We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Upstairs, Downstairs_: 3 scripts by Fay Weldon · 22 September 07

Dear Marianne,

Over the past couple of days I’ve watched 4 episodes of the famous long-running British series, Upstairs, Downstairs. Since Fay Weldon wrote the screenplay for the 1979 P&P and had a long career writing scripts for TV (most of which are unavailable), I wanted to see those whose scripts Fay Weldon wrote for Upstairs, Downstairs, one of which won an award: “On Trial, the very 1st episode of the series; “Your obedient servant,” an episode from the 2nd season; and “Desirous of change,” an episode from the 3rd. I also watched the 2nd episode of the 1st season since its script was also by a woman, Maureen Duffy; the episode was entitled (intriguing to an old Renaissance scholar), “The Mistress and the Maids.”

I was pleasantly surprized & a little saddened to discover the initial 2 episodes of the first series centered on downstairs (not up), with the perspective woman-centered (and feminist), that of the female servants of the house. By comparison, it may be said the later episodes went in a direction not foreseen by the first two creators, Jean Marsh (who played Rose Buck, the upper parlour maid throughout all the seasons) and Eileen Aitkins (she also put together her virtuouso one-woman play as Virginia Woolf; wrote the screenplay for Mrs Dalloway.) As I scanned through the series, I could see Marsh and Aitkins were continually credited for inventing the ideas behind scenes, so there was a collaboration going on over the 5 years this series lasted. Eventually the writers were though mostly men & the characters we care most become more those upstairs, with an emphasis on the upper class white young heir, James Bellamy (Simon Williams) who we are to care about very much and whose adventures and misalliances become so central in how we are to see programs that his suicide ended it.

Jean Marsh and Eileen Aitkins are said to have wanted to counter the mini-series and serials emerging in the later 1960s and early 70s: they felt these were all about upper class powerful wealthy connected people—with no servants in sight. They would devise one centered on downstairs. What happened was a double-plot kind of series emerged where downstairs was not forgotten, and is often the most moving part of the episode.

In the first, by Fay Weldon, “On Trial” we begin the whole series with Clemence (perhaps not her real or legal name, played by Pauline Collins) coming to get a job and when she goes up to the front door, is by Hudson (Gordon Jackons), the butler, pointed to a door below the street level direct to the lower door. Hudson does not utter a word to Clemence until she is hired, thus making it clear she is invisible and not to be counted human until then. An interview with the mistress, Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) ends in Clemen being casually renamed “Sarah,” a plain, a different name, for Lady Marjorie tells Sarah that “Clemence” is not a servant’s name, and that’s that. Clemence lies about her origins but who would not in a situation which appears to be as desperate as hers. We meet Emily (Evin Crowley), the scullery maid whom Mrs Bridges (Angela Baddeley) is bullying and scolding. Sarah is immediately inducted into obedience, silence, endless work from early morning to late night in freezing cold and changing outfits to flatter the employers. Jean Marsh is just brilliant as Rose, the utterly obedient at first sharp, distrustful and jealous upper housemaid who badgers Sarah to speak French to her, and when she can’t jeers at her, but turns out to be (natch) very kindly and ends up enacting a sisterly role to Sarah.

It’s fascinating how at once evasive and yet directing to sore issues in these Edwardian costumes these playlets are (reminding me of several other of these 1970s mini-series I’ve been reading about and have begun to view, as for example “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” and Love for Lydia). In the second episode of the series, “The Mistress and the Maids” by Maureen Duffy, Lady Marjorie is painted by a supposedly rebellious Bohemian painter, Scone (played by Anton Rogers). The perspective on Scone is shallow (philistine); he carelessly allures Sarah to his studio where he paints her in bed. In his painting she is naked; we are to believe she was not naked while she lay for him. He includes Rose seen naked from the bed, though he’s not seen her, and imagines the tiny attic room and bed they share. He hangs the two paintings side-by-side in the exhibit. All of this is improbable, but TV series are not meant to be realistic; they are rather symbolic of aspirations and vexed social issues.

Well, Lady Marjorie is “of course” humiliated and it is clear both girls must be fired. Rose is going to submit, but Sarah insists on going up into the drawing room without having been called there (horrors), & she defends herself & explains to the Bellamys that Rose is innocent. Lady Marjorie is above a discussion with servants & leaves the room; Mr Richard Bellamy (David Langton) condescends to listen for a minute, but then declares he will not be badgered by his servants and exits also. He does visit Scone and when told the story even by such a insouciant man is willing to believe this other man. Not the women servants.

We never see the scene where either Mr or Mrs Bellamy agrees to take them back, only their relief later in the attic.

