A most pleasant preoccupation during these decidedly unpleasant times has been revisiting the classic British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. Steve and I, latecomers to the show, first watched the sixty-eight episodes about five or more years ago, and rewatched them over the past several months to introduce them to our pandemic housemate Sarah. She was as captivated by the Bellamy household as we continued to be.
The attraction lies first and largely in the rich, multifaceted characters who comprise the two domains of 165 Eaton Place: the masters and the servants. But the fascination comes from watching their reactions and responses as the world — slowly at first, then at steadily increasing speed — roils and shifts around them, tumbling them headlong into a future none of them could foresee, anymore than can any of us now, I suppose. But watching them, we know what they do not: that it’s all going to end, sometimes quite badly. On reflection, this is the same appeal as with Mad Men: clearly delineated characters moving with or against the currents of their time. But where Don, Peggy, Joan, and the rest dealt with the upheavals of a single, albeit tumultuous, decade, the 1960s, the Bellamys move through almost thirty years from the Edwardian period to the beginning of the Great Slump.
The social and technological changes realized during the 1903–30 time frame are immense, and the discrete historical events that punctuate the period are huge. The sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, the stock market crash, and more, visit the inhabitants of Eaton Place — and hit hard. To say nothing of the human-scale milestones that test and mark the characters: like any good soap opera, and some well-lived lives, Upstairs, Downstairs is replete with weddings, deaths, divorces, extramarital affairs, unrequited love, suicides, kidnappings, drunkenness, disability, madness, extortion, and scandal. Tellingly, there are relatively few births on the show: only two, by my count, and only one of those children survives. I think this is because the story of the Bellamys is one of gradual extinction. Like E.M. Forster’s Howards End and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Upstairs, Downstairs tells of a time and a class on its way out, as the assumptions and circumstances that underlie the British empire rot away.
Class is an obvious and uppermost theme throughout the series. There are the nobility and the gentry who live upstairs — prominently Lady Marjorie, born to a title, and Lord Richard Bellamy, later bestowed his title, their children James and Elizabeth, and a set of spouses and extended family — and there are the below-stairs servants. These, as James’s wife Hazel — who, like Richard, comes from the middle class, and thus strictly speaking belongs neither upstairs nor downstairs — observes, make up a second family living in the Bellamy home, with “father” Hudson, the butler; “mother” Mrs. Bridges, the cook; and an assortment of “children” consisting of the flower-named maids (Rose, Daisy, Violet, Lily), the chauffeurs, footmen, and scullery girls. But interestingly and perhaps unusually, they don’t really live downstairs, only work there. Their rooms, like the Bellamys’, are mostly on upper floors, meaning that the entire household uses a single common staircase. And a good many significant scenes of transition are played out on those stairs, peering over banisters, hunched up in tears, or seated expectantly or unexpectedly.
A thought about the housing arrangements. It occurred to me that James, particularly when back home after his time at the front during the war, and both Elizabeth and Bellamy ward Georgina, in between impetuous and sometimes scandalous sallies into the broader world, spend almost entire episodes in their own rooms or in the morning room — smoking, sulking, and periodically summoning or dismissing the staff. But below stairs, except for their rarely seen bedrooms, most of which are shared, and Hudson’s pantry, a private and sacrosanct retreat, all is communal space. The staff cozily eat, confer, connect, clash, and recreate together, all while drinking endless cups of cocoa and tea: in stark contrast to the lonely, solitary lives led above stairs. I wonder what were the impacts of the myriad opportunities available to the lower classes to thus exchange thoughts — and all-too-frequent misinterpretations — versus the long stretches available to the upper classes for introspection and solipsism.
