In the autumn and winter of 1968, the nation came to a standstill on Sunday nights. Pubs emptied, streets were deserted and vicars even altered the time of evensong so that their congregations could get home in time to watch The Forsyte Saga at 7.25pm on BBC1. This melodrama about a rich merchant family, set between 1879 and 1926, allowed its viewers to forget about the turbulent present for fifty minutes each week. “We are tired of having a guilty conscience if we are luckier than our neighbours, and of trying to take the burdens of Vietnam and Biafra on our shoulders,” wrote Mrs A. Boydell to The Times in praise of the series. “Above all, we are sick of the sight and sound of scruffy teenagers and students and kitchen sink drama!” For other viewers it evoked nostalgia for the good old days when servants were cheap and their masters benevolent. “What the Saga does is vicariously see the bourgeoisie’s desperate need for family background, for the big and wealthy ancestors,” wrote Stanley Reynolds in the Guardian. No one, he noted, imagined their ancestors as the scullery maid or the boy of all jobs. One of Reynolds’ readers wrote to reprimand him on the letters page: “The descendants of skivvies do not watch The Forsyte Saga, they watch Opportunity Knocks and Take Your Pick.”
The Forsyte Saga was the last big costume drama made in monochrome, so it has rarely been repeated and the excitement it caused in the nation’s living rooms is largely forgotten. Its influence, though, was profound. The actors Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins were sitting watching an episode together and discussed how interesting it would be to have a similar series that covered more of what went on below stairs. They conceived Upstairs, Downstairs, which revolved around the Belgravia home of Richard and Lady Bellamy and their servants between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the Great Depression. It ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975 and became the most popular original TV drama ever. Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, which has similarly absorbed viewers this autumn, is clearly inspired by these earlier texts. And this Christmas, Downton refugees can watch a new BBC version of Upstairs, Downstairs which takes up the story in 1936 as the diplomat Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) move into the house vacated by the Bellamys. The domestic service drama is an intertextual vortex: the same actors often reappear, playing the same characters – vinagery matriarch, stoic old retainer, ingénue kitchen maid – walking through broadly similar plotlines.
The original series of Upstairs, Downstairs aired in times even more troubled than our own: Dominic Sandbrook’s recent history of the early 1970s is accurately titled State of Emergency. As dustbins overflowed in the streets, unsorted mail piled up and the lights went out all over Britain, the letters page of the Daily Telegraph was occasionally enlivened by real-life versions of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess complaining that our modern servant class was failing in its duty to serve. During the drifting, compromise-filled years of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, how consoling it must have been to see 165 Eaton Place, and by extension the nation, as an infinitely graded hierarchy in which even the distinction between house parlour maid and under house parlour maid was a significant social gulf. The most diligent preserver of this status quo, the butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson), became such a national symbol of probity that he took time off from polishing the silver to promote the virtues of the Trustee Savings Bank in the ad breaks. In our own era of austerity, perhaps there is a similarly timorous yearning for a fixed order of things, an attraction to tradition, preservation and duty in a world threatened with ruin by speculation, debt and greed. The Earl of Grantham, played by the honey-voiced Hugh Bonneville, claims Downton Abbey as his third parent and fourth child, and has “no career other than the nurture of this house and the estate”. He is a selfless custodian, always at one remove from the messiness of money and power.
These historical parallels are hard to avoid when Fellowes pararhymes Downton with “downturn” and gives a socialist chauffeur the name “Branson”, but they can be overdrawn. The main impetus for Upstairs, Downstairs was not the national economic crisis but the introduction of colour television. Along with contemporaneous costume dramas like The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R and Edward the Seventh, it was a piece of virtual heritage tourism which could be marketed internationally and allow the television companies to recoup the increased costs of making colour programmes. Although this almost backfired when industrial action by camera technicians meant that the first episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs had to be made in black and white, it was eventually sold to more than seventy countries, dubbed into a dozen languages, and seen by over a billion viewers. Similarly, the making of Downton Abbey probably has more to do with the microeconomics of ITV than the wider recession: the need for sumptuous, higher-quality programming to reach advertiser-friendly audiences and boost the sales of high-definition televisions.
Clearly, though, there is something about the master-servant relationship that is part of our national folk memory and that we want to work through and reinvent in fiction. The ancestry of the British viewing public is, after all, a mix of those who rose from the ranks of the downtrodden and those who once did the downtreading. Until the Second World War, British society would have stopped working without the people below stairs. Just before the First World War, when Downton Abbey is set, one in three women in paid work were in service. Two upstairs-downstairs TV dramas appearing within a month of each other might be regarded as a scheduling misfortune. But given how central it has been to British life and culture, it is actually surprising how little domestic service – with some notable exceptions, from Henry Green’s Loving (1945) to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989) – has been fictionalised up until now.
