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Upstairs Downstairs: The return of a classic

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As the BBC prepares to take TV Audiences back to the good old times with the revival of seventies drama Upstairs Downstairs, Maggie Brown visits the set and speaks to some of the key players

Upstairs Downstairs should be the centrepiece Christmas drama special for BBC1, but off screen some anxious executives are wondering whether the return of a hoary ITV favourite was sensible.

“I bet you it will be compared to Downton Abbey,” said one commercially focused BBC manager, “and it will look like a poor relation, against an original piece of drama created by Julian Fellowes.”

Peter Bazalgette, the former independent producer and media expert, goes further, saying dealing with the inheritance from a former BBC1 controller, Jay Hunt, is a challenge for the new one, Danny Cohen.

On the other hand, the appreciative eight million-plus audience for the now recommissioned Downton Abbey proves hunger for period drama is as sharp as ever. The downside for the BBC is mitigated because it traditionally wins the seasonal ratings battle against ITV.

During a visit to the set of the production, filmed in meticulous detail for high definition, it is clear that Upstairs Downstairs in its 2010 version is not a slavish revival of a long-rested piece, though Downton Abbey’s budget and setting, in Highclere Castle, is bigger and more visually impressive.

Ben Stephenson, head of BBC drama commissioning, brushes concerns aside: “No, I’m not worried. They are very, very different. Heidi [Thomas, who scripted Upstairs Downstairs] and Julian are completely different writers. As different as can be. Heidi is very funny.”

Her scripts for Cranford, Ballet Shoes and Lilies, all for the BBC, have proven that she can inject pathos into drama too.

“Also, she draws a lot on the period 1936, the dawn of Hitler’s rise to power,” says Stephenson.

It has taken about two years to come to screen, after Thomas and Eileen Atkins, one of the co-creators of Upstairs Downstairs, met on the site of Cranford, where Atkins played Miss Deborah Jenkins. Thomas and Atkins enlisted the support of Piers Wenger, head of drama for BBC Wales, who speedily pitched it to his boss.

“He’s one of the people I trust the most,” says Stephenson.

In the original, the Upstairs family were the Bellamys, rich and flamboyant. But the reinvention involves two sisters – one married into the Holland family – who inherit and reoccupy the Eaton Square house that is shabby after a period of neglect.

Atkins, who had no screen part in the original, is Lady Maud, the imperious mother- in-law who rules the roost, assisted by her Indian-born secretary, played by Art Malik.

Jean Marsh, the original perky housemaid, Rose Buck, and the second creator of the drama, is the elderly, put-upon housekeeper.

Marsh, 76, says there have been several attempts to revive Upstairs Downstairs, including interest from a film company, in the eighties, and even tentative plans for an American musical. These came to nothing until now.

I caught up with her and the team on set in late September, towards the end of a nine-week shoot.

The Downstairs kitchen and servants’ hall sets are built with slavish period detail in Upper Boat, Pontypridd, the home of Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Sherlock. The Upstairs sets are in Bridgend, with the exteriors of a cream stucco mansion filmed in Leamington Spa.

The original series won seven Emmys, two BAFTAs and was screened in 70 countries. This version is co-funded with America’s Masterpiece for PBS, (Masterpiece Theatre backed the original 1970-76 series). It is not clear how well it will sell internationally this time.

The casting is pure BBC. Keeley Hawes plays the mistress of the house, Lady Agnes Holland, and her husband, Sir Hallam Holland, is Ed Stoppard.Claire Foy is the sister, Lady Persephone, Anne Reid is the cook and other key actors include Adrian Scarborough and Ellie Kendrick.

Saul Metzstein, director of the third, final episode, says he is pleased with the warmth and lighting of the set. “There are not that many chances to work on a classical drama. This is action, but stately action, hopefully not too slow,” he says.

“They are a very practised cast. They had five to six weeks rehearsing, London based, and have been working here together, so they know what they are doing.”

“It’s thrilling, of course, that the BBC is doing it,” says Marsh, after she has been escorted back to her trailer following a morning of gruelling takes. She refers to a mistake she made, wrongly calling the mistress of the house Lady Marjorie (as in the original series) rather than Lady Agnes.

“It’s just embedded in me, embedded,” she laughs. “But this is not a remake, its a continuation. I’m the only character in both.”

For Marsh, who in recent years has written three novels, one of the biggest changes is the way it is made.

“For the former, we rehearsed for eight days, then we were in the studios [at LWT, on the South Bank] just two days, with one day for dress rehearsals, and one afternoon, three and a half hours, for the recording,” she says. “It was very theatrical and we’d react to that.”

By contrast, I had just watched for two hours endless retakes for one small scene. But then it has to be just right for high definition.

“This is just an upside-down production,” observes Marsh, with nothing shot in sequence.

“This morning I was up at 5am, here at 6.30am, I’ll be lucky to be finished at 7pm. I’ve done lots of filming but this is very intense. Currently, I don’t know how people have private lives. I am enjoying it. I have been given a fabulous apartment, right on Cardiff Bay, with a balcony.”

So why was Upstairs Downstairs successful for so long?

“It was set within living memory for quite a lot of people,” says Marsh. “My parents were both cockneys. I was two in 1936. I can remember the blackshirts marches – my father marched against Mosley – it was such a vivid period.”

She adds: “Eileen and I insisted 40 years ago that servants should not be comic parts, they must have characters of their own and react to what happens.”

The conclusion must be that if you can successfully relaunch Doctor Who after 17 years, why not Upstairs Downstairs after 35? And it will be interesting to see if Cohen backs a second series.

This feature appears as part of The Stage’s Christmas preview in this week’s (December 2) issue. For more details, see our In the Paper blog.

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