The Interviews:
“Upstairs, Downstairs”

By Harold Frost

“Upstairs, Downstairs,” a British TV series depicting a London household from 1903 to 1930, first aired in the U.K. and the U.S. in the 1970s, and has appeared in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries, providing millions of people with among the most intense television experiences of their lives – a sweeping, novelistic perusal of fascinating people and times. Here are interviews with three key participants in the show.

John Hawkesworth

John Hawkesworth, right, with story editor
Alfred (Freddie) Shaugnessy in 1974.


John Hawkesworth (1920-2003) was one of the great TV producers of his day, a guiding light for “Upstairs, Downstairs” and several other major British series including “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” starring Jeremy Brett, “The Duchess of Duke Street,” and “Danger UXB.” This interview was conducted in 1995.

Q. When and how did you get involved with “Upstairs, Downstairs,” Mr. Hawkesworth?

A. In the late 1960s I formed a company called Sagitta Films with a great friend of mine named John Whitney to try to invent television ideas and sell them. One day, in the autumn of 1969 I think, Jean Marsh, with whom John Whitney had worked previously, came to him and said, “My friend Eileen Atkins and I have an idea.” She explained the basics. John said, “Would you mind having lunch with John Hawkesworth? And we’ll talk about it.” So we all had lunch. Jean and Eileen called their project “Below Stairs.” Their interesting idea was, the people belowstairs were as important dramatically as the people upstairs. They wanted to play the two maids. This, then, was the pearl in the oyster. I read Jean and Eileen’s idea, and thought about it, and went to the program controller of London Weekend Television, Stella Richman, a very nice, very intelligent woman, and she thought about it, and she eventually said, “I think we ought to do it.” We began filming in the winter of 1970-71 and began broadcasting in October, 1971.

It took a bit of time for the show to reach the airwaves. We had to write a sales document. I had to put it to the board of London Weekend Television. Actually, you know, I recall now that it was turned down by one company, Granada, and then was accepted by London Weekend. Who I had been working for. I had made something for them called “The Gold Robbers.” That series taught me an awful lot about television production – how fraught it is – very fraught, full of dramas and crises. I learned a great deal.

Q. Was the creation of “U/D” full of dramas and crises?

A. Yes. Absolutely. Our basic problem was, we had no idea what writers could make good scripts for a program like this.

The first important step I took was to get Freddie Shaugnessy, a very good story editor, to work with me. The most crucial thing in any drama series is the script. However good the rest of it is – the acting, the direction – if you have a bad script the thing flops.

As I say, we had no idea what writers could do it. We were pioneering. We had lots of failures in the first series by very good writers who did their best but weren’t able to take on the period, the big cast, and the unique structure of upstairs and downstairs intermingled. It was a case of trial-and-error. With quite a lot of error. Through no one’s fault. Everyone tried their best, but we got all these scripts that didn’t work, and one day Freddie simply threw up his arms and said to me, “Oh my God, we’ll have to write it ourselves.” Because there wasn’t much time. Our preparation time was not enough. I knew it wasn’t enough, but I felt I couldn’t go to London Weekend and ask for more time and put the project at risk. So right from the beginning we were up against time.

For some reason – I’ve no idea why, I’ve no insight into the upper reaches of television politics – Stella Richman was sacked by London Weekend in February of ’71 just as we were finishing production on the first series. Cyril Bennett, a man I knew and liked, became the controller. After a few weeks I said to him, “Well, what about ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ when do you think you’ll put it on?” He said, “Well, I haven’t see that yet.” I said, “Will you have a look at the first episode next week with me?” He and I, and Rex Firkin, who was in effect the executive producer, looked at the first episode. Cyril said, “Honestly, I think they’ll switch off their televisions. I just can’t show it.” But, as he was a good friend of mine, he thought it over and finally said, “I’ll put on the first six episodes in October and early November at 10:15 on Sunday nights.” I thought, that’s the finish of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” It didn’t seem to have a chance, late on Sunday nights.