After you have watched Downton Abbey, an old episode of Upstairs, Downstairs can seem hopelessly static and set-bound, like a particularly listless Terence Rattigan play. Their goings-on hidden and muted behind the famed green baize door, the servants live a parallel existence which mirrors rather than intermingles with the upstairs one, and the two worlds collide rarely. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), in many ways a feature-film prequel to Downton Abbey, dispenses with this kind of staginess. Also written by Fellowes, it is shot in a real country house – Wrotham Park, in Hertfordshire – with cameras that glide through the house in constant movement, alighting on scenes seemingly by chance, rather like an ever-present butler ignored by his employers. The servants in the film are everywhere, in every scene, though virtually invisible to the aristocrats as they stand in the rain holding umbrellas or eavesdropping at doors. They live intimately with but separately from their masters, like ghosts. Downton Abbey aspires to the same fluidity: the series begins as the house springs into life at 6am with a hyperactive camera following different servants through the rooms as they open up shutters, light fires and pat down tablecloths. Eve Stewart, the designer of the new version of Upstairs, Downstairs, says that she aimed for a similar effect, using a built set but making it much bigger than that used in the original and ensuring that the rooms adjoined each other rather than being constructed separately, so the distinction between upstairs and downstairs seemed porous. She wanted the new 165 Eaton Place “to feel like it was a living, breathing character in which distinctions are permeable”.
After Gosford Park, in which the aristocrats are almost universally loathsome to their servants, there is also a return to noblesse oblige in these later narratives. Just as Richard Bellamy would ask permission to sit down in his chauffeur’s room, Lord Grantham plays the benign patriarch who lends his servants books from his library, pays for their cataract operations and worries about those in steerage on the Titanic (“God help the poor devils below decks!”). His daughter, Sybil, even supports the lowly maid, Gwen, in her ambitions to leave service and become a secretary.
In her book Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service (2007), Alison Light suggests that the co-dependence between servants and their employers was a far more troubled and complex affair. Her book centres on the upper-middle-class Virginia Woolf, who could write, in “A Room of One’s Own”, that the life of a charwoman with eight children was as rich and fascinating as that of a barrister, but who spent large parts of her diary complaining viciously about her own servants. The quarrels and reconciliations between Woolf and her cook and housemaid sound exhausting and far more effort than not having servants at all, and indeed Woolf found it a relief later in her life when she took on some of the housework herself. Fellowes has defended the more congenial relationships between servants and their employers in Downton Abbey on the grounds that “you could not be dressed and undressed and washed by someone you detested. It wouldn’t be agreeable … There were plenty of jobs, they didn’t have to stay … so of course most people were reasonable because otherwise everyone would go.” But Woolf’s dysfunctional relationship with her servants is a reminder that domestic service was far more than a financial transaction: it was an emotional minefield, a continual negotiation involving guilt and grudging obligation.
Downton Abbey occasionally explores this sense of mutual entrapment. When the middle-class Matthew Crawley arrives at Downton he prefers to do his own menial tasks and thus offends his new valet, Moseley, who complains of being “stood there like a chump watching a man getting dressed”. Crawley must be taught how to perform the role of master, to let someone else fasten his cufflinks. “We all have different parts to play, Matthew,” says Lord Grantham reprovingly, “and we must all be allowed to play them.” One could read this as a reassuring paternalist myth which imagines that the underlings are happy to collude in their own subjugation. But perhaps it is also a recognition that much of the master-servant relationship is a House of Cards, a world of illusion and suspended disbelief which requires the constant vigilance of all its actors to maintain it. Fellowes is an actor himself and much of Gosford Park was also about social life as performance: one of the valets even turns out to be a Hollywood actor, and the servants, constantly watching over their employers as they act out their comedy of manners, are well aware that the emperor has no clothes.
The persistent myth perpetuated by the upstairs-downstairs drama is that this is a world that has been and gone, an Edwardian summer we can look back on with a mixture of nostalgia and moral superiority. “One day, if things go on as they have been,” as Lady Marjorie says in the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, “you might ring and ring and nobody would ever come. There’d be nobody there.” We are forever reminded that this is a dying world. There are characters like Richard Bellamy and Lord Grantham who, while presumptively conservative, recognise that the world is changing and they must learn to accommodate the ambitions of those beneath them. And there are strong-willed servants like Gwen in Downton Abbey or Ivy, the parlourmaid in the new version of Upstairs Downstairs, who symbolise a crumbling social hierarchy in which domestic staff are no longer so compliant and cheap.
In a world in which old Etonian politicians affect an air of middle classlessness and hierarchies in many workplaces are fluid and unstated, it is easy to suppose that the world of the valet ironing a newspaper so his master’s fingers will not be stained by the ink bears little relation to our own. And yet the disappearance of domestic service, anticipated in these fictions, never actually happened. “Each decade we shiftily declare that we have buried class,” the cultural critic Richard Hoggart has written, “and each decade the coffin stays empty.” After the Second World War, live-in servants were replaced by part-time chars and dailies, or were recruited from Ireland, Spain and the Philippines rather than the British lower orders, and more recently, middle-class couples have shopped around for services from dinner-party catering to dog walking. But service never went away. I do not think it a coincidence that the discussion boards on Mumsnet were buzzing over Downton Abbey – for many of the other discussion threads on the site, about working mothers and “stay at homes”, childcare and household chores, are really about domestic service metamorphosed into a contemporary setting. As for the nation’s army of contract cleaners, working away invisibly in hospitals and offices out of hours, I don’t imagine they watch Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs as pieces of innocent escapism. “We rely constantly on others to do our dirty work for us and what used to be called ‘the servant question’ has not gone away: how could it?” writes Alison Light. “The figure of the servant takes us inside history but also inside ourselves.”