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 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. Here are interviews with three key participants in the show.

Jeremy Paul

Jeremy Paul onstage at a conference.

Jeremy Paul wrote many “Upstairs, Downstairs” episodes and also wrote extensively for other TV programs, including the Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, and for the theater.

Update 2011: Paul died in May, 2011, at the age of 71. An obituary is here.

Q. I’ve heard that the atmosphere around “Upstairs, Downstairs,” as it was being created, included a fair bit of drama behind the scenes, having to do with the search for writers.

A. I was spared a lot of that. I was slightly late on the scene. I wasn’t there when Jean (Marsh) and Eileen (Atkins) brought the idea to John (Hawkesworth) and they were deciding how to construct it. When I arrived they had more or less decided what the show would be, or at least start to be. I joined a pretty happy and balanced team, an excited team. I had a good relationship with John and with (script editor) Freddie Shaugnessy.

As time went on, we had disagreements, and lots of fights in the normal way, but of course one of the things about creativity in any field is the ability to have these fights and still keep the atmosphere very positive. I took the line that Hawkesworth and Shaugnessy knew that world, the world of 165 Eaton Place, better than I did; that I was learning about that particular upper class world, and servant world, that I didn’t come from. I was the new boy and quite humble about it and didn’t want to rock the ship too much really.

It was a very happy time for me. In the early days they gathered in a number of writers. As time went on, people came and went. Finally it was the four of us, with Rosemary Anne Sisson and myself making the other two, with John and Freddie. By that time it had become a more focused enterprise. In the early days it had wandered around a bit, searching for different kinds of stories. Not sure of its own strength, I think.

The TV company itself didn’t have much faith in it, at first. When “Upstairs, Downstairs” started, it was put out pretty late at night. The mindset was, who wanted an old-fashioned show about masters and servants? It didn’t seem to be right with the times. It seemed to have everything against it. Except that it was exactly the perennial story that everybody responds to, really. We all hold latent feelings, I think, about the strong traditions of the past, questions about where those traditions come from. By a sheer fluke we hit exactly the right time for people to examine their origins, what class was all about, and privilege, and things like that.

Q. Yes! In the wake of the ’60s. Yes. But its popularity dawned on us rather slowly. People kept saying, “I never miss it.” And then they moved it to a better time on the television schedule. The audience – upper class, middle class, and working class – all had their stories woven into it, and they all seemed to be watching.

Q. Do you have a theory about why it was such a hit in America?

A. I think perhaps you love the show in exactly the same way that I love Westerns. I was brought up on American Westerns, American movies of all kinds, and love them to this day. Also, perhaps you look to England as some sort of role model for, I don’t know, something. I think we need to know what the old rules were, even if we decide to depart from them, you know. I think we have a serious need to know where we come from, why we behave as we do.

Q. I think the key there is, it’s a deeper need than nostalgia. There’s a veneer of nostalgia, but it goes deeper.

A. It’s a fundamental question – how did things get done by our forebears?

Q. Could you talk about writing a script? For example, how long did you require to create one?

A. Once I got the hang of things, it would be three to four weeks for a first draft. And then, depending on how well it was received, you could go on a bit, changing things. I have a feeling John Hawkesworth wrote a script in about four days. He had a deft gift for storytelling in a certain kind of way. He was an art director and painter, as perhaps you know, and conceived of things in terms of colors and brushstrokes. I was rather more cerebral and much slower than John. But once you knew the characters, once the actors were in place, you could hear the words being spoken. In your head.

Q. Did you connect particularly well with any of the characters, in terms of hearing their voices?

A. I connected pretty well I suppose with all of them. I did have my favorites. In a long-running series that makes actors popular, there are two different approaches they take. Some actors want to preserve what they’ve got. These actors are liable to say, “I wouldn’t say that.” Or, “My character wouldn’t do that.” That remark often comes out if you throw them difficulties or dramatic problems that make them uncomfortable. The other type of actor, who’s the actor I cherish, and I would put Gordon Jackson at the top of this list, and also Jean Marsh, and certainly in the later stages Simon Williams – they would say, “Give me something new. Give me some new aspect of my character that even I don’t know about yet. Make me do something unpredictable. Excite me.” Then I would meet the challenge.

