Saturday, April 9, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs And Me

I remember boarding the Gray Coach bus at Hamilton's ratty bus terminal and heading off for Buffalo on a cold and rainy day in October 1974.
There I was, the TV critic for Canada's most profitable newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, and I was on my way to WNED-TV in beautiful, downtown Buffalo to interview actress-writer Jean Marsh.
Marsh had created a TV sensation in the U.K. with her saga Upstairs, Downstairs which PBS hastily picked up for Masterpiece Theater and she had chosen Buffalo as the first stop on a tour of PBS affiliates across America,
We had a jolly lunch and Marsh cheerfully admitted one of the inspirations for her serial was Noel Coward's west End hit Cavalcade.
Along with Eileen Atkins Marsh conjured up the Edwardian Era. specifically the upper crust who owned London's 165 Eaton Place and the lower classes who lived in the basement and worked day and night for m'lord and m'lady.
Everybody loved UD on PBS and treated it as a sort of sequel to the equally popular The Forsyte Saga.
Marsh played the maid Rose and other notables included Angela Baddeley as Mrs. Bridges, David Langton and Rachel Gurney as Sir Richard and Lady Marjorie Bellamy, Simon Williams as their wandering son Major James Bellamy, Gordon Jackson as Mr. Hudson, the butler, plus such up and comers as Lesley-Anne Down, Pauline Collins, John Alderton.
In fact later that year when Simon Williams arrived in T.O. for a British farce at the Royal Alex theater I took tea with him as I'd later take tea with Langton when he was at Canada's Stratford Festival. And I later met up with Williams again in Toronto in 1985 when when he was guesting in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1975 I found myself on the New York set of Beacon Hill --a show CBS had cloned from UD but it never caught on --although set in Boston its vision of an America dominated by classes seemed alien.
At dinner that night I sat with the stars Nancy Marchand. David Dukes. Beatrice Straight and Kathryn Walker.
The show was cancelled within months enabling Straight to jump into a role in the movie Network (1976) and nab an Oscar as best supporting actress.
I always though UD would have made a dandy Broadway musical but what do I know.
When the series gets revived Sunday night at 9 on PBS it will be without most of the original cast --many have died including Baddeley, Jackson, Langton and Gurney. Jean Marsh will still be front and center as the indomitable Rose.
But is reviving UD a good thing at all for PBS? Sure it's an excuse to crow about past glories. But if PBS is truly serious about grabbing a younger, hipper audiernce such a return to yesterday could prove disappointing.

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