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The real Upstairs Downstairs

As the lavish period drama, now set in the 1930s, returns to TV, Andrew McCorkell offers a guide to the series, recalls its predecessor and speaks to modern-day lords, ladies and butlers

The creators of the glamorous new version of Upstairs, Downstairs are hoping to deliver a knockout blow on Boxing Day after a week of pre-bout hype intended to suggest bitter rivalry with ITV's Downton Abbey.

Jean Marsh, co-creator of the 1970s production of the Belgravia drama, when asked if it was a coincidence that the ITV series, like the original version of Upstairs, Downstairs, was also set in the Edwardian era, answered, "It might be a coincidence. I might be the Queen of Belgium."

Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, responded: "There are a limited number of ways you can bring people of different backgrounds and ages under one roof. We have all had masses of lawyers' offices, police stations and hospitals, which are obvious, and the staffed house is rather less obvious. I think there is certainly room for more than one. Good luck to them, say I."

Meanwhile, The Independent on Sunday meets the modern-day versions of the people and staff who live in that rarefied world.

Lord Palmer, 59

Fourth Baron of Reading

Adrian Palmer married his wife, Loraine, in 2006, and has three children, Hugo, 30, Edwina, 29, and George, 26, from a previous marriage.

Lord Palmer owns Manderston House, in Duns, Berwickshire, one of Scotland's grandest, Edwardian stately homes. Its original architect, John Kinross, was told that money was no object.

"I took my grandmother to lunch at a neighbouring stately home. As I came down the drive, she said, 'Isn't that simply awful?' I said: 'What, granny?' And she said, 'But didn't you notice? The butler gave our hostess a note, but it wasn't on a silver salver!' That to her was the end of life.

"My father inherited a butler who was a footman in Yorkshire until his boss got killed. That butler was my father's butler for most of the war. Then he became my grandfather's butler, and when my father married my mother he became our so-called butler, pig man, chauffeur and everything else.

"My butler was almost my nanny. I adored him. He died recently aged 95. There was always an enormous affection for one's staff."

Lady Cavendish

Grania Mary Caulfield, married to Baron Cavendish of Furness

Lady Cavendish and her husband, who uses the name Hugh Cavendish, own Holker Hall and the surrounding estates overlooking Morecambe Bay in Cumbria.

"Things have changed an awful lot. Back then, there would have been lots of help. But post-war, there's not so many. It's completely different now. There's much more close contact. They have watched the children grow up.

"One has to prepare the house, as everybody does, on a different scale. And, of course, you want to do your best when people come over. You lay it on a bit more when the crowds come over from America.

"There are some staff who have much more versatile roles. Grant, our chef, will walk the dogs and look after our grandchildren. He's watched my children grow up. It's very close.

"Sometimes the chef is cooking for 70. But most of the time we're alone and cook for ourselves. We're very busy because of the businesses and often enjoy being on our own."

Ian Glaster, 52


Ian Glaster has served the world's rich and famous for 30 years. He is based in the Middle East, but manages houses in London and others around the world. "There is humour in everything. There was one time when we were doing a shooting weekend in Scotland. In some of these country houses, they have to double up the dressing rooms with the bedrooms and there's a connecting door. I was dressing someone – we double up as valets for a shooting weekend – and I rushed through the door and there was a lady stark naked, lacquering her nails. All I said was 'excuse me' and closed the door. You have to be diplomatic.

"After you have done a great dinner party, with many famous people, they are quite affectionate. I'm usually handling dinner services that are 300 years old, with plates worth £1,000."

Anne O'Brien, 54


Anne O'Brien is in charge of two staff on an estate in Buckinghamshire.

"I've had more belly laughs than anything. Some of the situations are very Jeeves and Wooster. They are so funny. You can have a great laugh, but you have to be committed. It's a high-stress, high-commitment job.

"It's like Homes & Gardens or Interiors, when they open the magazine. When they open the door to their homes, that's what they expect to see. It's to a neurotically high, clean, polished standard.