The issues brought up here, censorship and evasiveness may be caught in one brief dialogue in “On Trial.” Determined to teach Sarah a lesson in humility, Hudson tells her of how his mother starved to death from pride. It was pride killed her he says.

The intelligent viewer might see that it was not pride that killed her but an unequal distribution of the necessities of life to the privileged. True, this is utterly unexplicit and the talking moving pictures don’t offer delays for thought. You have to rewatch or think about what you are watching. Pay attention: as I’ve learned one must with better commercial movies.

Fay Weldon wrote an episode in the 2nd season called “Your obedient servant.” This one is about how when Hudson’s Australian brother, Donald Hudson (Andrew Downie), whom Hudson’s salary has helped educate and go to Australia, comes to London a successful bridge-builder, Hudson is deeply ashamed to acknowledge he is just a butler. He never articulates this but simply leaves the house very frequently on one weekend to rent a genteman’s suit and spend Mrs Bridges’s savings on taking his relatives to the most expensive of plays, restaurants, and cultural shows.

Meanwhile (parallel plot), Mr Richard Bellamy’s brother, Arthur Bellamy (John Nettleton), a religious “food reformer” comes to visit him. Arthur is a disappointed (he was not elected to the Royal Society, does not make a lot of money as a physician), narrow-minded suspicious man jealous and critical of Richard; Arthur immediately invents a series of lurid stories about Hudson’s comings and goings because he smells whiskey under Hudson’s breath. Hudson does take a swig before he leaves the house for the first time. There was no prozac in the first decade of the 20th century. Arthur Bellamy manages to manipulate Richard Bellamy into going to a restaurant where Arthur has discovered Hudson means to be one Sunday afternoon, and Hudson undergoes the humiliation of his boss seeing him dressed as (pretending to be) a gentleman. Richard Bellamy comes out the noble soul with decent values as he goes over immediately to introduce himself, shows admiration for Donald Hudson who is an engineer, and keeps Hudson’s secret.

Even better Richard returns to the table to for once tell Arthur what he thinks of Arthur: how Arthur made Richard’s childhood miserable, beat Richard up, & now lives a life fuelled by bigotry, resentment, & failure. He, Richard Bellamy, may have a son (James) who impregnated a servant girl (Sarah) and whom he took in afterwards; a daughter (Elizabeth Bellamy Kirbridge, played by Nicola Pagett) who is divorced; servants he does not attempt to control; but he lives a humane decent good life. When Arthur protests he has been insulted and will leave the table, Richard says he hopes never to see Arthur again for his brother’s behavior has been malicious and cruel. And of course when Richard returns home, Richard will not hear of Hudson’s resigning. Nothing like this can occur in a Jane Austen movie: never for a moment does a close relative do anything another relative does not forgive them for. A rare release.

There are many other sudden touching unusual moments: a long speech by Miss (Maude) Roberts (Patsy Smart) remembering in passing how she lost the one love of her life because he had not an acceptable accent. It’s told backwards: she remembers how mortified she was to be caught with him, but she clearly mourns the loss still.

We see women’s position (except for Lady Marjorie of course, the single woman all this benefits) in Mrs Bridges who is sad because she never gets out to see the sky or the light. Her pitiful savings are so much to her, but she gives them up to Hudson. Then she craves to learn what the splendid restaurant was like. Hudson says the food was bad, service poor.

I don’t want to overrate the episode. The brother’s wife, Maudie Hudson (Marcia Ashton) is shown to be frivolous fool of an upper class woman (typical trophy wife, overrated but we see sheltered and unknowing not entirely through any fault of her own) and establishment values are upheld if only because those below buy into them. But issues are raised and painful realities put before us—mostly on a class consciousness divide. Still if you think you can see a feminist view too.

The third season is still crediting Eileen Aitkins and Jean Marsh with inventing ideas for episodes and scenes, with the individual writers different people. In this year Fay Weldon wrote “Desirous of Change.” Lady Marjorie has died in the Titanic; James is married to Hazel Bellamy (Meg Wynn Owen), who is not quite as high in the social or cultural scale as he. A kind of Henry James tale presented crudely (made much more explicit) ensues. Two charlatans, Europeans, a sister, the Countess Lili de Ternay (Angela Browne) dressed up as a countess, and her brother-artist, Kurt Schnabel (Sandor Eles) easily inveigle their way into the house and the sister lays seige to Richard Bellamy.

Below a new under parlour maid, Gwyneth Davies (Janet Lees-Price) is half-mad with memories of harassment from an earlier house, but does not behave depressed so much as odd: she falls in love with Richard Bellamy and begins taking small things as momentoes; she is continually trying to show how superior she is as a servant to everyone else. There is probably an unfair ethnic type here as she is pointedly described as Welsh (as Hudson is made a partial caricature of Scotsmen, particularly when he becomes solemn with piety). Gwyneth is found out, and again (this must’ve been a pattern) all the servants do forgive her, offer to make her one of them, and she could stay. James, true son of Lady Majorie, upstairs would have objected, but she suddenly takes herself off. She’s had enough. The closure reminds me of Mary Poppins.