So, we all moved on to completely different projects for months – the cast, Freddie, me, everyone. October was light years away. We had to make livings. We were all out of contract. Then they put the program on. October of 1971. The first episodes were broadcast in black-and-white because of a strike. They put it on, and the critics for some reason – perhaps they had nothing much to do during the strike – gave it very nice write-ups. People watched. Apparently, people liked what they saw. In early 1972 Cyril rang me up: “Oh, John, hullo. That second series of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ we were talking about – um, how about it?”

(Chuckles.) I scrambled a bit. I was lucky to be able to get everyone together again from all the different jobs they were doing, all except Simon Williams, who had taken a job in a play, but he came along later of course. So we started on a second series. The long-term prospects were still in doubt. I don’t know if anyone thought the program would continue past the second series, or season as you say in America. But then, at the beginning of the third series, it started selling abroad. Then it took off very fast. Almost too fast – almost too much momentum. Emmys and so forth. In fact, in the end, I had to say to Cyril Bennett, “We’re going to stop.”

I had the terrible feeling that if I didn’t stop it, it would go on and on until it faded into oblivion. Luckily I had the control to stop it when I liked. This is very rare in television. I think London Weekend made a little mistake there in the contract. I got the agreement of all the writers and actors and everyone, and we stopped.

Q. How did you arrive at the conclusion that it was time to stop after only five years? Was it basically a feeling?

A. Yes, it was an instinctive thing, very much. Another factor was, the Great Depression was the end of an era for the sort of people we were writing about. They really couldn’t live the life they had before, in terms of servants and lavish dining and so on. So 1930 seemed an obvious end.

A. One can imagine, though, seeing these people through the Second World War. I can see Hudson as the most dedicated air raid warden ever.

A. Freddie Shaugnessy and I talked about the possibility – through the ’30s, to the war, and so on. But another factor here was that some of the principal roles – Hudson, Mr. Bellamy – would have been too old. Given that they were in their 50s and 60s during the First World War, they would have been in their 70s and 80s by the time of the Second World War. We would have had to recast.

Q. Any regrets about ending when you did?

A. Never. Not for one second.

Q. So, clearly, you didn’t have, at the start, a grand plan for the overall life of the program.

A. We didn’t. Because we didn’t know if we were going on. We began shaping things as we got into it a bit. When the sale to America was completed, at the start of filming for the third series, we did some re-thinking in terms of a grand plan as you say. Originally we planned to do the First World War as the second half of the third series. After the sale to America, we decided to extend the third series to the outbreak of the war, and then do a whole series, the fourth series, about the war. Then, once we’d gotten into the First World War, it was logical to do one about the ’20s.

Q. It wasn’t planned that Lady Marjorie, Elizabeth, and Sarah would drop out?

A. No, not at all. Lady Marjorie – Rachel Gurney – simply said, “I think I’ve done enough.” I think she didn’t like the way we were developing her character. She wanted to be more sympathetic, and we wanted her to be the tough lady of the house. She (pause) – well, she wasn’t awfully keen on that. Nicola Pagett’s agent said she was in danger of being typecast – and in any case, we’d done almost everything with her you could do with a young lady of quality of that time. She’d been married, and divorced, had an illegitimate baby and all that. John Alderton and Pauline Collins always planned to leave at the end of the second series because they had other things to do. So those departures were of their own volition.

The first person I asked to leave – I hated doing it; she was very, very good I thought; but dramatically we didn’t want her anymore – was Meg Wynn Owen. Hazel. It was hell, asking her. I took her out to lunch. I put it off, put it off, put it off, until the cheese. I said, “Look….” She was sweet about it. She said, “I quite understand, my character has done all you want me to do. I will die gracefully.”

Q.  She is wonderful in that role, needless to say. 

A. Oh yes, very good.

Q. Who, to you, are the one or two most interesting characters in the series?

A. (Pause.) I think really the whole lot. It was a team effort, by the family, upstairs and downstairs. We didn’t have anyone I would like to discard.

