Racy upstairs, even racier downstairs: New faces, fresh scandal and
lashings of romance… behind the scenes on the saucy new series
Upstairs Downstairs caused a sensation when it first aired in the early Seventies, with its depiction of the comings and goings at the Bellamy household, 165 Eaton Place, between 1903 and 1930, set against the great events of the time.
At Christmas 2010, 35 years after it was last screened, the BBC revived the show. It was now 1936, and after it had lain empty for many years diplomat Lord Holland and his pretty young wife Lady Agnes moved into the grand house.
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Look out Downton! We visit the set of the new series of Upstairs Downstairs, starring Keeley Hawes and Ed Stoppard, and find out why this time its racier than ever
Better than ever: Upstairs Downstairs is back and has moved on to 1938, as the clouds of war gather over Britain again
Lady Agnes has lost her fizz. Can the Alka-Seltzer magnate help her find it
Drifting apart: Is Lady Agnes going to have an affair in this series
Looking every inch the elegant society hostess she is, Lady Agnes Holland walks into the imposing hallway of 165 Eaton Place to welcome her visitor, handsome American businessman Caspar Landry. Then – disaster! – she brushes against a table and ladders her stocking.
There’s the whisper of silk on silk as she raises the hem of her clinging dress to inspect the damage.
It’s an electric moment as Agnes and Caspar exchange glances, perhaps holding one another’s gaze for a nanosecond longer than is necessary.
Then, with murmured apologies and a shy smile, she rushes upstairs to change. Blanche, the aunt of her husband, Sir Hallam Holland, sees the way they looked at one another and later teases Agnes for being so obviously attracted to Caspar.
Is this what the new series of Upstairs Downstairs holds An affair for Lady Agnes as her diplomat husband (played by Ed Stoppard) neglects her while he frantically works on peace negotiations to avert the looming war ‘They’re drifting apart,’ says Keeley Hawes, who plays Lady Agnes. ‘She becomes disillusioned with marriage, and boredom sets in. She also starts to mistrust him. It should be very sad, because they were the perfect couple, but every marriage has its ups and downs, and I think people will be able to relate to what’s going on.’
Keeley explains that her character, who gave birth to a baby at the end of the last series, has grown, matured and, in a way, is rebelling. ‘I don’t think Agnes is a rebel especially, but she starts looking for a little bit of excitement.
She wants to enjoy her life a little bit more, without depending so much on Hallam for everything. She just becomes more independent.’
It’s hardly surprising Lady Agnes and the other women at Eaton Place are enchanted by Caspar, played by Michael Landes. So charismatic is he that producers requested extra scenes be written for him. So how much is Agnes attracted to the American ‘She’s sweet on him, principally because he treats her as an equal – not as a “mere” woman,’ says Keeley. ‘She’s flattered by that. So yes, he certainly puts a spring in her step.’
Caspar is from New York and has made his money through manufacturing, including the invention of Alka-Seltzer. ‘He senses her unhappiness and so he steps up his interest,’ says Michael. ‘He’s brash and confident, but he’s still very polite. As he encourages her to show more independence, he’s subtly trying to make himself more appealing. I think the viewers are going to have a lot of empathy for Lady Agnes.’
Turning heads: American businessman Caspar Landry, played by Michael Landes, is so charismatic that producers requested extra scenes be written for him
The curse of 165 Eaton Place
Rewriting the script: Jean Marsh – who has always played Rose Buck, the former parlour maid turned housekeeper – was struck down with a stroke
Two major setbacks put the new series of Upstairs Downstairs under threat.
Firstly, Jean Marsh, who has always played Rose Buck, the former parlour maid turned housekeeper at 165 Eaton Place, was struck down with a stroke.
Then Dame Eileen Atkins, who in the last series created the role of the imper ious Maud, Lady Holland, the mother of Sir Hallam, decided not to continue. Dame Eileen was reportedly unhappy with the story and her character, although she later denied this was the problem. Writer Heidi Thomas says, ‘Losing two such consummate actresses – who together came up with the original idea for Upstairs Downstairs four decades ago – was a blow. But the biggest worry was for Jean’s health.’
It was almost as if Upstairs Downstairs was cursed. The revival of the series in 2010 was dogged by bad luck – ITV1’s Downton Abbey had overshadowed it three months earlier with remarkably similar characters and stories, and by getting in first, even though it was actually filmed later.
But with the six new 2012 episodes about to begin filming, Heidi says she decided to come up with three alternatives.
‘Plan A was that Jean would make a full recovery and be able to play her very central role as written; plan B was to make it a much smaller part and less physically draining for her; and plan C was to write her out completely. In the end we went with plan B and gave Jean time to regain her strength so she could appear in episodes three and six.
