Right about the time I was obsessing over Scarlett and Rhett and reading huge, wonderful novels by Herman Wouk and R.F. Delderfield, the local PBS affiliate began broadcasting Masterpiece Theater [as it was known then] and I fell in love. The show that hooked me was “Upstairs, Downstairs” and it nurtured my new-found infatuation with the Edwardian period. Well, that’s not strictly true. It nurtured my new-found love for actor Simon Williams. Tall enough for the NBA with a body just made for frock coats and fussy British uniforms, it was love at first sight for me! Now, to rush to my defense, Magnum P.I. came on when I was in COLLEGE, ok?? That’s was 4 or 5 years later. Seriously–I wasn’t THAT much of a geek. Now, had Edwardian men gone around shirtless looking as great at it as Magnum, then I’d never have graduated from high school. I’d have been in a permanent swoon.
I disliked the early black and white episodes–some of which weren’t actually shown on PBS, but appeared later on another channel. But Simon played the ultimate upper-class prig, James Bellamy. James was the son of Lady Marjorie and her sweet, commoner husband, Richard. Lady Marjorie as the daughter of an Earl, KNEW she’d married down (think how Diana would have felt about Kate). She also made sure her son knew he was better than his hapless, sweet father. My God people, Richard went out to work! He did something in the government–M.P.? Minister for Stuffiness?. And, alas, since James couldn’t inherit his maternal grandfather’s title, the poor young man was condemned to work as well. The poor chap had to plug away as a tea merchant or tea trader or maybe it was investment banking–who knows. It involved wearing lovely frock coats and carrying a stick and dove gray gloves and looking stunning in every scene. He suffered. Truly. Had to be late to tea with Mummy. Only had time to knock up one maid. Probably had to do only a Saturday- to -Monday. Tragic really. Then there was that nightmare woman he brought home from India! (one of my favorite episodes)–less said, soonest mended on that, I can tell you. Lady Marjorie clutched her pearls and blamed sweet Richard. James rang for a drink and stroked his mustache looking too handsome to blame, but then they cut away to the stupid servants bemoaning child labor or something trivial like that.
Upstairs, Downstairs was the 1970’s Downton Abbey, albeit without the Abbey. 145 Eaton Place was built by the Duchess of Cornwall’s great-great-something-or-other on land probably owned by the Duke of Westminster and was appropriately posh. The KING came to dinner–that kind of posh. He had some frisky notions toward Marjorie, I imagine. Too long ago to remember. Instead of Carson there was Hudson who, at the end, married Mrs. Bridges the cook (there wasn’t a housekeeper). Like the Crawleys, the Bellamys were hard-hit by the Titanic (imagine if EVERY fictional character who supposedly sailed on the Titanic really had! It would have the size of the USS Abraham Lincoln). Lady Marjorie went down with the ship as did her brother Hugo and his wife. So, ala Lady Rose of Downtown, sweet Richard was landed with a young ward, Georgina. And, in a marriage so bad it rivaled Charles and Diana, James the snob married Richard’s typist, Hazel, who lived in…..wait for it……WIMBLEDON. Yes. I said it wrecked havoc. I meant it.
Throughout all of this Simon-as-James snarled his bratty remarks, drank tea thru his little mustache, chased his friend’s wife and looked drop-dead gorgeous doing all of it. Then came the war. He had a bad war, did our Captain Bellamy. In spite of being promoted to Major and winning the MC he was left feeling he should have died. But thank God for the flu epidemic! That perked him up and revived his interest in life. His wife you see, that’s right the little typist who should have married Richard–DIED. (Well she would, wouldn’t she? Nothing of a flapper in her. Too earnest. Even know what the stove was. Imagine the 20s with that ball-and-chain.) And while he looked too tender for words at her death bed he was mentally counting the moments till he could ring for drink. Free at last, he notices the ward, Georgina. But, its almost too much even for his astounding lack of moral fiber. Banging his bestie’s wife–ok. Banging late Uncle Hugo’s step-daughter, not on. (No worries she bagged Anthony Andrews in the last year and became a Duchess. Not bad for an orphan from no family.)
