The Interviews:
Upstairs, Downstairs

By Harold Frost

John Hawkesworth (producer)

Jean Marsh (co-creator, performer)

Jeremy Paul (writer)

“Upstairs, Downstairs,” a British TV series depicting a London household from 1903 to 1930, first aired in the United Kingdom 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.

Jean Marsh

Jean as Rose Buck. She co-created the program. She relates her life story in this interview. 

Q. I think a TV show qualifies as classic if the creators and performers are doing interviews about it 25 years later.

A. Twenty-five years! Isn’t it awful!?

Q. You only did “Upstairs, Downstairs” for five years, but it’s the topic journalists ask you about decades later, yes?

A. That’s right, and those five years were full of other things as well – places I lived, somebody I loved, traveling, other work. It’s odd. There are many oddities to this whole thing. Another example is, I was quite late realizing the impact the show was having in America. I was in a play in New York in the mid-’70s; I walked onstage at the first preview and I got a round of applause. I was playing a middle part, not a total lead. I thought, “Why are they applauding?” I looked over my shoulder to see if someone else had walked on behind me. And I thought, “Well, of course! You’re in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’! I suppose you’re well known now.”

Q. As you and Eileen Atkins developed “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the idea was for both of you to play maids. Why didn’t she act in the show?

A. She was working in the theater. Originally, as you say, we thought we’d play maids; this was just idle, really; but when we actually sold it, and it went into production, we had to really decide if we would do it. I chose the part that I had originally thought of for myself, and she simply chose not to do it, she didn’t want to be tied down.

Q. Was there a moment of genesis for the show, an “a-ha” moment?

A. No, it evolved more gradually. We had been trying to think of an idea for a television series. Certainly it was going to be about something that we understood. We had both come from a working class background, and we took a step away from us, into the past, and wrote about what we might have been like in our grandparent’s time.

Q. That must have been an interesting experience, to put on screen some essence of your own life, and examine it through the perspective of the past.

A. It was very interesting. I like to do that. You get some kind of reality and truth. You have passion.

I liked very much the feeling that I cared about “Upstairs, Downstairs.” That you’re not doing it to make money, you’re doing it because you really care. I’ve had a lot of passionate feelings in my life about the world, and I think, without writing a polemic, I’ve always tried to put some of that passion into what I do.

I was always trying to get more screen time for the downstairs people. Quite often, talking to a writer then, or other actors, I would explode and defend my class. The people involved in producing the program were more upstairs people. I thought at times that a sort of class system was at work. I fought it!

Obviously the servants were serving the upstairs people, so one could say, in theory, the story is about the masters, with the servants just serving them. But when Eileen and I thought of the idea, we wanted to show the lives of the servants more, really, than upstairs. We conceived it as about the downstairs people. In “The Forsyte Saga” people wear clean clothes, but you don’t know who’s washed and ironed them; people walk on clean floors, but you don’t know who’s washed them; people eat delicious food, but you don’t know who’s prepared it. When servants appear they’re usually rather comic characters. So, yes, I had to fight. But the interesting thing is, the most popular characters are the downstairs characters. So really, I didn’t have to worry about being slighted.

People in England have always been obsessed with the class system. It was such an inequity. You didn’t get on for your brains, you’d get on because of your accent, your money, nepotism.

Q. So you would make your feelings known while the show was being shot? Along the lines of, “Hey, let’s have more for us”?

A. Yes. And people listened to me. The writers would listen; they might not necessarily act on it but they would let me talk to them.

Q. So there’s a direct connection between your co-creation of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and your problem with the English class system.

A. Oh, it exists almost totally because of that.

Q. Yours alone? Or yours and Eileen’s?

A. Eileen’s too. Mine might be more pronounced – I don’t know – I think actually we feel the same about that. Not that I want any pity, or sympathy, for my background. I have no problem with it. People have had much worse upbringings than mine. I believe you shouldn’t blame your parents and your background for your failures in life roughly over the age of 25. I think after that, you can blame yourself!

Q. You and Eileen brought the idea for the show to John Hawkesworth – he’s an upper class guy, yes?

A. Oh yes, he’s very posh. But we didn’t take it to John Hawkesworth. He was hired by the TV studio. I took the idea to a producer that I had worked with, John Whitney, a very interesting man. I had done a television series with him called “The Informer” and I’d liked him and I thought he was a good producer.

Q. Was the Jean Marsh/John Hawkesworth nexus a creative source for the show?

A. Yes. I think it was a very good idea to have John Hawkesworth involved, and also the script editor, Freddie Shaugnessy, also a very posh man, maybe posher than John Hawkesworth. It was wonderful that two upstairs people were connected with two downstairs people, Eileen and I. I think the same thing happened with the writers. I think that Jeremy Paul was probably a downstairs person. Charlotte Bingham was an upstairs person. Rosemary Anne Sisson was middle class.

Q. Could you tell the brief version of your life story? With, perhaps, special reference to the English class system?

A. I was born in London on July 1, 1934. I’m 61. We had two rooms….(pause)….maybe only one room. No kitchen. No bathroom. My parents were very much working class, but not particularly typical. My mother was a barmaid, and she had been in service, and my father was a laborer at a press that produced a newspaper. He worked nights.