That gave her four months to recover, and when she was back on her feet she spent a day on set and we took her out for dinner.’ To account for Rose’s absence in the earlier part of the new series, the character was sent to a sanitorium with tuberculosis. Losing Dame Eileen meant even more rewriting.
‘When we parted company, it was absolutely mutual,’ Heidi says. ‘She had chosen not to take part in the 1970s series, and had mixed feelings about taking part in the revival. But she did it, and brilliantly. She was never unhappy with the scripts, but in the end it was her decision not to stay.’
Heidi has created a new character to take her place – Lady Maud’s younger half-sister, Dr Blanche Mottershead, played by Alex Kingston – who turns out to be just as difficult a member of the household as Maud was.
How the Thirties came back to life
London’s Belgravia serves as the well-heeled setting for most of the action in Upstairs Downstairs, but the exterior shots of 165 Eaton Place are filmed at an elegant terrace of Georgian townhouses in Clarendon Square, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, with the parking bays and yellow lines covered up – this is the 1930s after all!
The main reason for using Clarendon Square – which was built by the same architect who designed Eaton Place – is that it is quieter than the London location and filming is less likely to be disrupted by traffic clamour and the constant wailing of emergency vehicle sirens.
Inside Outside: On set while filming the latest series at the BBC studios in Cardiff
The interior was built in the BBC studios in Cardiff, where Doctor Who and Torchwood are also filmed. The walls of the upstairs rooms are hung with the richly coloured wallpapers of the period, and filled with beautifully polished furniture and fittings that were salvaged from real houses – Keeley Hawes (Lady Agnes) was particularly taken with the Hollands’ Art Deco bed, with its cockleshell-shaped peach and gold bedhead, and there are also silver picture frames, silver tea and coffee services and a magnificent chandelier hanging in the hallway. There is even a walk-in silver store cupboard, and real cakes and tiny sandwiches waiting to be served for tea.
Below stairs on set, it’s a very different picture: the servants are consigned to cramped, dark rooms with tiny windows, and they have to make do with a single clothes hook for their uniforms and outdoor clothes instead of a wardrobe, and iron beds.
There are better conditions in the kitchen, with its huge fireplace, stone flooring, iron cooker – a gas-powered model that actually works – and an enormous pantry.
I love playing Lady Persie – she's nothing but trouble
Actress Claire Foy says: 'Persie is precocious and selfish and does some terrible things this time round, so I think a lot of viewers are going to be shocked'
No drama about an upper-crust family would be complete without a wayward beauty whose behaviour threatens to bring shame on the ancestral name. And in Upstairs Downstairs, Lady Persephone Towyn is no exception.
Claire Foy plays Lady Agnes’s younger sister, known as Persie.
She is a fascist and has an affair with the family chauffeur, Harry Spargo (shades of Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil, who also ran off with the Granthams’ driver). In the new series Persie has several dalliances, which raise eyebrows.
Claire says, ‘Persie is precocious and selfish and does some terrible things this time round, so I think a lot of viewers are going to be shocked. I’ll get tomatoes thrown at me in the street.
'Personally, I think she’s brilliant, and I love playing her, but she has no inhibitions and is big trouble.’
Is Persie jealous of her elder sister ‘Yes, but not in a destructive way. She secretly envies Agnes, who’s perfect, accomplished and has a family, though she knows she can never be like her.
'But Agnes doesn’t try to understand Persie and is constantly disappointed by her. She wants them to get on but Persie keeps ruining it. Sometimes Persie feels completely hemmed in by her sister and tries to retaliate.
'If anything, their relationship gets more and more complex as the series goes on. Persie desperately wants someone to look after her and love her, but doesn’t how to go about it.’
Who makes Mrs Thackeray finally boil over… and why
Anne Reid, who returns (with a new cap and overalls) as household cook Mrs Clarice Thackeray, reveals her character is going to get a lot more bolshie below stairs this series. ‘She’s quite a difficult woman anyway,’ Anne admits. ‘And it allows for much more comedy.’
There is a falling-out between her and butler Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), which leads to her storming out. ‘Cooks were as temperamental in those days as celebrity chefs are now,’ Anne adds. ‘The difference is the big households relied heavily on the cook, so if she left, everyone went hungry. It was a very strong position for a servant to be in.’
All those pies and roasts Mrs Thackeray turns out in the kitchen of 165 Eaton Place look delicious – but Anne admits she can’t cook at all in real life. Hasn’t she been taking any lessons ‘Why would I bother at my age I’m not dying of starvation. Anyway, I live on salads these days because I’m always trying to lose weight.’
