Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Up the Down Staircase

As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time, for various reasons, with my grandparents. As a result, there are times I feel that I was as much raised in the 30s as the 70s, and that I got my indoctrination far too young into the mysteries of the Early Bird and the virtues of roughage.

One feature of my grandfather's house, along with its general air of stillness broken by the striking of the clocks on the quarter hour, was the absolute devotion of its inhabitants to PBS; I'm not sure I even knew their vast console television got any other channels (it being circa 1973, it did, of course - three).

A regular part of our lives, therefore, was the weekly ritual of sitting down to a stirring blast of classical music, followed by the soothing voice of Alistair Cooke, and then...

Magic. In the form of total immersion in the lives of a fictional family of London toffs, the Bellamys, and their retinue, Upstairs, Downstairs.

Let others worry about Watergate, the war, those damn hippies (my town got a late start on the 60s) - we had our weekly fix of life on Eaton Place. I think the grandparents liked the early years best, when Edward VII came for dinner and all was right with the world, before Lady Marjorie traveled on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and the War came and changed everything.

I, however, thrilled to the Roaring 20s, when dashing James and his heedless cousin Georgina kicked up their heels to the brittle beat of the Charleston.

James, needless to say, was an early crush, leaving me helpless ever since for a little moustache and a sweep of black hair. Grandmother, on the other hand, thought Georgina a fast little baggage, and didn't hesitate to say so. She was, she intimated, very like my other, maternal grandmother, whose decades of absolute respectability had not yet wholly overcome a girlhood spent taking part in dance contests and on the fringes of vaudeville.

Eventually, alas, it all came to an end. James ended badly, Georgina married dull rich stick, and finally, plucky housemaid Rose took a last look at the empty morning room, scene of so much drama. Eaton Place fades to black.

Other series came and went - we returned to Edwardian World with Lillie Langtry (with Oscar Wilde making grandfather grunt disapprovingly), went even further afield with poor Anna Karenina, and were startled at the goings-on in Ancient Rome with Claudius, Livia, and Caligula. Nothing, though, really took the place of the Bellamys.

Thirty years on, and my grandparents' house, with its polished silver and long heavy meals, is as vanished as 165 Eaton Place. I realize, now and then, that the world we watched was the world of their childhood, youth, and early years together, and I wonder if a child in 20 years will look back at 1972 and find it as foreign and enchanting as I did 1922. I rather hope so.


  1. What lovely memories.

    Someone will, no doubt, look back with wonder and enchantment at 1972 -- which is both a delightful and hideous prospect.

  2. I still watch Upstairs Downstairs on DVD when the mood strikes. I love the episode where Lady Marjoree has the affair! Scandale! Along with I Claudius, UpDown was the best television ever made. A treasure. Thanks for the memories.

    ps I also loved the Duchess of Duke Street -- another gem.

    ppss love your blog!

  3. Ah, the Duchess! I actually have been carting both seasons of that around the world on video for the past ten years, even though for the past four I haven't had a VCR. Yet another series in which Edward VII drops by...