My mother was quite beautiful, and a very good singer, but had no chance to ever do anything with it. Her name is Emma. Emma Susannah Nightingale. Isn’t that nice? My father was a very bright, very odd, very interesting man. He was an extremist. He was a really left-wing Socialist. He believed in health foods, natural foods, long before anybody else did. He was an atheist. He was everything you could possibly think of that was extreme. He was also very funny. I think, had he not been working class, had he not gone to work the minute he left school, he might have been a writer. He, too, was very musical. His name was John Charles Henry Marsh.

I was born into a family that had gigantic chips on their shoulders really. Both of my parents should have done something else, but because they were working class, they were kept back. I inherited the chip. Bigger than a chip. It’s a baked potato almost. I feel very, very strongly that my parent’s lives were wasted because of the class system. They weren’t educated properly. Their accents meant that they weren’t accepted. The only time they ever ate comfortably in a restaurant was in America, in New York, where it doesn’t matter if someone is a Cockney, or whatever, so long as you’re dressed decently and you can pay. Nobody cares about your accent. They didn’t want to go to restaurants in England because they felt uncomfortable and self-conscious. They would eat in pubs. They felt that they didn’t belong. They felt awkward.

I was six years old during the Blitz. I became ill. Something the matter with my legs. It was probably nerves, to do with bombing; I saw dead bodies and all that. My parents, both being very musical, sent me to a dancing school with my sister Yvonne to strengthen my legs. A very cheap dancing school. Maybe 50 cents a lesson. My sister was a very good dancer. I wasn’t, but I knew immediately that I wanted to be an actress. So, they scraped and scraped, and I went to a theater school. In London. We moved a lot but we always lived in London.

I didn’t have a good education but I’m self-educated. My parents always encouraged me to read. I was very lucky that I had working class parents like that – they were interested in the arts, and encouraging about education, and they were thrilled for me to be an actress. There was no holding back about that.

I just sort of gradually got work. I would do a bit of television. I would dance in movies to make enough money to go into a provincial repertory company. Occasionally wonderful things would happen. I was in “Much Ado About Nothing” with John Gielgud when I was 22, so that was a little step forward. And then you’d slide back. And then “Upstairs, Downstairs” was a huge step forward.

Q. My feeling is, Rose and Hudson are the two most popular characters in the show. Is that your sense of it?

A. Yes, I think so.

Q. Please talk about Rose.

A. I made a core of her like me, to do with work. She was very good at her job. She has a spine. She’s not a loser, but she wouldn’t necessarily be perceived as a winner. It doesn’t seem as if she’s made a success of her life, but on her terms, she has. I think she’s probably got more brain than she uses.

I think she’s very….mercurial. A lot of her is dampened down. Her only chance of having a boyfriend, with Gregory, the Australian, when he appeared the first time – she was frightened of a man/woman relationship and she made up a story so that she didn’t have to go to Australia. It wasn’t just the physical that she was frightened of – she was frightened of going outside the order of 165 Eaton Place.

She was working for quite decent people; although her hours were long, her life wasn’t as bad as it could have been with other employers. There was security. She had a family belowstairs. Aunts and uncles, surrogate sisters, and so on. She’d known nothing else. She was a servant of some kind all her life. Can you imagine going to a household at age 12 and working, without your parents, without your sisters. So you transfer your affections and your responsibilities and your duties, and you make that new group of people your family. I think she was really frightened of leaving that.

She had very limited ambitions. She was not brave. That was ingrained. I think she was a natural product of her times.

Q. Did her accent come to you readily? There are words that she wraps her mouth around in a certain way – did that come easily or was it a result of study?

A. I didn’t have to work on it really. I am a Cockney, as is Rose. I just had to remember. There isn’t just one Cockney accent, there are probably four or five shades. It depends where you come from in London. I used the one I know best. Slight hint of my mother’s sister.

Q. Regarding her excellence at her job – would she realize that? And have it as a source of pride? Or would her self-effacement extend into that realm?

A. I think she knew. She knew enough about other servants, especially servants coming into the household; she could compare herself to them and know she was good.

Q. Did she ever have a deep physical romance?

A. No. Absolutely not. I think she would have, if Gregory hadn’t been killed during the war. I think she had changed by then; I think the opportunities of going outside the house during the war – she became a bus conductress during the war – gave her a bit more courage. I think she would have gone to Australia, married Gregory, had children, been on the sheep farm. Once he was killed I think she closed up again. I don’t think she could ever have had a relationship again. That was her one opportunity. And I think it had to be someone like an Australian or an American. An Englishman wouldn’t have been able to sweep her off her feet.


A. She was used to Englishmen. They wouldn’t have been able to disarm her. She would always have been able to deal with their flattery; she could have brushed it off. A foreigner would have been able to disarm her.

Q. What about her and Hudson as a couple? I know it sounds weird, vaguely incestuous, but I always had the thought, well, here we have two vigorous people who like one another, in constant proximity. I think of Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner playing Mary Richards and Lou Grant – you know, maybe.

