Heart attack and stroke won't keep me from the show I love! Upstairs Downstairs creator Jean Marsh vows to keep acting
Jean Marsh — best known as Rose Buck, the parlour maid turned housekeeper in Upstairs Downstairs — was giving a talk to a group of fans about her life and acting career when she found herself the centre of some unexpected attention.
‘Suddenly, I realised people weren’t so much listening to me as watching me,’ she says. ‘I thought, “Why are they looking at me in such a strange way”
And when an ambulance arrived, it was a great shock to be told that it was me they had come for. It was an extraordinary thing because I was ill — I’d had a stroke and a heart attack — but I didn’t realise it.’
No stopping her: Jean Marsh has vowed to carry on, despite suffering from a stroke AND a heart attack in the last year
She was taken from the event at a hotel
in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, to the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital.
‘Even as they were wheeling me away, I was asking, “Where am I going
What’s the matter” In the hospital I asked if I could go home to my
flat in Chelsea.
The doctor said,“No, I don’t think you will be doing that for a while.” I said I was fine but they told me, “No you’re looking a bit odd.” My hand did look a bit funny and they said, “You’ve had a stroke.”
‘A stroke I had no idea. I didn’t think there was anything the matter with me physically because I was still moving. Even the next morning, when I woke up in my hospital bed, I was still convinced they’d got it wrong.
I looked around the ward at the other patients and saw a lot of elderly women. I thought they looked awfully poorly, so I got up and started helping them do things!’
Friends arrived to see her and said, ‘You know you really are quite ill’, but all Jean wanted was to get home. ‘Finally I thought, well maybe something is wrong,’ she says. ‘Then for about six days I gradually found out things were happening.’
Meanwhile, with only two weeks to go before filming was scheduled to begin at the BBC’s Cardiff studios for a new series of the revived Upstairs Downstairs — and with 77-year-old Jean due to appear in all six episodes — scriptwriter Heidi Thomas drew up three alternative plans of action.
Plan A was to leave the series as originally written on the assumption that Jean would make a quick recovery and be allowed back to work.
Marsh first revived her role as Rose Buck in Upstairs Downstairs in 2010, and the show is to return to our screens this Sunday
Plan B was to reduce her role drastically, and give her a small presence in just two episodes provided her doctors agreed.
And Plan C was the worst possible scenario —that Jean would have to be written out of the series altogether.
‘I didn’t know any of this at the time,’ says Jean now. ‘I just wanted to leave hospital and get back to work. After two weeks, I persuaded them to move me from hospital in Gloucester to one near my London home, the Chelsea and Westminster. Then the doctor said I hadn’t just had a stroke, as I’d been told, but a little heart attack as well.
‘I didn’t believe that, either. I told them I’ve always had a heart murmur, a rapid heart beat, but over the years I’d just got on with it. They were worried because I’d lost a stone in weight, but that was because I didn’t like the food.
Marsh (far right) with Gordon Jackson, David Langton, Angela Baddely, and Simon Williams from an episode in 1973
‘All that arguing with them must have worked in my favour, because eventually, after a week, they told me I could go home. I explained that I was well able to cook for myself, and I have a lady who comes in and will do things for me. I wouldn’t go hungry, or be lonely.
‘But I still had to go back to hospital for therapy three days a week. And the doctors said I could go back to work too, but do no more than four hours a day. But I was so worried about letting everyone down’.
So Plan B was adopted. It was agreed Jean would appear only in episodes three and six. Her absence from housekeeping duties at No. 165 Eaton Place, Sir Hallam and Lady Holland’s Belgravia home, would be explained by the staff as an enforced stay in a sanatorium due to a bout of TB.
When we meet, with filming over and Upstairs Downstairs beginning on TV this weekend, Jean is still frail, but clearly full of fighting spirit.
‘I knew I was going to be all right, because you can’t have a stroke and be an actress.
You’ve got to get better. So I was doing everything to achieve that. I was reading sonnets and Shakespeare. People stopped me in the street to ask me if I was still ill, and I’d say, “Oh no, not very.”
The revival of Upstairs Downstairs has been a big hit for the BBC, and it has been portrayed as a rival to Downton Abbey
The most important thing is that you tick over and every day you get a bit better.’
After she left hospital, she was naturally anxious to rejoin the cast of Upstairs Downstairs.
Writer Heidi Thomas invited her to a ‘welcome back’ dinner in Cardiff.
