later on. The first season also feels very much like a play, with most seasons only having two or three people.  Some of the early episodes are in black and white (even though by 1970 both ITV and the BBC were using color) – this was due to a technicians’ strike according to a card at the beginning of every black and white episode on the DVD set. I did feel it was unnecessary to state that on every black and white episode – certainly most people would watch the show in order, and not skip around.

Overall, it’s a good start, but I would still give season 1 a three out of five score. It seemed so painfully obvious that the production crew were trying various things – without settling in to what the show would become.

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