Sometimes when one went out on those kind of limbs, it didn’t work, and we all got nervous. The writers. There was the famous time when Mrs. Bridges stole a baby and we all got terribly nervous about having overstepped the mark. We said, “No, we don’t want anymore of that. I don’t think the public wants anymore of that either.” Occasionally I think we overstepped, with the best intentions in our hearts. But often, going out on limbs worked.

I actually wrote certain things with Simon, for his character. I remember writing one key passage, in the episode “All the King’s Horses,” sitting with him on Richmond Hill, in Surrey, which I think Richmond, Virginia, is named after, a very beautiful place looking down over the river. We invented, together, this passage. By then, the actor and writer were so entwined, so of one voice – we’d come a long way together over the years. We were friends. I said, “It’s a beautiful evening, let’s go have a pint, and sit out, and work this out.” And that’s what we did. There was no jealousy about who was writing what. He’s a writer himself, now.

I recall one episode that I wrote for Gordon, “The Understudy,” as an example of moving into new territory in a very gratifying way. He won awards for that one.

Q. This is the famous heart attack episode. I’ll just read from a sheet I have here: “During an important dinner party, Hudson collapses from a mild heart attack, and is sent away to get a complete rest.”

A. That’s it. There’s a scene where he’s in bed, and he’s reading poetry with Richard. We discover something new about Hudson – that he loves poetry. The master and servant find a whole new dimension to their relationship.

Q. That’s a beautiful scene and a splendid episode. I recall the stricken look on Hudson’s face as he lay in bed and heard the clamor outside his room, and he couldn’t be a part of it.

A. That program came about because they suddenly needed an extra episode. They’d extended one series and quickly asked if I could write what we used to call a “gusset episode,” where they wanted to slip one in, to extend the series.

Q. That episode revolves around a dinner party, as does another remarkable chapter, when the king comes to dinner.

A. Yes. They ate a lot in those days. That was one of the real focal points of the whole social atmosphere. Such stories beautifully used all elements of the house, from the moment when Ruby was scrubbing potatoes to the first mouthful. Dinners encapsulated, very economically in dramatic terms, the whole strata of British society really. Also, these episodes used just a couple of sets, so they didn’t cost too much money.

Q. Did you retain any items from the sets for your home?

A. I don’t think I did. You don’t think, at the time, that you’re involved with anything so extraordinary! I’ve recently been involved with another program which sort of carries the same impact, the Sherlock Holmes series; somebody asked me the other day, have I got a piece of Baker Street, and I said no. I never thought to pick up or nick any memento from the set. I’ve got other mementos and so forth on my mantelpiece. The Edgar Allan Poe Award sits there, known as an Edgar, for one of the Sherlocks, which I’m proud of.

Q. Could we talk more about James? I’d like to ask you to free associate about him, your understanding of his character, what his central dilemma was. (Spoiler alert for newcomers to the show – we discuss the last couple of seasons here.)

A. I think maybe I had a singular view of James, and this was why I sort of asked to take him on, really, at the end. I think if you speak to Rosemary Anne Sisson, she saw James in much more romantic terms, as the man she could have loved, the romantic vision of the aristocrat with everything going for him. I saw – and I think Simon was good at developing this, subtly – a man damaged – well, not damaged – let’s say, partly damaged by his own privilege.

He had a pretty powerful mother. His father had high expectations of him that he felt uncomfortable with. He got through his early days all right, in the manner of young guys in those days. As long as nothing was really asked of them, outside their social environment, they could get by, doing nothing, really, or not very much. What really smashed him up was the war. I wrote an episode in the war, the one in which he should have died. At Passchendaele, I think, he was literally at the mercy of a German officer, who inexplicably doesn’t pull the trigger on him. It haunts James – that he should have died at that moment. It was actually a story I borrowed from Robert Graves. I’m now owning up to that – it’s in “Good-Bye to All That.” We were occasionally prone to stealing other people’s good stories.

