Upstairs, Downstairs started life as an idea dreamed up by two actress friends, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. Their idea concerned a comedy series, called Behind the Green Baize Door, which followed the exploits of two housemaids (to be played by Marsh and Atkins) who worked in a Victorian country house. Originally the format concerned just the downstairs staff but the upstairs people were gradually incorporated: "Servants have to serve somebody," said Jean Marsh.
In the summer of 1969, the two actresses took their idea to a development company called Sagitta, run jointly by John Hawkesworth and John Whitney, two experienced TV producers. Hawkesworth had spent his childhood among servants and thus had a good idea of the complex relationships and protocols which existed between master and servant. Hawkesworth and Whitney saw the dramatic possibilities of the show and immediately removed the comedy element and relocated the settings both in time and place – to an Edwardian town house in London. The idea – by this time renamed Below Stairs – was first offered to Granada TV in Manchester who turned it down as they had their own period drama (A Family At War, 1970-2) about to enter production. The next stop was London Weekend Television whose Controller of Programmes, Stella Richman, immediately saw the potential. In April 1970, Richman commissioned a series of thirteen plays with an option for a second.
In the original series' format, the "upstairs" household would consist of an MP, Richard Bellamy, who, according to the character outline, had a German mistress in St John's Wood as well as "other less conventional vices and strange appetites which make him vulnerable to a blackmailer". The outline also informs us that "a matter of continual speculation is his relationship with his butler ... of whom he is fonder than anyone else in the world". Bellamy's wife was called Gail, an actress and dancer whose name was once linked with the Prince of Wales and who "has many lovers but conducts her affairs with tact". The upstairs family was completed by the Bellamy's son and daughter, James and Elizabeth, who even at this early stage resembled their final characters as seen in the finished programme.
Downstairs would be the butler, Frank Hudson, who "drinks his master's port and smokes his cigars" and "has a vast fund of risqué stories". The servants were completed by a tippling cook, Mrs Bridges, and the two central maid characters, Mary Buck and Rosie Mimms.
An old friend of Hawkesworth's, Alfred Shaughnessy, was called into the fold as script editor. He immediately set about making major changes to the format of the show. The general tone of the series was made more realistic and the characters less stereotyped – so gone were the German mistress, the tipsy cook and the advantage-taking butler. Richard Bellamy's wife was now the somewhat more aristocratic Lady Marjorie, the rich daughter of an earl.
The actors shortlisted for the roles originally included some famous names: Honor Blackman (of The Avengers fame) was originally considered for Lady Marjorie, and George Cole (later to play Arthur Daley in Minder) was up for Hudson. Though Jean Marsh was to play one of the maids, Eileen Atkins was busy playing Queen Victoria in a stage show, Vivat Vivat Regina, and, at the suggestion of John Hawkesworth, Pauline Collins replaced her. The series title went through changes too, being variously known as Two Little Maids in Town, The Servants' Hall and That House in Eaton Square. The show was known as 165 Eaton Place almost up until the production of the first episode when the title was changed to Upstairs, Downstairs, a suggestion from John Hawkesworth.
During production of the first season, the LWT hierarchy changed, with Cyril Bennett being employed as LWT's new Drama Controller. Bennett was not keen on the series: "It's very pretty but it's just not commercial television. They'll switch off in their thousands." The series was left lying around for six months before eventually being scheduled for 10.15 p.m. on a Sunday night. Jean Marsh remarked: "It could have been the kiss of death, but never in the history of TV has anything taken off so quickly." Ratings climbed as the word caught on and the critics were impressed. During its life the series would go on to win many prestigious awards, including seven Emmys and a Golden Globe. The show even won an Ivor Novello award for its theme tune, Alexander Faris' The Edwardians! Upstairs, Downstairs would go on to be shown in over 70 countries to an audience of over one billion – everybody was sure of one thing: Upstairs, Downstairs certainly was "commercial" television!
Much, much more about the genesis of the series can be found in Richard Marson's book Inside Updown – The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs (click here for details).