"The people I work for are immensely wealthy. They have so much that they probably wouldn't spend it in a lifetime. And yet all these people have a sense of buy one, get one free. Although they have all this money, they still want value.

"They can be extremely generous with gifts, and if you need to fly off somewhere for your work, because most of them have other properties around the world, they put you on a plane and you will be gone. Most of the time you are their feet that are on the ground, and they do expect value for money.

"When I was walking around with diamonds in my pockets and then went to the Oxfam shop for myself, I thought, 'This is a strange world.'"

Nick Page, 52


The chauffeur has also been a house organiser – he holds keys and makes sure security is maintained – and mechanic for famous names in central London for 20 years. He is typically in charge of a fleet of three of four cars, such as the new Bentley series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Audi A8 and a sports car, each worth a minimum of £70,000. He said: "Ladies' Day at Ascot – the girls have a few too many glasses of wine, they are wearing short skirts, and there are lots of frolics in the car. You do have to flip your inside mirror up. You can walk in on situations. Extramarital affairs, indiscreet comments, raging arguments – you are exposed to it all. It is a bit Upstairs, Downstairs. You have to maintain a level of integrity and be professional about it. If you don't like the situation you are in, then you get out of it."

The return of a classic...

BBC1 has pinned its Christmas hopes on reviving the programme, which was a rampant hit for ITV between 1971 and 1975 over 68 episodes. The drama was watched by a billion people in 70 countries. It explored class struggle and tackled subjects as varied as gay relationships, drug-taking, suicide, affairs, unwanted babies, divorce and bereavement. It provided a narrative of, and personalised, historic events between 1903 and 1930 through the experience of the Bellamy family, including the sinking of the Titanic, the horrors of the First World War and the Wall Street crash. The hour-long daily episodes of the mini-series start on BBC1 on Boxing Day and run for three days, with rumours of a full series in 2011.

The new cast includes Jean Marsh reprising her role as Rose Buck, originally a parlour maid, who is now elevated to the dizzying heights of housekeeper. Rose is the only character to return, though Eileen Atkins, who dreamt up the idea for the show at her kitchen table with fellow actress Marsh, will play Maud.

Upstairs: Maud is one of the well-heeled and influential Holland family, who now hold the deeds to 165 Eaton Place, and is an eccentric upper-class woman who helped to build the British Raj in India.

Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard), the master, is a diplomat in his mid-thirties, and appears to have everything. He has risen through the ranks of the Foreign Office, and has inherited a considerable fortune, a baronetcy and 165 Eaton Place. He is a lead character in the mould of Richard Bellamy, first Viscount Bellamy of Haversham, who was played by David Langton.

Langton, went on to play Earl Mountbatten of Burma in Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story in 1982, and Herbert Asquith in the 1983 TV drama Number 10.

He died of a heart attack during a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1994.

Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes), the chatelaine, is the eldest daughter of the 12th Earl Towyn, and is devoted in her marriage to Sir Hallam. Lady Holland is the new Georgina Stockbridge, Marchioness of Stockbridge, who was played by Lesley-Anne Down.

Lesley-Anne Down went on to find fame in America and stars in the long-running daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.

Downstairs: Miss Rose Buck, the housekeeper, was the upper house parlour maid at Eaton Place for almost 40 years. Since 1932 she has been running a domestic employment agency but, initially employed to recruit servants for the Hollands, proves indispensable.

Mr Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), the butler, arrives armed with a reference from the film star Errol Flynn and has had a lengthy career on the Cunard cruise ships. Mr Pritchard takes over house affairs from Angus Hudson, the butler, who was played by Gordon Jackson.

Jackson won an Emmy for the role before going on to star in The Professionals. He died in 1990 after being diagnosed with bone cancer.

Clarice Thackeray (Anne Reid), the cook, is a widow who is passionate about her work and has high standards both for herself and others. She is also a terrible snob.

The cook in the old series was Kate Bridges, later Mrs Hudson, and was played by Angela Baddeley. Baddeley, died of pneumonia aged 71 shortly after the series completed its run.

Her death meant a planned spin-off about a boarding house run by the Hudsons never materialised.