One of her best friends, Lesley Nicol, plays Mrs Patmore, the cook in Downton Abbey. ‘She rang me when she got the part and I was very pleased for her,’ Anne says. ‘Not long after that I had some good news myself. I told her, “You’re not going to believe this: I’m going to play the cook in Upstairs Downstairs.” But there’s no competition between us.’
And she’s thrilled she’s finally got a different hat to wear. ‘I haven’t got that awful shower cap thing I had before, and I’ve got a new overall too. But I don’t get to dress up a lot. I wish I did. Even the maids have dresses which are just lovely…’
Trouble in the kitchen: Mrs Thackeray gets more bolshie and falls out with butler Mr Pritchard
The butler finally serves up a helping of passion
Butler Mr Pritchard has to take on a lot more responsibilities in the new series as housekeeper Miss Buck (Jean Marsh) is away being treated for tuberculosis. ‘As the head of downstairs, he has some young, flighty girls to contend with,’ explains Adrian Scarborough, who plays him. ‘Especially the new maid Beryl (Laura Haddock) and the new kitchen skivvy Eunice, played by Ami Metcalf. They’re both very inexperienced and Eunice turns out to be a bit of a handful when she develops a crush on a young servant, Johnny (Nico Mirallegro).
‘There’s more romance altogether than there was last time. Even my bachelor character Mr Pritchard has a small dalliance. He’s usually very fastidious but he gets to let his hair down with the lady’s maid, the gorgeous Miss Whisset (Sarah Lancashire). They meet through a servants’ ball at the Royal Albert Hall. The event is a riot, with Eunice going as Maid Marian and Johnny as Robin Hood. I have a dance with Miss Whisset – it’s all rather romantic and beautiful.’
Even the underwear's authentic
Well-dressed: Costume designer Ralph Wheeler-Holes even insists on finding period underwear for the cast
Packed into an enormous wardrobe on wheels (it’s actually a trailer parked outside the studio) are the 400 outfits the show’s costume designer Ralph Wheeler-Holes has either made, bought or hired for the cast.
Ralph says of his creations, ‘I don’t want this to be a costume drama where the clothes detract from the story. I hope the outfits look like real clothes and move like real clothes, rather than being starched and unnatural. The biggest compliment people can give me is to say, “It all looked nice, but I didn’t really notice the clothes.” Because that means they’ve bought into each character and been hooked by the story. But I hope the clothes look good too!’
He even insists on finding the actors period underwear. ‘It’s terribly important they wear the correct underwear. It affects how they hold themselves, how they stand and how they walk. You’d be surprised how different it can make them feel about their characters.’
LOOK WHO COMES CALLING: Meet the newcomers…
Dr Blanche Mottershead (Alex Kingston)
unmarried younger sister of the late Maud, Lady Holland. Her lack of
respect for her sister’s memory causes friction with Maud’s son, Sir
Portia Alresford (Emilia Fox)
beautiful socialite publishes a scandalous novel exposing Blanche’s
unconventional lifestyle, and then offers to make a fresh start with
Eunice McCabe (Ami Metcalf)
young kitchen maid has spent her childhood in institutions and doesn’t
know what it is to be loved. She develops a crush on footman Johnny.
From left: Dr Blanche Mottershead (Alex Kingston), Portia Alresford (Emilia Fox) and Eunice McCabe (Ami Metcalf
Beryl Ballard (Laura Haddock)
spirited maid is ambitious, determined and a catalyst for change in the
house… until a romance forces her to reconsider her plans.
Police Sergeant Ashworth (Kenneth Cranham)
an emergency call to 165 Eaton Place, the WWI veteran finds out butler
Mr Pritchard was a conscientious objector, and torments him.
From left: Beryl Ballard (Laura Haddock), Police Sergeant Ashworth (Kenneth Cranham), Miss Whisset (Sarah Lancashire) and Caspar Landry (Michael Landes)
Miss Whisset (Sarah Lancashire)
The new lady’s maid sits on the servants’ ball committee with Mr Pritchard. Friendship blossoms – and maybe something more.
Caspar Landry (Michael Landes)
charismatic American multi-millionaire is introduced to the Hollands by
the US ambassador and Lady Agnes is taken with his refreshing vibrancy.
She feels he offers her hope and possibility in a dark and fearful
pre-war London – at a time when she is feeling increasingly distant from
her diplomat husband, Hallam.
Upstairs Downstairs returns to BBC1 on Sunday 19 February at 9pm and runs for six weeks.