Stream On: Upstairs v. Downton—the battle of the British costume dramas, part one

By on March 7, 2024

In 1970 actresses Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh created Upstairs, Downstairs, a game-changer for British—and American—TV. Wildly successful, and rightly so, Upstairs, Downstairs was an immersive experience expertly detailing the drama of early twentieth-century upper- and lower-class London life, side-by-side. In 2010 screenwriter Heidi Thomas created a “continuation,” picking up the action six years after the original series ended. But Julian Fellowes was developing a similar series set on a Yorkshire country estate, Downton Abbey, and it seems television wasn’t big enough for the both of them.


/Amazon /Streaming /⭐8.4/10 /Trailer /TVPG

Jean Marsh said in a 2010 interview that she and her friend Eileen Atkins had been “watching The Forsyte Saga that was made sometime in the ’60s, and we thought, ‘Well, that’s all really wonderful, but who washed the clothes? Who ironed them? Who’s cleaning the boots? Who’s doing all the work?’ And we thought, ‘Gosh, it’s so unfair you never see the real workers.’”

The series that Marsh and Atkins subsequently created, about the wealthy Bellamy family and the servants who staffed their mansion at 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, Upstairs, Downstairs, languished at first, as ITV Television’s sales department couldn’t see the attraction of a period piece. Eventually the network had a space in its schedule at Sunday 10:15 p.m. and called upon show producers London Weekend Television to fill it. They supplied Upstairs, Downstairs, and with no promotion, audiences still grew, and the series became a hit. In the United States, Upstairs, Downstairs aired as part of the Public Broadcasting Service’s series Masterpiece Theatre.

The drama—and melodrama—overtook the indifferent production values (It was darkly shot on videotape with abrupt music cues that were apparently played live on a phonograph. To be fair, after a few episodes it wasn’t an issue.) and Upstairs, Downstairs is instantly watchable. The acting is transparent, maybe especially for the States, where no actors were recognizable, and the situations were surprisingly and deliciously extreme. The earliest episodes included the public exhibition of a nude painting of two of the maids; a gay assignation between a visiting Baron and one of the staff; a rape and its resulting pregnancy; and a suicide and a resulting nervous breakdown.

In the United States, Upstairs, Downstairs was honored for both the Primetime Emmy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards. In 1974, 1975, and 1977 it won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. In 1975, Jean Marsh (who co-wrote and played head house parlourmaid Rose Buck) won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series; the final episode, in that year, resonated among Americans of all stripes, rarely for a PBS show.


/Amazon /Streaming /⭐7.4/10 /Trailer /TV14

“Plutography is to money what pornography is to sex” (Tom Wolfe)

To a fan of the original series, the continuation is almost perfect. A new couple are interested in 165 Eaton place, six years after the Bellamy family moved out of it. The thing is, they need to hire staff to man the mansion, and the Bellamy’s original head house parlourmaid, Rose Buck (Jean Marsh again), has opened a domestic service agency, and so the Hollands (Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes) ask her to staff the house.

The Bellamy family and the original staff are only referenced a few times: when 165 Eaton Place is referred to as “the Bellamy house.” Rose mentions that a silver teapot, seen in some scenes of the first episode, was given to her as a gift by Lord Bellamy in appreciation of her years of “impeccable” service to the family. In another scene the keys to the wine cellar bear the name of Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson, in the original series) on the fob.

Sir Hallam Holland, the new owner, a young diplomat, and his wife Lady Agnes, are new to the trappings of society in their own house; his colorful mother (co-creator of both shows Eileen Atkins, Doc Martin) is present, along with a secretary and pet monkey, and soon Lady Agnes’ fiery young debutante sister Lady Persephone (Claire Foy, The Crown) also moves in.

A few staff are hired—a cook, a maid, a chauffeur, another servant, all suitably colorful characters, and a butler, whose experience was a lengthy career on cruise ships, rising from bell-boy to maitre d’ over a period of 27 years.

The production values are cinema-level, the acting and directing are expert, the drama is right up there with the original, and Upstairs Downstairs really should have lasted more than two seasons. Next week, in part two, we’ll take a look at its competition, Downton Abbey.

Sources include Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED), The Guardian, The AV Club.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.

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