James thought he could escape this haunted, desolate feeling after the war by throwing himself into “real life” – into politics. He came back to an England that was as damaged as he was, really. He had his attempt at politics, which was an effort to assuage his father. His father who, James always thought, was not a successful politician. Because if he had been successful, he’d have been in the government. He was almost too much of a moderate, I suppose.

Q. Ah, now, this is a distinction I didn’t pick up on. You’re saying Richard wasn’t in the government – which is to say, in British terms, he wasn’t in the cabinet, the inner governing circle around the prime minister, and thus wasn’t seen as successful by his son.

A. Yes. Here was Richard saying all the time to James, “You should be like me, you should be a serious politician.” Somewhere James says, “Well, you weren’t so successful, why did I have to be like you?”

So he found he couldn’t hack it in politics. Once politics was taken away from him – the occupation that he was sort of born to – he was a lost man, really. He had to wander around through the 1920s searching for love, not finding it, not finding a way out. He can’t get out through Lesley-Anne Down. He can’t get out through marriage. There’s nowhere for him to go. Finally he thinks he’s found a way out by going to America, thinking he’s made a killing. He makes the money, and comes back, and the Wall Street crash hits him amidships. He’s bankrupt. And looking back from that, he remembered, “I’ve been a dead man for 10 years. I should have died in 1918.”

He’s a tragic figure, I think, with the seeds of his tragedy laid early on by the fact that he was a man born to this extraordinary privilege.

Q. Did privilege make him passive or weak somehow? 

A. I think privilege was great if you had gifts. You could use the privilege to get yourself to a position where you could show your talent. If, basically, you had no great gifts – which I think again is James’ tragedy; he had social graces and a certain charisma, but no special talent for anything in particular – then where does he go? You can be your mother’s boy, but mother went down in the Titanic. You can inherit the title finally, and deal with the estate, if there’s a big estate. Which is what a lot of upper class people do. They simply go back to managing the land and the estate. But the Bellamys didn’t have that kind of money, so he couldn’t find that kind of role, of benign benefactor to his working people. He had no role in the land. No role in politics. There were very few options, actually. You didn’t go to college and come out with a degree in law or whatever, in the way you can now, and sort of get out of your background. You were more or less trapped in your background forever.

There are a great number of James-like figures still knocking around. That whole Churchill family. We’ve got a guy called Jamie Blandford, he’s currently the junior Marlborough or something like that – he’s constantly – he’s a complete mess. Drugs, jail, a blown marriage. They’ve tried to disown him. He’s very rich; he owns Blenheim and God knows what else. He’ll inherit the title of Duke of Marlborough. A tragic figure. Certainly at a fairly high level I think most of our dukes are a pretty ragged lot; I don’t think they’re cutting it too well at the moment. But further down the line I know people with privileged backgrounds who really did get out and are now marvelous lawyers. Actors. They’ve used their privilege to make something of their lives which didn’t depend on their backgrounds.

Q. There’s something to be said, of course, for making one’s way in the world by working eight or 10 hours a day. Or choosing to do so and committing to it.

A. That’s right. And then there’s the topic of love. People such as James Bellamy – in terms of the love of a good woman, you’re limited as to your choices. These young aristocratic men, certainly in the older days, were always trying to find love with the maids, really, or with actresses. The women held in front of them by pushy mothers were just as screwed up as they were. They very seldom found lasting love within their own class. It’s very interesting, that. It was so limited.

Q. Did James and Georgina ever have a full love affair?

A. I have a feeling it never became a sexual affair, but I think it’s rather nice that none of us quite know. You could perhaps ask all four of us, all four of the writers who worked in the later days, John, Freddie, Rosemary, and me, and get four different answers. I don’t think ambiguity is a bad thing. I think that’s what keeps things alive in the writing – that ambiguity. Possibly at the time I needed, for my stories about the two of them, to assume that somewhere they had. But they quickly realized that wasn’t the answer.

Romance went a long way in those days. You could be romantic and in love and you didn’t necessarily go to bed. You went to bed with maids and actresses. There was an old-fashioned thing called “virginity” I think, a long time ago.