A. (Laughs.) Yes. But no. Rose knew Hudson too well. She treated him like an uncle. Right at the end, he and Mrs. Bridges get together, but I imagine that wouldn’t have been consummated. It would have been a mariage blanc.

Q. Why was Mrs. Bridges “Mrs.”?

A. It’s a courtesy title, an honorary title. The cook was always called called “Mrs.” whether she was married or not.

Q. What is the situation in Britain today vis-a-vis servants? Obviously it’s enormously different from a century ago.

A. It’s a different thing entirely. Most of the servants here now are not English. If you have a very grand household, a ducal household, you might have a couple of English people, but most live-in servants are almost always whatever is the new generation of immigrants. Also, servants aren’t really needed anymore, with vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and so on, and the laundry going to the smart laundry place.

Q. Do you own a piece of “Upstairs, Downstairs”?

A. Yes. I get a residual for the idea as much as I get a residual for the acting. It’s a very low fee. I think I got something like $100 an episode initially for the idea, and my royalty is based on that rate. I’ve got a saying: “If it had been made in America I’d be Mary Tyler Moore. As it is, I’m Mary Tyler Less.”

Q. Would you feel comfortable saying how much money you get annually now?

A. It varies. It’s unpredictable. This year we thought they were going to repeat the whole series; it would be network and everything; I would have got, I don’t know, maybe sort of $25,000 a year. But as it happens they’re only going to repeat the first 13, and it’s going to be on at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and it’s not going to be network, it’s only going to be in London. The series is going out on video, so that might make us all some money. But it’s really better not to think about that. Sometimes a little something comes from Mexico. Or a lot more comes from Canada. But it’s nothing big. I’ve got a very small car, nine years old; I’ve got a mortgage. I’m not Mary Tyler Moore!

Q. Do you have a theory about why the show was, and is, so loved?

A. It’s impossible to analyze. I don’t think it’s the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the cast or writers or crew. I think it’s an accident. Some magic kissed “Upstairs, Downstairs” that all of its intentions were realized. Everyone loved working on it, I’m sure that was a major factor. The cast, the crew – everyone loved working on it. There were three or four different crews at the studio and they would fight to get on it. It was just one of those magical things.

A. Could you give an update on a few of the performers? I know that Angela Baddeley, Gordon Jackson, and David Langton have died.

A. You know about Pauline Collins. She’s a successful actress. She was nominated for an Oscar about two years ago for a film called “Shirley Valentine.” She did that in England as a play, and on Broadway. Simon Williams was a neighbor of mine for many years – he is appearing in a play which he also wrote. He’s written a couple of books and has been in a television series. I don’t know what Rachel Gurney is doing. I think Nicola Pagett still works. I don’t think Jenny Tomlinson is working as an actress. Jacqueline Tong works sometimes. Christopher Beeny works sometimes as an actor; he’s also a builder. Meg Wynne Owen is a landscape gardener now – isn’t that interesting! Joan Benhem died in the early 1980s. Lesley-Anne Down lives in Los Angeles.

Q. Did you retain any items from the set for your own memories?

A. No! It would have been stealing! They gave me a couple of things to do with clothes but I gave them away to some sort of auction. I’ve got maybe two or three scripts lying around with my scribble all over them.

Q. What were your emotions as you walked through the house in the last episode, hearing those voices?

A. It was very strange. I felt very….torn. As if I was leaving my family. It was especially difficult for me because they recorded that show out of order; I was going to do a play on Broadway, and I had to leave the country. They filmed the last one for my sake early because I was going. It was very moving. I’d been so fond of everybody.

Gordon Jackson as Hudson.

Q. Who were your favorites, among the cast members?

A. Gordon Jackson. Ater that, Angela Baddeley.

Q. Who were your least favorite?

A. I wouldn’t tell you that! It would change from time to time. (Pause.) I actually was really fond of everybody. It was a remarkably friendly and supportive company. They were lovely to me.

Q. Any thought of revisiting 165 Eaton Place now?

A. I wouldn’t do it again. I think it’s better to leave well alone. We know that we did a really good television series. (See here for an update.)

Q. I want to mention a spoiler alert at this point for people reading this interview. I’m going to ask you about a climactic moment in the last season.

A. OK.

Q. My question is about the traumatic night in the wake of the stock market crash. This is one of the greatest hours of TV in the medium’s history, in my opinion. Why did Rose survive and James succumb?

A. Because she had a spine. She was made of sterner stuff. She had been tested and tried so many times and come through. At a moment of crisis like that, privilege is not the bottom line. You look at people like the Kennedy family. Some survived; some became drug addicts and died. Look at the British royal family; some survive and some don’t. Look at various families – it’s odd to look at the differences between a brother and a sister, or two brothers and two sisters. The difference in their achievements, in their resourcefulness, their capacity to thrive and to make something of their lives. I don’t mean you have to make money or be well-known – just lead a good life. (Pause.) Some people don’t.

Q. Thank you for your time.

A. Thank you very much. ●