In the autumn and winter of 1968, Britain came to a standstill on Sunday nights. Pubs emptied, streets were deserted and vicars even altered the time of evensong so churchgoers 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 and based on a series of novels by John Galsworthy, allowed its 18m viewers to forget about the turbulent present. “We are tired 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 others, the series evoked a wistfulness for the good old days when servants were cheap and their masters benevolent. Stanley Reynolds, in the Guardian, wrote: “What the Saga does is vicariously see the bourgeoisie’s desperate need for family background, for the big and wealthy ancestors.” No one, he noted, imagined their ancestors as scullery maids. One of Reynolds’ readers wrote to reprimand him: “The descendants of skivvies do not watch The Forsyte Saga, they watch Opportunity Knocks and Take Your Pick.”

The Forsyte Saga’s influence was profound. The actors Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, watching an episode together, 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 Lord and Lady Bellamy and their servants between 1903 and 1930. It ran on ITV for 68 episodes from 1971 to 1975 and became the most popular original TV drama ever, watched by more than 20m viewers each week.

This Christmas, following the recent success of Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, a drama clearly inspired by these earlier texts, a new BBC version of Upstairs Downstairs takes up the story in 1936 as the diplomat Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard) and his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) move into 165 Eaton Place, the house vacated by the Bellamys. The domestic service drama is an intertextual vortex and viewers of the new Upstairs Downstairs will note many familiar-seeming characters – the vinegary matriarch (Lady Maud Holland, played by Eileen Atkins), the rebellious young aristocrat (Lady Agnes’s sister, Persie, who flirts with Oswald Mosley’s fascists) and the spirited, ambitious young servant (Ivy, the parlour maid). But the series is also an attempt to break free from its predecessor, with only one original character – Rose Buck, now housekeeper and played, as in the original, by Jean Marsh – and a new family for a new age in which upstairs-downstairs relationships are more unpredictable and problematic.

How to explain the lasting popularity of this kind of drama? The answer lies partly in that universal and omnivorous human urge, nostalgia, which can be endlessly reworked according to the specific concerns of each era. The original 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 power cuts caused the lights to go out all over Britain, the letters page of The Daily Telegraph was occasionally enlivened by complaints that our modern servant class was failing in its duty to serve. During the drifting, compromise-filled years of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, it must have been consoling for some viewers to see 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.

Perhaps, in our own era of austerity, there is a similar yearning for a fixed order of things, an attraction to tradition, preservation and duty in a world recently threatened with ruin by debt and greed. The dominant character in the new Upstairs Downstairs is Lady Agnes, an obvious good sort whose main concern is the maintenance of her new home and family. Similarly, the Earl of Grantham in Downton, played by honey-voiced Hugh Bonneville, is a selfless custodian of his estate, always at one remove from the messiness of money and power.

The main impetus for the original Upstairs, Downstairs was not the national economic crisis but the introduction of colour television. Along with contemporaneous costume dramas such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Elizabeth R (1971) and Edward the Seventh (1975), it was a piece of virtual heritage tourism that could be marketed internationally to allow TV companies to recoup the increased costs of making colour shows. Upstairs, Downstairs was sold to more than 70 countries, dubbed into a dozen languages, and seen by more than a billion viewers. Similarly, the making of Downton Abbey probably had less to do with the wider recession and more to do with the microeconomics of ITV: the need for sumptuous, higher-quality programming to reach advertiser-friendly audiences and boost the sales of high-definition TVs. The same is surely true of the new Upstairs Downstairs, another piece of popular quality television to defend the BBC against its many critics in rival commercial media, and to increase DVD revenues and global sales for its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

Two upstairs-downstairs dramas appearing within a month of each other might be regarded as a scheduling misfortune. In fact, given how central domestic service has been to British life and culture, it is surprising how little it has been fictionalised up until now – with some notable exceptions, from Henry Green’s Loving (1945) to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989). Since the ancestry of the British viewing public is a mix of those who rose from the ranks of the downtrodden and those who did the downtreading, the master-servant relationship should be part of our national folk memory. Until the second world war, British society would simply 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. Even in 1936, when the new Upstairs Downstairs begins, the figure was still as high as one in four.

