Created by British actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, the television series Upstairs, Downstairs was not only wildly popular during its initial runs on both side of the Atlantic, but also hugely influential. It resulted in a spin-off (Thomas & Sarah), an American version (the far less successful Beacon Hill), a reboot/sequel series in 2010, as well as served as inspiration for many other TV series, including Downton Abbey.
Both Marsh and Atkins originally conceived their idea of two serving maids, Rose (Marsh) and Sarah (Atkins) working in a Victorian household as a stage comedy. They eventually added the characters of the wealthy family they served and changed the setting to the Edwardian era. They took their idea to a television production company. Atkins had to drop out due to a theater commitment and was replaced by Pauline Collins as Sarah.
(Marsh and Atkins would both appear in the 2010 reboot/sequel series—Marsh reprising the role of Rose, and Atkins in an entirely new role.)
London Weekend Television picked up the series but had so little faith in it they did not broadcast the first season until a year after it was taped. With little fanfare, it finally debuted in 1971. The show soon found an ever-increasing and devoted following.
I adore the series and had many beloved episodes to choose from to write about for the blogathon. I settled on “Guest of Honour” because in many ways it’s one of the most Upstairs, Downstairs-iest of the show’s episodes.
Richard Bellamy (David Langton), a Conservative MP, and his wife Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney) are thrilled to find out King Edward VII has chosen to come to their house to dine. Both are not nearly as thrilled as their cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), who is determined to make a memorable meal to satisfy the king’s legendary appetite. Their butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) is also honored at the thought of royalty visiting the house but is less impressed by the monarch himself.
Rose is incensed that she is not permitted to serve, as the king prefers women not to serve at table. She is relegated to working behind a screen.
Everything is going along swimmingly until Sarah, a former servant currently pregnant by the Bellamys’ son James, decides to show up. Even worse, she has gone into labor, so they must find a way to conceal her presence until the king and the guests leave.
Except when the doctor walks in and unwittingly asks the king to “show him to the young lady’s bedroom,” Sarah is successfully spirited to a bedroom to give birth and most of the guests are none the wiser. Only their closest friend, Lady Prudence (Joan Benham) is made aware of what has been happening downstairs.
Tragically, Sarah’s baby, a boy, is stillborn. Lady Marjorie and Richard argue over whether or not to tell James, who was bundled off to India after his relationship with Sarah and massive debts were discovered by his parents. They finally agree it’s best to let him know the truth.
While Sarah is recovering, Lady Marjorie visits her and offers her employment once again in the Bellamy household. Sarah is puzzled over her status. She muses she’s not really upstairs or downstairs anymore, but somewhere in between. Lady Marjorie suggests she think about where she wants to belong and where she wants to take her meals. Sarah is stunned by Lady Marjorie’s kindness, considering how much trouble she has caused the family.
An argument breaks out downstairs among the servants. Lady Marjorie’s maid, Roberts, is against letting “that slut” eat with them. However, she is overruled by the others, and grudgingly agrees to go along.
Rose gives Sarah the news, but emphasizes that this time, she has to behave herself. Sarah promises she will be good.
I say this episode is the most Upstairs, Downstairs-iest episode because it uses the visit of the king to highlight the symbiotic relationships between the upstairs and downstairs residents of 165 Eaton Place. The servants see the king’s visit as an honor to them as much as their employers. Richard and Lady Marjorie are dependent on their servants exceeding themselves in order to pull off a successful event.
It also highlights some of the cracks in the relationships between the servants and their masters. Hudson, of Scottish extraction, is happy about a visit by the king but amusingly voices a preference for a Stuart monarch over a Hanoverian one, even though a Stuart has not sat on the throne for two centuries. The servants are also rather appalled by the thought of the king bringing one of his mistresses to dine and Rose makes fun of his promiscuous lifestyle.
The pregnant Sarah suddenly showing up is almost like a bomb thrown into the event by an anarchist. The Bellamys, who thought they had successfully tucked out of sight their son’s indiscretion, are forced to deal with it on the worst possible night of their lives.
Sarah, who had found a modicum success and independence as a singer before her pregnancy, is now forced to lower herself back down to the level of servant, because she can’t see herself as the equal of the upstairs residents. She also must acknowledge Lady Marjorie’s offer as a supreme kindness.
We know Sarah well enough by this episode that she will not submissively retake her role as servant and keep to her promise to “behave.” As is borne out in later episodes, she will misbehave quite a bit, once again thumbing her nose at the system that kept people servants for almost their entire lives. Even as we revel in the nostalgia for a bygone age, Sarah reminds us that it wasn’t really all that.