Last night, Tuesday 27th December, saw the final episode of the three-part revival of Upstairs Downstairs (2010). It was shown on BBC 1. This new reincarnation saw the action move on in time, from the final years portrayed in the original series, to the years between the two World Wars.
Upstairs Down stairs was the idea of two actress friends, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. Eileen Atkins was not able to take part in the original series because of acting commitments in the West End at the time. In this new version she plays the part of Lady Agnes, the dowager head of the household. Jean Marsh reprises her role as Rose from the original series. Now she has become the head of a servants letting agency.
The series portrays the lives of people from two different strata of society, the servants and the aristocracy. One of the main themes reveals how these two social groups are closely entwined and rely on each other. It is interesting to note the period, between the two wars, when the action takes place in this new series was the time when the relationship between the classes and indeed the classes themselves changed. One class serving another class that intimately was near its end. A new world was being born out of the necessities of war.
My own roots lie with the working and servant classes of that era. My Great Aunt Kate, my Great Grandmothers sister, worked as a nanny for the Chamberlain family and lived in a flat in one of the Chamberlain family houses in Cheney Walk, Chelsea. Neville Chamberlain was the prime minister at the start of the second world war. Neville Chamberlain himself lived in a house in Eaton Square, the main square in Belgravia.
My grandfather, on my father’s side, had been a guardsman fighting in France during the First World War. After the First World War he became the head barman of the Cunard Line, serving the famous and the elite on the transatlantic ships crossing to New York in the interwar years. My other grandfather, on my mother’s side, was a skilled draughtsman and worked in shipyards on the Tyne River in Newcastle upon Tyne and later, because of the depression, moved south to work in a shipyard in Southampton.
The action to Upstairs Downstairs is set in a house in Belgravia, number 165 Eaton Place.
Belgravia, is the most salubrious address in the United Kingdom and one of the top addresses in the world to this day. The Duke of Westminster owns the land and many of the freeholds and leaseholds on the property in Belgravia. In the 1820’s the then Duke of Westminster, Richard Grosvenor, had as one of his titles, Viscount Belgrave, and it was this name he gave to the area.
To the north is Buckingham Palace but to the east side is Victoria Railway Station with it’s grand railway hotel looking like an old French Chateaux. This symbol of steam and industrialisation represented the Victorians desire to see and conquer the world. From here the boat trains would leave London for the ferries at Dover and Folkestone and the route to Europe. Many of the rich who lived nearby in Belgravia would leave London on the Orient Express for Paris, Rome, Athens, and Istanbul, and take tours to The East. Victoria Station is a symbol of the growing desire for travel and to see the world. The Belgravia set got there first.
The Duke of Westminster employed Thomas Cubitt – who built mostly grand terraces with white stuccoed fronts – to develop the area. Construction was focused around Belgrave Square and Eaton Square.
From the start the super rich and the aristocracy bought properties in this area and used the land for their town houses. This part of London has remained exclusive to this day. The Queen lives in Buckingham Palace bordering the north part of Belgravia; and Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil oligarch, has a property in Lowndes Square. He is the owner of Chelsea Football Club and one the richest men in the world. The average price of a property in Belgravia today is £6.6 million pounds. But prices going up to and above £100 million pounds have been known. Apart from the very rich, many famous actors, film stars, writers and politicians have lived and still choose to live in this area.
Margaret Thatcher lives in Chester Square and Joan Collins lives in Eaton Place. Elle MacPherson, the model; Arcelor Mittal, the Indian Steal producer magnet; and Christopher Lee, the horror film star, all live in Belgravia.
In the past, both Mozart and Chopin stayed there. Other more recent tenants include: Dame Edith Evans;Vivien Leigh; Ian Flemming, the writer of the James Bond books and, indeed, Sean Connery himself; Roger Moore; Tennyson, the poet; Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein; Noel Coward; Henry Gray, famous for his Grays Anatomy; the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein – the list could go on.
After the Second World War many of the houses in Belgravia became embassies, company offices or the headquarters of charities, and the number of houses owned by a single family reduced. However, since the year 2000 many houses are now being converted back into family homes, a visible sign that the number of rich in the world has increased.
Mews houses sit behind the great terraced houses fronting the squares. When the properties were originally built in the 1820s, these were the stables that once housed the horses and carriages used by the rich for transport. As cars became fashionable, the mews were turned into garages. Nowadays many have been converted into very desirable homes. To own a mews house in Belgravia is nearly as posh as owning one of the grand terrace houses.
The area has not changed much since it was developed in the 1820’s. Except for modern transportation, the streets and house exteriors are the same.
As you walk around Belgravia today, try and imagine the area as it was in the 1820’s. In your mind’s eye, you can still imagine the servants disappearing down the stone stairs behind the black ornate iron railings into the basements. You might be lucky enough to glimpse a Lord or Lady, or even Margaret Thatcher mounting the steps to her front door and seeing it opened by a starch-collared butler. Pick a door yourself, take the large black, iron hoop suspended from the jaws of an angry looking iron lion’s head, rap it smartly, and the door might be opened by Mr. Hudson himself.
Upstairs Downstairs 2010 will be aired on PBS Masterpiece Classic in April, 2011. It was recently aired on BBC One in the U.K.