In the 20s these two were the epitome of the Bright Young Things though James–aka Major Bellamy now to those below stairs–was a tad long in the tooth for knocking off policeman’s helmets and killing farmers on bicycles while driving drunk. The flip side was MONEY. James made loads of it. And lost it. All. Including those precious pounds intrusted by the family maid. The Shame. Richard wore it like a hair shirt. James shrugged, muttered mea culpa and rang for a gin and tonic and looked beautifully bored, but with lovely faint wispish hints of gray at his temples. Swoon.
But while I was pining for Simon (not James) the show encouraged another love of mine–the cross-generation romance. In a way there were three such in this show.
- James and Georgina in the 20s.
- James’ poor wife, Hazelle and sweet father-in-law Richard and then, during the war.
- Richard and his eventual 2nd wife, Virginia.
- (Ok, 4–the Butler had a one-sided one, but who cares about Downstairs anyway? Pour the gin already).
I loved Virginia–her feistiness really blew the cobwebs out of Eaton Place. But, she was…. well….there’s no kind way to say this, is there? MIDDLE CLASS. (Cue the music of DOOM). Admittedly, a higher form of Middle Class than poor Hazel, but still. The property values must be considered. Richard could be wonderfully stuffy and Virginia tweaked his nose perfectly. Of course he put up a good fight, but in the end she won and he was her slave ever after–and looked cuddly and adorable the whole time. So pleased with his own faux machismo.
During this little love fest, James got his hackles up and threatened to show Papa the door, then got remorse when Virginia began looking at homes in tatty neighborhoods inhabited by doctors and stockbrokers with nary an “Hon.” on the street and decided that his new, age-mate step-mama and her kiddies were welcome. In a rare moment of clarity and nascent maturity he also felt it might keep him from tackling and bedding Georgina before the morning room fire and having Hudson keel over when he brought the drinks’ tray. Not that he’d have minded about Hudson–he’d certainly had his innings, but Ruby couldn’t be seen answering the door and friends were expected around for a rousing game of “Are You There, Moriarity”. Right. He was a great guy. But oh so handsome!
But Virginia and Richard were so sweet! And, when a bored James (who didn’t work AFTER the war) took Virginia for a ride in his new “aeroplane” they didn’t return on time!! Richard fumed. He fussed. He called Marjorie’s old friend Pru and they had tea together. Scandalous. And, in a house big enough to be a boutique hotel the poor woman kipped out on the wonderful leather chesterfield in the morning room! (I still want that sofa.) That, my friends, is dedication. And then, Richard’s honor made him express both his jealousy and his worry in such an adorably Victorian manner that Virginia took him upstairs and made him forget all about it. James looked delightfully rumpled and nearly contrite as he rang for a drink.
I still have all the series books, plus the back story novel. Downton Abbey has similar books today. Sadly, I’ve lost the photos the production company sent me when I wrote to them in ’74 or ’75, but good golly was Simon ever handsome in them.
As I was snooping around on the internet to remind myself of some U/D moments, I read a few recent interviews with Simon Williams–who is still swoon-worthy. Just plain handsome. I had found him in a rare movie appearance–a Churchill movie where he played a dinner guest. He also showed up in Merlin and a few others. On stage he’s done “Yes Prime Minister,” a stage version of the popular British t.v. show, for which I think he’d be perfect. He looks smashing in half-glasses and lets face it, that’s about all there is to succeeding in politics, right? He also showed up as a flunkie in a royal movie I tried to watch (not his fault).
While doing my little dab of research (like my students I gave it about 2 minutes on Google) I discovered we actually have a few things in common beyond being alive at the same time and roughly speaking the same language:
- I was a twin and my twin died before or at birth
- I loathed every minute of high school and wanted to leave (He got to leave Churchill’s old school at 16–the year I was born, sadly for me. That age gap, plus being on different continents…well, he looks happily married, best leave them to it and not waste time on what could have been when it wouldn’t have been, right?)
- We both learned of the Holocaust at about the same age and both were shocked. I had nightmares for weeks.
I thought it was wonderful that he thinks of himself as “cuddly” (Sigh) Or that he naps in a hammock listening to cricket. Since no one knows any other point to cricket, that shows his innate good sense.