Interview with Richard Marson
Richard Marson is a television producer and director. As well as directing the Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered documentary for LWT in 1996, and writing a tie-in booklet, he has also written Inside UpDown – The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs which he hopes will be the definitive book about the making of the TV show.
Richard first became interested in Upstairs, Downstairs as a child in 1976: "I think it was reading the novelisations which were taken on holiday with us one summer. I was gripped by the characters and stories and then ITV announced a best of Upstairs, Downstairs season. There followed a huge family row when I wasn't allowed to stay up to watch them!"
After this special season, Upstairs, Downstairs vanished from the screen, only returning from time to time for the showing of an odd episode on special occasions. "I was at boarding school in 1982 when ITV repeated Guest of Honour and I persuaded my housemaster to tape it on the house video – even though I didn't then own a video myself. I had one eye on posterity even then, you see!"
The fledgling Channel 4 reran the series in the early 1980s. This was the first real chance for the common man, armed with a video recorder, to get a set of the episodes for viewing again at leisure. "I got to see the Channel 4 repeats and loved them but was gutted that they excluded the black and whites. In 1983 I got a contact to get me black and white film recordings of the missing episodes which meant I had a complete set. So all in all by '84 I was addicted!"
"My favourite season is the fourth. I thought the writing and acting of those first world war episodes was sublime. My least favourite episodes are some of the earlier ones where the acting is a bit melodramatic or forced – like A Cry for Help – though The Mistress and the Maids and The Path of Duty are fab." Although Richard's favourite era of the show is in line with the general critical view, he finds it more tricky to isolate his single personal favourite: "Such a hard, hard question! If there was a gun pointing at my head, I'd say Distant Thunder which built up the pre-war tension brilliantly and had great scenes with some of my favourite actors, Meg Wynn Owen especially."
"If I'm being critical, the production technique of UpDown does look a bit like Neighbours now. But even the slight shakiness of the sets and the occasional 'soft' shot cannot detract from the scripts and performances."
As a freelance director searching around for a project in 1996, Richard saw a prime opportunity to combine work with pleasure and came up with an idea for a celebratory documentary to tie in with the 25th anniversary of the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. Somewhat unusually, he took his thoughts to LWT rather than vice versa: "I pitched various ideas – and Simon Shaps of LWT called back within two days saying: 'You're on!' Within two weeks we were in production!"
"It was originally commissioned as a half-hour – that's 24 minutes on ITV. I was distraught – I just knew it couldn't be done any kind of justice at that length so I took a big gamble and for the same money and edit time produced two versions – a 50 minuter and a 24 minuter. I then got the Controller of LWT, who was understandably a bit pissed off at first, to view both – and he backed the longer version. This was only possible through incredibly detailed edit notes and planning but I think it was well worth it. I did offer a longer version to Brite, LWT's sales arm of the time, but they weren't really interested."
The chance to research LWT's archives gave Richard the chance to do some parallel research for a future book about the show that he wanted to write. "I plumbed into loads of confidential written archives – stuff relevant to the documentary was filed next to stuff which was really revealing for the book."
Newspaper publicity at the time suggested that the documentary was to also contain an amount of peripheral footage, such as This Is Your Life appearances by the cast. "Loads of extra footage was viewed and considered but I thought that in the end viewers would be most interested in the central story of the series itself rather than its spin-off success." Richard was also asked to write a booklet to go alongside the documentary: "The tie-in came from LWT's in-house education department which wanted to offer support literature. So I took my £500 and cannibalised bits of the embryonic book."
After completing the documentary, Richard turned back to finishing his book on the show, although his idea for a "making of..." book about Upstairs, Downstairs wasn't unique. I asked him whether he had read Patty Lou Floyd's 1988 effort Backstairs With Upstairs, Downstairs: "Yes. I thought it was a gushing, wasted opportunity and very biased – she clearly had some huge grudge against poor Jean Marsh. Typical of a certain kind of American bluergh!"
"I wanted to write the most comprehensive accurate book about the making of a legendary TV series I could – I really think it's a fascinating story. Freddy Shaughnessy gave me total access to his archive of scripts, notes and so on, which chart classic episodes from first scrawl onwards and I then read each stage of the draft, making notes etc. The 50 or so interviewees were also given 'right to reply' and that was incredibly useful. John Hawkesworth was also consulted on wider issues."
The book was published first in hardback in 2001, and then in a slightly revised paperback version in 2005.
In 2009, Kaleidoscope Publishing's Chris Perry asked Richard if he would revisit and update the manuscript for a new edition – the third. Kaleidoscope's publishing venture had matured considerably in the intervening years and Perry felt the new version could be much more ambitious – the equivalent of a coffee-table book, with a lot of photos and illustrations, with as many as practical in colour. Richard: "We had included photos in the previous editions but the design and reproduction certainly didn't make the best use of them. So I began the hunt for as much visual material as possible. I also started to go through my contacts and get in touch again with the surviving UpDown cast and crew to update their contributions. Almost everyone I dealt with was incredibly generous and, as well as giving me a thorough update, lent me photos from their own collections – among them Jackie Tong, Jean Shaughnessy and Chris Hodson. It did make me wish I had put more effort into collecting photos 20 years ago when so many more UpDown people were still with us. Sadly, Jeremy Paul died during the revising of the book – he'd been helping me with new thoughts and photos just weeks before his death. A great moment was when Rosemary Anne Sisson agreed to the reproduction of her proposed 1973 film script. Years earlier, she'd been reluctant even to show it to me. I spent a very productive day researching the film's production at the National Film and Television Archive and I also went through all the late John Hawkesworth's surviving papers which are also kept there."
Revisiting his manuscript gave Richard the chance to net some interviewees who proved elusive for the previous editions: "It was good, too, to finally track down and speak to some of the people I didn't reach the last time – George Innes, some of the crew of Thomas & Sarah, and, most importantly, Rex Firkin, who'd been the programme's executive producer. He had seemingly vanished and, back in 1996, LWT had told me that he 'must be dead'. Rex re-emerged, Stanley Livingstone-like, thanks to an email from his daughter sent to Steve at this website. I ended up talking to Rex for hours and his insights and candid opinions were hugely valuable."
"It all took much longer than we first anticipated, partly because other projects got in the way but also because I really wanted to do the new edition justice. There was a huge amount of new material to be incorporated, as well as general rewriting and editing of the old text (mainly as I hated some of my writing). The actual design and layout took about nine months. There were times when I got very sick of the whole process and just wished it would stop. The proof-reading went on and on and inevitably some mistakes will have slipped through the net... During the rewrite, the BBC announced the new version of UpDown and we decided to cover this too. In the event, this would have made the book just too unwieldy and I also worried that, though related, they were essentially different stories. Also, if, as the BBC hoped, it proved a long runner, the book would become out of date very quickly. So the chapter on the revival found a home here on Steve's site."
"I am very proud of the final book. It reflects the sheer amount of time, love and enthusiasm invested in it – not just by me, but by the various contributors and the designer, Jaz Wiseman. I really hope that it stands as a testament to one of the great series of British television."
Thanks to Richard Marson for his time.
(Click here for a review of Richard's book)