Jean Marsh back in Upstairs Downstairs after stroke

The actress on persuading doctors to let her work - and how reading Shakespeare’s sonnets provided therapy

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Jean Marsh back in Upstairs Downstairs after stroke
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E Dickson

Jean Marsh chooses her words carefully. It’s the habit of a lifetime. The star and co-creator of Upstairs Downstairs is passionately interested in language. “I always read,” she says. “Always, always. I was reading poetry when I was nine.”

When Marsh suffered a slight stroke last October – just as the new series was going into production – poetry was both solace and therapy. “I read Shakespeare’s sonnets,” she says. “They were wonderful, because you go through them and then, at the end, you have an amazing truth. I’d have to say a sonnet over and over again [for the therapists], but I wasn’t just saying something beautiful, I was learning something important, something I carry around with me.”

Elegant

Four months on, Marsh has mastered her delivery. Rail-thin in cigarette pants and draped jersey, she looks directional rather than frail, like a 50s fashion sketch of la femme élégante. There is elegant deliberation, too, in her speech, as if she were italicising her thoughts. The process of recovery has been “fascinating”, she insists.

“From the day I got up, I thought, ‘What is going on? I’m not ill. Why can’t I go home?’ It took a long time before I realised something was wrong. I wasn’t physically ill – I was walking immediately – but, of course, the brain... you have to find different routes to things.

“Which is incredibly exciting. The first feeling you have [after a stroke] is, ‘Something’s gone from me,’ but you don’t want to be somebody who’s always saying, ‘What have I lost?’ If you really listen, you may find something that’s completely different in you, something that wasn’t there before. I’m 77, and there’s nothing more exciting than finding something new to develop.”

Drive

The drive for self-improvement is, says Marsh, in her genes. Her father, Henry, was a printer’s assistant who taught himself classical piano by ear. Her mother, Emmeline, a ‘maid of all work’, was a beautiful singer and “quick with figures”.

“My parents were terribly keen on getting better, on getting somewhere. There was always good music and good literature in the house. So I was lucky. I’ve always had that ability to get on with things, to think, ‘What’s the next step?’ and I think that attitude has made a difference to my getting well again.”

While scripts for Upstairs Downstairs were rejigged to accommodate Marsh’s recovery, her equally resourceful character, Rose, will in fact make brief appearances in the new series to “contextualise” her temporary departure from 165 Eaton Place. (“Rose cannot leave Upstairs Downstairs,” says scriptwriter Heidi Thomas. “It would be like the ravens leaving the Tower.”)

“I persuaded the doctors to let me work a four-hour day,” explains Marsh. “So it’s just two very small scenes. Once I’m match-fit, I hope to be back on set full-time.”

Character development

While series co-creator Eileen Atkins reportedly left the production last summer over disagreements about the direction scripts were taking, Marsh is happy with developments in Rose’s character.

“Life has dealt her some tough blows. Rose has taken on a sort of weight – partly to do with her own personality, but also the weight of all the characters from the original series who are dead. She’s not as crisp as she used to be; a bit less feisty, probably kinder. I think it has to be that way.

“Heidi [Thomas] is saying interesting things in the new scripts. It can’t be the way it was in the 70s, because those characters are gone now. And it’s such fun for me to work with new, young people.

"Ami Metcalf, who plays the tweeny, is very sweet. She forgets that I’m so much older than her – there are 60 years between us – and just gets on with it. It’s lovely to see young actors and actresses so absolutely on the ball.”

Period drama

There is an insatiable demand for period drama, with series one of Upstairs Downstairs regularly getting eight million viewers for each episode, while Downton Abbey not only surpassed those figures but won six Emmys.

Currently, Call the Midwife is set to outstrip both in TV ratings, while War Horse and The Woman in Black are equally big news on the big screen. All of which, suggests Marsh, is a function of social unease.

“When we did Upstairs Downstairs in the 70s, there was definitely a feeling of, ‘We can’t stand the present day, we want to go back to the past.’”

The sense that life was somehow easier with the certainties of the Edwardian era was, says Marsh, cosy but illusory. “Because, of course, some things in the old days were absolutely frightful. But that was all right, too, because at least we could look back and think, ‘Well, however hard life is today, it’s getting better.’”

Currently, however, no such comforts present themselves. “We look around and think, ‘There’s not much that can improve.’ We want that nice, posh Cameron to make everything better. We like the idea of a benign authority figure who will sort us all out, but of course it’s just a façade. The government is in charge, but it isn’t authority in a good sense. There are so many who need chucking out of politics altogether for terrible behaviour.”

Come the revolution, though, what will happen to Sunday-night drama? Where would we be without our fix of class division? “Well, that’s the thing,” says Marsh, throwing up ‘eureka’ hands. “It’s just a straightforward good idea for drama. To go ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. The secret of the show’s success is there in the name.”

The second series of Upstairs Downstairs begins tonight at 9:30pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 14 February 2012

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