It also parallels the final scene of Richard Bellamy and this countess in a restaurant together. They almost made love in an earlier scene. This is typical of the series, illicit love almost happens onstage, but never gets there. They are interrupted by her brother who wanted to use the occasion for blackmail. This interruption and other clues have shown Richard his countess is a woman who shot her first husband to death (apparently somewhat justifiably—this recalls Victorian novels, e.g., Trollope’s The Way We Live Now where a woman who was beaten killed her husband similarly). Lili is an adventuress. We are not to ask how she managed to escape imprisonment and hard punishment; once again TV is not realistic, but rather symbolic. Richard likes Lili anyway and she likes him: they are kind, good-natured, courteous people. They do decide to part (so the materialistic order is upheld) because they can’t afford to marry, but they say they will have this moment here and go for a long walk in the park. Such moments are what makes life worthwhile.

What seems Weldon’s distinctive note (carried over from her 1979 P&P)? a vein of melancholy, a determination to give her heroines security in a pragmatic sense, dignity emotionally, and a real zeroing in on soliloquys for women.

I looked for online pictures. Most are these family groups with the men in the center and all sat about wearing symbolic outfits. To get an individual shot of any particular actress in a moving movement, one would have to use the snapshot technique, and that takes time. So I’ve forgone it here.

In reading about British TV I’ve come to see that in the later 1970s and by mid-1980s Thatcherism had so altered the TV structurings of hirings, and the way programming was done, that the kind of high art of the 1970s was not possible as a regular thing after by the mid-1900s, with the 1995 P&P being a film exceptionally heavily funded by US companies—a pattern that was common (except for the superfunding) from the 1970s too. The old style “in-house” groups (which were dominant in the 1970s) who produced content, were broken up; since then, each time a film is planned, it is done by the equivalent of “casual” labor. Each team has to be rehired and there is no continuity. One TV film writer (there are people who are not afraid to label themselves this way) compared the way British TV works today to the reforms inflicted on the National Health system.

A different set of values is also at play, and by no means is the retreat from educational elitism inevitably replaced by sensitive good taste or egalitarian ideals; instead a strong commodity mentality is at work, one disguised by costume dramas thought safe (say the stories of Austen or other establishment and high status writers). Individual productions may succeed in transcending these mores, but even there they are hampered by a small budget.

I’ve been watching Love for Lydia too: I’ve gotten past the third episode and was just mesmerized by the beauty of the icy landscape the young couple skated across, and was impressed by the recreation of a Northern English town say in the 1950s, complete with religious fundamentalism in both church and chapel (surely this movie influenced J. L. Carr in his Month in the Country), and am beginning to think too the reason Brideshead Revisited is so cried up is what made it unusual is the center symbolic figuration is not a woman but two males and Lord Marchmain. No matter the two were gay; what matters is they are male, and the presentation there is as evasive as that of Love for Lydia with curious parallels too popping up among them all.

How do the Austen films differ:

1) they are non-violent. Men are simply not violent; in the 1990s they seethe, but they do not fight. A rare exception is the 1995 P&P where we see Darcy practicing fencing and where he plays billards so fiercely and we see him and Bingley shooting. Becoming Jane tried to overturn this with Tom Lefroy’s love of cock fighting and all the 1990s films on show the women physically active, but no violence, no murder, no rape, no beating.

2) the women are chaste, and the heroines are utterly obedient to the parental authority figures, never breaking away from them no matter what. This pattern continues unqualified to today. And they are rewarded big.

3) social tensions are eased because we see so little of anyone who is beneath the gentry, and again because the Austen heroines are welcomed into the richer groups. A rare exception is the 1995 BBC Persuasion.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. P.S. What a trouble it is locating work by a specific director of a TV mini-series. I had to watch 3 episodes of Love for Lydia before I got to one directed by Glenister: the fourth. I admit I don't see much difference between this and the first three: perhaps it's that the first three were so landscape-rooted, and this one (like the 1972 Emma and Lady's Maid's Bell) had intimate social scenes, witty dialogue, and in these scenes astute psychological acuity.

