The public and private lives of the Bellamy Family and their servants became appointment television and cemented the schedule of fledgling PBS show Masterpiece Theatre with the series Upstairs Downstairs.
Created by actors Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, their original idea was a series about two housemaids set in the Victorian era. As the idea evolved and the producers got involved, it became the story of two families – the one upstairs and the one downstairs.
Residing at 165 Eaton Place, the upstairs was all about the Bellamy Family, Richard, a Member of Parliament and his well-to-do wife Lady Marjorie and their two children James and Elizabeth. Richard is the son of a country parson who has married well, while Lady Marjorie’s parents are an Earl and a Countess and not happy their daughter didn’t marry someone of the nobility.
Downstairs, the servants are overseen by butler Mr. Hudson and cook Mrs Bridges as well as maids and footmen: Daisy, Rose, Emily, Alfred, Sarah, Pearce Ruby and Edward.
Starting in the Edwardian era, the series debuted on ITV in October 1971, and slowly gained its audience despite its late Sunday night timeslot. The series was later picked up by the BBC and then sent overseas, gaining audiences in North America and Australia.
Each episode took 10 days to create with the actors going through rigorous rehearsals before the two days of taping.
Over the five seasons, the family got older, got married, servants came and servants left, and they all went through World War 1 and the 1920s. Ending in 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression, the series showed a slice of English history that hadn’t been shown on television in such detail and through the eyes of so many characters.
The series was honoured with numerous awards including BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Emmys for the series as well as the individual actors. Creator Jean Marsh won an Emmy for her role in the series in 1975.
And its effect was a long-time fascination with a time period and way of life that doesn’t exist for most of us.