Upstairs, Downstairs differs from its predecessor prestige period piece The Forsyte Saga of 1967 in that the latter is based on a book by John Galsworthy and its characters stay, well, more or less in character. In contrast, over a dozen credited writers created Upstairs, Downstairs. I do not know to what extent character and season arcs were deliberately developed, and to what extent the writers had free rein to go where and how they wanted. But it is apparent that writer conceptions of the various characters differed widely and wildly. So, Mr. Hudson may be petty and peevish in one episode, and wise and preternaturally cool and collected in another. Rose too rockets from wide-eyed innocence to tart bitterness. Richard is an almost insufferable and clueless stuffed shirt in some episodes and a sly, subtle rake in others. The actors did their best to elide these contradictions. And in some episodes, this sense of character as filtered through an individual writer’s perspective, yields real riches. Noted novelist Fay Weldon’s “Your Obedient Servant” episode sets up a wonderful parallel between Richard and Hudson as they confront their respective brothers — and each other, in unfamiliar surroundings — resulting in a keen appreciation of character and a warm shared humanity; such insights might not have been possible with a single guiding narrative voice.
Regardless of these episode-to-episode character inconsistencies, what offered me the most food for thought was seeing how stuck so many of the characters were. Stuck in preconceptions, societal expectations, notions of fitness and rightness. How curtailed their freedom was by their times and class, regardless of whether they lived upstairs or down. James, whose tragic life is the central arc of the series, is irrevocably hemmed in: by his class, by his connections, by available opportunities, by what he’s seen and done in the war, by what he wants and needs — which he really doesn’t know and couldn’t express even if he did, because of yet another limitation in his character: James is ultimately not very perceptive. He is a clumsy, and spoiled, creature of impulse, of a genetic piece with his sister Elizabeth. He is not a bad man, not at all; just one who has no “driving wheel,” as Steve and David Bromberg would put it. To some extent, his inability to find meaning, his frustrated, restive nature, is a product of the Great War. But really, the seeds were sown years before by an indulgent set of parents and a class system that encouraged idleness and precluded so many avenues to relevancy.
At the other end of the spectrum of societal expectation is Mrs. Bridges. Where James floats purposelessly, not knowing where or how to land, Mrs. Bridges knows exactly who and what she is, was, and always will be. She never changes her hairstyle or her hemline, but stays firmly rooted in Edwardian era domestic service attitudes and fashion (see black and white photo of a 1907 Mrs. Bridges doppelganger). Even more than Mr. Hudson, who senses and fights against evolving attitudes toward domestic service, she seems impervious to changing times and mores. But Kate Bridges has an advantage even over Hudson, which I found quite revelatory and intriguing, and which perhaps could explain her confident certitude. As the cook, provider of food and sustenance, Mrs. Bridges has certain powers and privileges unavailable to the others below stairs. When sufficiently vexed with uncertainty or capriciousness emanating from the master, mistress, or other family members, she can go upstairs and press her case. And she does — not often, but only when pushed — and she is generally pacified or at least mollified. Mrs. Bridges is, after all, not just a cook, but a very good fancy cook. She also has a special relationship with the children of the household. I was struck when Victoria, Richard’s second wife, brings her children downstairs after their first visit to Eaton Place, so they can thank Cook personally for their tea. Certainly, no one ever thanks Rose or Daisy or Edward the footman for their ceaseless, invisible labor.
Most of the staff, like Mrs. Bridges, like Hudson, know their place. But as the years go by, the newer and younger staff evince a bit of the same rebelliousness as Sarah (pictured at left), who enters service in the very first episode and leaves no member of the Bellamy household unscathed in her relentless quest for a better, freer, less constrained life. After the war, this spirit is much more pronounced among the junior staff, several of whom leave service altogether — much to Hudson’s dismay and disappointment. But these servants, beginning with Sarah, are actually able to do what James cannot: break free of societally imposed constraints. They can pursue what earlier generations of domestic servants could not: upward mobility.
Beyond the social issues, the key to the show’s enduring interest and appeal is the decency, the humanity, of its main characters. We come to care deeply for Hudson and Hazel, for Rose and Richard, for Marjorie and James, for Edward and Daisy, for Mrs. Bridges and Ruby — particularly in season 4, when they are buffeted, bewildered, and beat down by the war. Almost every character gets a chance, sometimes several, to reveal their grace and grit, their compassion, their honor. It was a joy being in their presence for all these months; I shall miss them.
It appears that all the episodes can be streamed on YouTube; I am not sure of the copyright considerations entailed. They are also available on Britbox. And a lovely resource for all things Upstairs, Downstairs is maintained online by Steve Phillips: click here.