‘I wanted to show them that I could do it. And I said, “I’m all right, don’t even think about me not rejoining you.” Returning was very sentimental for me because everybody loved me. They said, “Oh you’re much nicer than you normally are!”
‘Everybody was there, all the cast, all the crew and I knew they were looking at me and thinking, “Oh what a relief!” And when we started filming my episodes, they all forgot about it. I think they felt, “Oh well, she’s all right now, we’re back to normal.” ’
Marsh has been on British TV screens for a number of decades, and has also been a scriptwriter for television as well
Upstairs Downstairs was first created by Jean and her close friend actress Dame Eileen Atkins almost 40 years ago and became a resounding success when first shown on ITV.
It was broadcast from 1971 to 1975, running for 68 episodes, watched by 30 million people and sold to 80 countries. Jean, who won an Emmy for her role as Rose in 1975, is the only original member to return to the series.
When the drama was first revived at Christmas 2010, a new character was created, the imperious Maud, Lady Holland, the mother of Sir Hallam, for Dame Eileen to play (she had not taken part in the original series).
But shortly before the latest series was to start filming — before Jean was taken ill — Dame Eileen decided she didn’t want to keep her role. In the new episodes viewers will discover Maud has died and her ashes are resting on the mantelpiece at Eaton Place.
It has been speculated that Dame Eileen was unhappy with the way the story — and her character — was developing. ‘I never talked to her about her reasons’, Jean insists. ‘It was her choice, although I think everybody felt it was sad.
The show was created by Jean Marsh and her good friend Dame Eileen Atkins, and it has been revealed her character has been killed off in the new series
‘I know she likes to vary the parts she is playing, and it would have been a big commitment to take on a six-part series. It would have meant her turning down other parts. I didn’t try to persuade her to stay, because it was nothing to do with me. I’ve never ever talked to her about anything to do with her career. I don’t want it to ruin our friendship.’
Both from working class backgrounds, Jean and Eileen became firm friends in their early 30s. ‘We decided to write about our own background, something we were familiar with.
‘Both our parents were servants. Eileen’s father had been a chauffeur and under-butler in a very grand household and my mother had been a housemaid in a big pub hotel.
So we had lots of personal experience to draw on. It was actually the downstairs that came first. The upstairs element evolved later, because the servants had to have a family to serve.
The original cast, reunited in 2007. Back row (L-R): Christopher Beeney, Simon Williams, John Alderton, Meg Wynn Owen, Lesley Anne Down. Front row (L-R): Jacqueline Tong, Pauline Collins, Jean Marsh and Jenny Tomasin
‘About that time — 1967 — The Forsyte Saga was on and we kept asking, “Well, who does the laundry in their household And who does the cooking and the washing up” So instead of only being about downstairs, it became Upstairs Downstairs.’
Although the show made Jean a household name, she insists she’s comfortable, but not rich.
‘It didn’t make me into Elizabeth Taylor, but I was pushed three rungs up the acting ladder. So when it came to reviving the concept 35 years later,
I didn’t want to destroy the memory of the people and their characters who made it such a success.’
Jean speaks about her character Rose fondly. ‘She can be outspoken when she feels like it, appears more gritty than one might imagine, and beneath the smile and glint in her pale blue eyes, has a steely determination.
‘She is also very political. I wasn’t like her at all, but I loved her. I felt a closeness to the part. And that’s the nicest thing about being Rose — people like her, and so they like me.’
Jean Marsh with Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee on their wedding day in 1955, the couple divorced in 1960
When she was 19, Jean married actor Jon Pertwee before he became a star as Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge.
‘He was 14 years older than me, and I was still growing up, so I changed. Our marriage really only lasted 18 months or so, and we were divorced after five years, so it was a small part of my life. He was a lot of fun, though, because he was a very amusing man.’
Then she had a short affair with actor Albert Finney. ‘He was adorable — very sweet.’ Afterwards, she lived with Kenneth Haigh for ten years, and says: ‘He was a brilliant actor and a fascinating man. Sadly, he has been ill and in hospital for a very long time.’
There was also a relationship with film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but she has never had children.
It amuses her that there is talk of rivalry between Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. ‘It’s flattering that people think they are similar programmes. We keep being asked if we are having a fight over it, but really the competition is good for us.’
She says she has no intention of retiring so long as her health is stable. ‘Why would an actress retire We don’t have to because, when we are older, we can play older parts. Even if you are in a wheelchair you can go on working.’