Q. Was casting difficult, or did various actors seem instantly right for roles?

A. It was very difficult. It always is. I luckily had a most excellent and experienced casting director, Martin Case, a great friend of mine. We spent hours and hours making lists, talking to people, sometimes speaking with seven or eight people for a part. For example, for Georgina, we looked at many talented young women. Finally it was down to Lesley-Anne Down and Jane Seymour. They were both very beautiful and both read very well. Jane had much, much more experience and I’m sure would have been absolutely marvelous. (Pause.) I wanted a new face in a way. I picked Lesley-Anne Down.

Q. I can certainly see Ms. Seymour in the role.

A. Yes, absolutely.

Q. But it’s excellent work by Ms. Down, going from a shy and sheltered schoolgirl, dewy-eyed and innocent as can be, to a mature and worldly woman in a couple years of filming.

A. I agree.

Q. I quite fell in love with her.

A. Well! A great many people did, apparently.

Q. Did Georgina and James ever have a full-blown love affair, do you think? Was this notion at all in your mind, as a back story for what you wrote?

A. No. They didn’t. What happened really was, in the ’20s, it came to a moment in Scotland where he said, “Will you marry me?” And she said, “No, it’s all gone. I just feel like a sister. Any love I had for you was killed by the war.” Which I think was the right thing.

Q. What about that night during the war, in the astonishing episode that you wrote, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, with the guns rumbling in the background, when he took her out to dinner, and there was a certain something in the air, a heightened sense of life and death?

A. Ah! I must say I don’t know. But (pause) I don’t really think anything happened.

Q. Regarding Hudson – who else was in competition for the role?

A. For Hudson, actually, there wasn’t anyone other than Gordon Jackson. The way it unfolded was interesting. When we thought of the character originally, we were thinking of perhaps four people who could play it; at that point, the role wasn’t Scottish. Then suddenly we decided to make him Scottish. Lady Marjorie had been given this house, and had married a not-terribly upper class man, Richard Bellamy – his father was a poor parson in Norfolk – and it wasn’t the grandest establishment possible. We thought that for a butler we’d produce a gilley from Scotland, a bit of a younger man who’d been trained as a footman by Lady Marjorie’s father and mother, Lord and Lady Southwold. Gordon was prepared to do it, and really, there was no competition at that point.

Q. The character Lawrence Kirbridge, from the early episodes – when we first see him, in season one, he’s having an affair with Evelyn Larkin, but later on he’s entirely gay. An interesting shift.

A. We may have slightly changed our mind about him, and moved the character in that direction. I’m not sure it was entirely logical to make him gay after his romance with Evelyn but we went ahead with it, and Ian Ogilvy did a wonderful job. I don’t think, actually, that he was at all pleased when we made Lawrence quite openly gay – I don’t think he was expecting it, you see. But he played it movingly and beautifully. I don’t know if he’d agree, but even if he didn’t like it, he did it well.

Q. When filming wrapped, did you take home any one or two items from the set?

A. Well, here’s a confession. One. I think only one. Which I stole after the last episode. A hideous sort of – it’s a “pokerwork” – they used red hot pokers in those days to create what’s known as pokerwork, designs on wood, a type of wood burning. This piece that I have is a sort of screen. It was in the servant’s hall. I’ve got it in my studio. Somebody, I should think it was Mr. Hudson, inserted a rather catty photograph of Edward VII into it, in the middle. It’s right in front of me all the time. It reminds me of the servant’s hall.

Q. Do you have a theory as to why the program was so popular? Beyond the fact that it’s excellent TV with great writing and acting, and a unique structure, two groups of characters intermingling. All true, but the depth and breadth of the popularity is striking, all over the world.