To a modern viewer, old episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs can seem very static and set-bound, like a peculiarly listless Terence Rattigan play. The servants live a parallel existence that mirrors rather than intermingles with the upstairs one, and the two worlds rarely collide.

By the turn of the 21st century, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), in many ways a film prequel to Downton Abbey, had dispensed 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 shutters, light fires and smooth tablecloths. Eve Stewart, production designer of the new Upstairs Downstairs, has said that she aimed for a similar effect, using a built set with rooms adjoining 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 Lord 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!”), and his daughter, Sybil, even supports the lowly maid, Gwen, in her ambitions to leave service and become a secretary. In the new Upstairs Downstairs, Lady Agnes and Sir Hallam are both generous employers and a waspish elderly female, just as in Downton Abbey, serves as the repository of more high-handed attitudes that are, therefore, imagined as archaic and declining.

In Mrs Woolf and the Servants (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 her 1929 essay “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.

In Downton Abbey, there are more congenial relationships between servants and their employers, something Fellowes has defended 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 …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.

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 Bellamy says in the very 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. Characters such as Lord Bellamy and Lord Grantham are presumptively conservative but recognise that times are changing and they must learn to accommodate the ambitions of those beneath them. And there are strong-willed servants who symbolise a crumbling social hierarchy in which domestic staff are no longer so compliant and cheap.

At a time when 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. When a British diplomat revealed recently that Prince Andrew had a personal valet who carried an ironing board with him at all times, it seemed obviously anachronistic and absurd. Yet the disappearance of domestic service, anticipated in these TV dramas, 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 abroad rather than the British lower orders. More recently, middle-class couples have shopped around for services from dinner-party catering to dog walking. But service never went away.

It is surely no coincidence that the discussion boards on Mumsnet, the parenting website, were buzzing over Downton Abbey – for many of the other discussion threads on the site, about working mothers, 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.”

Joe Moran is an author and academic. His most recent book is ‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ (Profile Books)

The new series of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ runs from December 26-28, BBC1 9pm


Five great Christmas moments on TV

1957: The Queen reluctantly agreed to have her Christmas broadcast televised for the first time. Speaking from Sandringham, she said: “I very much hope this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct.” One critic wrote breathlessly: “Like millions of other people I felt that a legend and a symbol had come to life, when a reigning monarch smiled in the living rooms of countless homes.”

1967: One of the great Christmas programming disasters. A family audience of 13m tuned in on Boxing day to see the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour but, instead of light entertainment, they got a tedious, faux new wave film. Viewers called the BBC to dismiss it as “rubbish”. Paul McCartney, making a live appearance on The David Frost Show the next day, said: “We tried to present something different for the viewers.” He said they had decided against “a Christmassy show with lots of phoney tinsel. It is better being controversial than purely boring.”

1973: During a state of emergency caused by a miners’ strike and an Opec oil crisis, the government decreed that all television should end at 10.30pm. It granted a special reprieve from the curfew for four days over Christmas. Hunkered down in their living rooms, the public gorged on a Des O’Connor special, Danny La Rue in panto and Mike Yarwood’s first Christmas show.

1977: An estimated 28.5m watched the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, including a lavish musical number featuring BBC presenters singing, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”. In his 1978 book The Englishman’s Christmas, historian JAR Pimlott wrote, “The Christmas edition of The Morecambe and Wise Show has established itself as an essential part of the festival.”

2007: To promote its new iPlayer service, the BBC showed Doctor Who, guest starring Kylie Minogue, on a nonstop loop between 10am and 4pm on Boxing day on big screens in city centres throughout the country. It had set a modest target of attracting 500,000 iPlayer users in its first six months. In fact, more than a million used it over Christmas alone. More than 13m also watched the Doctor Who special in real time on Christmas day, the highest viewing figure for the programme since the 1970s.

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