House of Holland

22Feb12

Revived by the BBC last year, the atmospheric period drama Upstairs Downstairs returned to our screens on Sunday night, for more heightened histrionics in the lives of the residents of 165 Eaton Place.

Lady Agnes, “I frequently don glittery ballgowns to pose in my cavernous foyer, surrounded by the help”.

The story picks up in 1938 on the eve of the Second World War, as Sir Hallam Holland’s diplomatic skills (he works for the Foreign Office) are put to the test during Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler over the Munich agreement. While he broods ominously on the sidelines, his wife Lady Agnes is back in London attempting to run her household with the help of her trusted staff. Though the lavish lifestyle of the Hollands differs dramatically from their servants below stairs, what ties them all together is a shared address. Indeed, the handsome Georgian townhouse in Belgravia, a salubrious London neighbourhood, is as prominent a feature of the show as the colourful characters themselves.

Clarendon Square, Leamington Spa. 

Unlike the original 1970s series, whose exteriors were shot on location at 65 Eaton Place (the 1 was hand-painted onto the pillar), the production team decided to shoot in Clarendon Square, Leamington Spa, as it was a quieter street with less noise pollution.

The interiors were created in two separate studios in Wales (Bridgend for the “Upstairs” set, and Pontypridd for “Downstairs”) and the sumptuous attention to visual detail is breathtaking. Set designer Arwel Wyn-Jones, who came straight from working on the recent Sherlock adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch, recalls “Everything was entering the Art Deco stage, from the furniture, interior decoration and architecture of that time and you have to be careful that you stick to it. However, it’s a drama not a documentary so there is always an element of embellishment allowed…It’s a great period to work in because there are lots of the fabrics, colours and textures suitable for Upstairs that are in again now, so much of that was available to buy off the shelf. I also sourced things from prop houses in London who specialise in theatre and are very good.”

“Downstairs was a bit more of a challenge because we had to create a frenetic, busy, working kitchen. I never wanted it to be grimy or dirty though, so used wallpaper patterns with sheen and glaze and moulding.”
Photo from Inside Updown by Richard Marson
While the upstairs world is defined by the opulence of Art Deco glamour, from the chandeliers dripping in jewels and sunburst-decorated doors, to the cockle-shaped headboard draped in peach silk, downstairs is a more rugged and organic space that accurately represents the working classes. In keeping with the social constraints of the time, there is a place for everyone and everyone in their place!
*BBC One Sunday 9pm
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