A. I was amazed by the extent of the popularity. I don’t know. You could say it hit a nostalgic vein that was waiting to be hit. You could say it was well done – it was done as well as we could make it, within our budget – we had rather primitive technical equipment, frankly. The stories were good and the cast was good. Once you have good stories and a good cast – we took a lot of trouble over the casting, as we discussed – I think those were the two factors that somehow came together and worked. That’s my theory. What’s yours? I’m always interested to hear how Americans view the series.

Q. I do have a thought about why it hit some Americans so hard. I think class is a significant factor here, as in any society, but it isn’t supposed to be, it’s rather a secret, bound up in mystery, and thus has all the more power. My mother, for example, was tangled up in class issues, but I think she buried this, resulting in odd fissures in her life, odd tensions, baffling to me when I was young. I have carried a significant number of fissures too. So here comes a TV program with everything about class laid out for one to see, in a most entertaining way, with powerful stories and charismatic performers that one falls in love with. Also, I think the timing was right. It came in the wake of the ’60s. I think many people spent the ’70s sorting through the earthquakes of the ’60s, perhaps unconsciously, figuring out the relationship between change and tradition, between, on the one hand, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and on the other, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. All of whom were present in many U.S. households. My grandmother was still alive in 1967 in St. Paul, Minnesota, very opinionated, very much a Victorian lady, with furniture that could have been used in London in 1910, and a world view to match. And I’m sitting on her sofa listening to “Penny Lane” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on my transistor radio, and she’s telling me to turn down the racket.

A. Yes. Interesting. I know the appeal was very deep among certain viewers in the States. And, really, around the world, as you say.

Q. Do you have any one or two favorite episodes?

A. Yes I have. I think the very first episode I liked very much. And I liked very much – you may never have seen it even, because it’s in black-and-white – “The Mistress and the Maids” – the one about the artist who paints Lady Marjorie and then paints the maids in full nude. I think it’s a very good one.

Q. It’s credited to Maureen Duffy on the sheet I have here.

A. However, she isn’t mentioned in the credits in the actual film. She opted out. She hated the re-writes we did on it. She was one of the writers who were casualties of the first series. She was so disgusted by our re-writing that she said, “Please take my name off.”

I like very much the king coming to dinner, which Freddie wrote. I like the one at the outbreak of the Great War when they all go on holiday to the seaside.

Q. I would say anyone who wants to understand war can benefit from watching the fourth season of “Upstairs, Downstairs” – the overwhelming power of war fever, the lasting impact of war on people’s lives, the capacity for illusion, the devotion of soldiers to duty and their comrades, the ability of soliders to not feel the danger. All of this with scarcely a scene of actual battle. I think of Hudson with his maps and pins, and his fervor for it all. Of Georgina and James walking through that graveyard. Of Edward’s face as he tells about what he saw out there. And of course of haunted James.

A. I thought there were some very good ones in the war. (Pause.) And um….I like the one about the shooting party. There was a shooting one, and I wrote a hunting one, and I liked both of them.

Q. “A Change of Scene” by Rosemary Anne Sisson, yes? With the splendid character Max Weinberg? And your hunting one called “The Bolter”?

A. Yes. (Pause.) I also rather liked the very last episode, I think. It was awfully difficult to write. But I think it came off pretty well. The difficulty came from sealing up all the loose ends. Everyone had to be got rid of, sent into the future satisfactorily, yet not boringly. There was a wedding, so there’s a venue to play with, but everybody really had to leave gracefully. I was determined to have the house empty at the end, and only Rose going ’round it, with her memories, and then leaving it, and shutting it up. I thought the ideal end was to have this house, which had such a tremendous amount of life in it, now empty, and everyone gone.

Q. What are you working on now? 

A. I’m writing a script based on a Jeffrey Archer book titled “Beyond Reasonable Doubt.” And I’m just finishing writing a book, called, believe it or not, “The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs.” And I’m planning a new exhibition of paintings. I’ve had four. Really my first love is painting. I mostly do landscapes; sometimes watercolor, and ink, sometimes oil.

Q. Thank you for your time today.

A. You’re entirely welcome.

Postscript – It appears that Hawkesworth’s book on the show was never published.