    Elinor    Sep 23, 11:44pm    #
  2. From Nick:

    “The change in the way British television production is organised is fairly well-documented I think. But I am not sure the argument is a simple one. I am slightly chary about arguments which proclaim that there has been a ‘dumbing-down’ of television. It is very complicated in the UK by the over-riding presence of the BBC and its public status. People cite masterpieces from the sixties and seventies (and there were masterpieces) but there was also a great deal of dross. It was also a time when there were only three channels (BBC1, ITV, BBC2 – the latter launched in 1967). Channel 4 came along in 1982, then 5 in 1997. And then we finally entered the multi-channel era with satellite and cable.

    I suppose you would probably need to look at productions in detail on a sector by sector basis for any meaningful comparison. There is certainly a general agreement that the one-off original drama has deteriorated over the past twenty or thirty years. But writers seem more interested in series now. :)

    I tend to waffle on this subject because I am genuinely unsure about it. I do think that much criticism is self-interested in one way or another. And it is certainly true that for me personally there is now far more to watch than there used to be because of the plethora of channels, so there is usually a good repeat on if nothing else. It does need to be said though that some of the independent production companies, particularly in the comedy field, are very good and at least as strong as the old in-house BBC and ITV system used to be.

    Elinor    Sep 25, 1:09am    #
  3. Thank you very much for your reply about TV. I showed my ignorance by what I wrote. I had been reading a couple of books on British TV (one by Stuart Hood who I gather is a respected writer), but books are not life and I never had TV when I lived in England (we didn’t have a TV) and in the US have only been able to watch what comes over here. I’ve never seen Channel 4 at all: by cable and dish people can get a concoction called BBC America which seems to be made up of different BBC programs; I’ve never seen it either. As I read your message I did think to myself, yes, and I can think of masterpieces from the 1980s, and great mini-series from the 1990s. I myself don’t have a multiple choice of what to watch since we don’t have cable, but if we did we have nothing like what I understand the best of British TV still is. So I’m not missing out on much. I can get more buying and renting DVDs and playing them on my computer.

    Your reply is helpful and prevents me from going in a direction I know not enough about. 10 of the 10 faithful adaptations of Austen are TV movies, movies made for TV, quite a number mini-series. 3 of the 7 analogous (or loose) ones were made for TV. None of the free adaptations were made for TV, but these are not in costume and often depart radically. So TV has something to do with these Austen movies.

    Elinor    Sep 25, 1:11am    #
  4. I’m reading an excellent book on TV dramas: Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture (Oxford Television Studies) by John Caughie. I hope to summarize or at least use some of Caughie’s insights and information here on this blog and in my projected book.

    Elinor    Sep 25, 10:46pm    #
  5. I loved this series and was thrilled that it focused so much on the “downstairs”, very much my favorite characters, all of them. In fact, I tended to ignore the storylines with the upstairs group.

    I didn’t at all see James’ suicide as ending the series. The series wrapped up all the characters’ lives. It’s just that his was dramatic but I doubt the series ended because this character was no longer on the canvas.

    If you ever get an opportunity to see the last episode, Rose’s final scene is magnificent as she remembers various events while locking up and leaving the house for the last time.

    Dagny    Sep 26, 5:24pm    #
  6. P. S.
    There was another woman who scripted episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs. She did close to a dozen episodes: Rosemary Anne Sisson.

    Dagny    Sep 26, 6:51pm    #
  7. Thank you for the comment. I did see the last episode, and do recall Rose’s last memories (only it was so long ago). After all, Jean Marsh (and Eileen Aitkins) are credited with devising the whole series (that’s the way it’s put) and all four episodes I saw credited them for inventing the story line and ideas for scenes. So Jean Marsh must herself have been very moved to see it all come to an end. And thus it was right to end on Rose's memories. My argument (I always have an argument) is upon the suicide of the then male owner, the house was sold, broken up, and everyone had to leave. In a sense the series must end, for without the house there is no upstairs, downstairs.

    What I’ve done is bought very inexpensively (on VHS tapes), Seasons 1-3. It is hard to capture snapshots off of VHS tapes. I so liked Lady’s Maid’s Bell (which you might not have seen and I wrote a blog on) that I went to the trouble of making snapshots, but it was just one episode. This would have taken going through four. So I resaw what I described, or I couldn’t have remembered anything. I recall liking the fourth season best of all (about the world war). It's not that easy to discover who scripted what. Sometimes it is said on IMDB, but sometimes they mislead you; the thing to do is actually watch the episode and or fast forward to the end of a casette or DVD to see. The name Rosemary Ann Sisson is familiar to me; she must've been a frequent script writer of the era.

    Elinor    Sep 26, 6:51pm    #
  8. Thinking a little more about this (and other series) I don’t see how one can ignore the upstairs part. It’s so integral to the downstairs, and two story lines made continually parallel, continually intersecting and sometimes influencing one another directly. The two stories blend into one story.

    Elinor    Sep 28, 11:08am    #

commenting closed for this article