Q. Was Georgina a virgin on her wedding night?

A. I would have thought not. Certainly the war would have stirred things up. But the trouble was, you’d be very hard-pushed ever to find out, because the covering-up, in the first part of the century, right through to about the ’60s, was so extensive. There was so much hypocrisy. I did a series with John Hawkesworth called “Danger UXB”; I remember writing a “dirty weekend” episode with Anthony Andrews and Judy Geeson. It was very sexy – because of the war, all the men thought they were going to die, and this lent a charged atmosphere to things, yet it was a ghastly thing for anybody to find out about such a weekend. They had to go to a very obscure hotel in Bromley, a suburb of London. Everything was swept under the carpet.

Q. You wrote several episodes that prominently feature Rose.

A. I took on Rose quite extensively. I got fascinated at different times with different characters, but possibly I gave the most attention to Rose. When I thought she was being neglected. (Laughs.) It was always interesting to go ’round and say, “Who’s getting a rough deal at the moment? Let’s develop something for them.” I developed a whole relationship for her with an Australian, Gregory, played by Keith Bower. That was me, writing for Rose.

Q. Did Rose decline going with Gregory at the last minute because of her fear of a new life?

A. Yes. I think that was it. She couldn’t leave the womb of the family. She didn’t quite have the guts to do that.

Q. Her life was as womb-like as some of the upstairs people.

A. I think that was true of a lot of the people downstairs. It required great nerve and confidence to get out. It was fascinating when Edward went out after the war to make his way in the world, and had to come back, because there was nothing there for him. They welcomed him back. They could never see or feel his sense of his own failure.

Q. What was the eventual fate of Edward and Daisy, do you think?

A. Not good, I think. I believe they would have finally made each other unhappy and broken up. She was too tough for him. I think she would have demanded too much of him. I think she would have gotten quite ambitious.

Q. Please speculate about the ultimate fate of some of the others.

A. For Hudson, and Mrs. Bridges, the world they served died under their feet in the 1930s. I don’t think they could have gone to another household. So they started a boarding house with Ruby, by the sea; I think they may have made quite a good effort at that.

Virginia and Richard – I think it would have turned into something that was….OK. I think Richard would have been haunted by the events of 1930, the death of his son. He would have not had a happy old age. But she would have looked after him. The whole world they were so sure of broke up. Those who lived their prime in that secure world would have found it very difficult to make much sense of their lives after the war. That’s a generalization, but I think that, in the main, this was something that was in the air. Their children could embrace the 1920s and go wild, but members of the earlier generation were seriously left behind.

Q. What about Georgina and Robert?

A. (Pause.) I don’t know. I didn’t have much to do with Robert. (Pause.) Maybe Georgina would have settled down. I’m not entirely sure of that. I think she may have been a restless soul right through. She might well have lived to 80 and been a marvelous 80-year-old, alert and alive. I think Robert would have dropped off, he would have died, and she would have become one of those wonderful old dowagers whose obituaries you read now. Battling on to the end. Wonderful to younger people. Great aunts, you know, with so much to tell, and to give back, to younger generations. I think that would have been her role, finally.

Q. I can see it. Maybe there’s a series or movie there for Lesley-Anne Down in another 25 years. It could include flashbacks; it could be called “The Oldest Living Victorian Lady Tells All.” Let me ask you, finally, about Rose. She followed Richard and Virginia to their new home.

A. I think she would have stayed with them, and not known that she had become the dried-up old maid. She would have kept a spark going, but at the same time, I think perhaps she would be rather a sad figure in the end, and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, quite own up to that. She would have her memories that would sustain her. She would have remained the much-loved servant, and never really have found love. In a sense, it was a bleak ending.

Q. That bleakness is a definite aspect of their lives, isn’t it.

A. Yes, and I think a truthful one. I think the next generations along the line – they’d be fine. I think some of them – the barely-born ones, the ones born in the 1920s – would get, or be, free spirits. And probably get killed in the Second World War or something like that. (Pause.) It’s a pretty tough century.

Q. Thank you for your time.

A. A great pleasure!