Alfred Shaughnessy

Principal writer of the Edwardian drama 'Upstairs, Downstairs'
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The Independent Online

Even thirty years after it was first broadcast, Upstairs, Downstairs is remembered by television viewers with similar affection as for The Forsyte Saga or Brideshead Revisited. In a pre-video age, the London Weekend Television series pinned some 300 million in front of their sets, across 36 countries, including Britain, the United States, Australia and even Saudi Arabia.

The script-editor and principal writer of the series was Alfred Shaughnessy. The idea for Upstairs, Downstairs developed when the actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins were staying with the Sunday Times columnist Patrick Campbell in his villa in the South of France, and dreamt up the idea of a comedy series in which two maids in a Victorian country house were involved in a romp called "Below Stairs". The television producer John Hawkesworth and his colleague John Witney were shrewd enough to move this to Edwardian London, and extend it to include the story of an MP and his family as well as the staff that served them.

Shaughnessy developed the MP, Richard Bellamy, into a kind of Duff Cooper figure - brilliant, Foreign Office, the son of a parson, married into one of the great landed families. He sought echoes of the Macmillans, Duff Coopers, and even Lord Harlech and his Cecil wife, which would enable the Bellamys to entertain grandly - even in one episode extending an invitation to Edward VII himself. The series took four years to develop, and inspired memorable performances from Gordon Jackson as the butler, Hudson, Rachel Gurney as the MP's wife, Lady Marjorie, David Langton as Bellamy and Angela Baddeley as the cook, Mrs Bridges.

So much did the series impinge on the national consciousness that one elderly lady in Nuneaton wrote to LWT to say that her butler was presently retiring, and would Hudson be available to present himself for an interview?

Freddie Shaughnessy could not have been better placed to bring this series to life. He came from the same kind of background, and yet he was always a little removed from the centre, and thus an acute observer from the wings. The Shaughnessys were an Irish family from Limerick that emigrated to Wisconcin. Freddie's grandfather Thomas, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, was ennobled as the first Baron Shaughnessy. Thomas's son Capt the Hon Alfred Shaughnessy, was killed in March 1916 serving with the 60th Canadian Infantry, and young Freddie, his second son, was born that May.

Freddie's mother, Sarah Polk Bradford, a great-niece of James Knox Polk, 11th President of the United States, came from Tennessee. In 1920 she was married again, to the Hon Sir Piers "Joey" Legh, whose court life included serving as Equerry to Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales and King, and then being invited to serve George VI as Equerry and later Master of the Household. In 1989, Freddie Shaughnessy edited his mother's letters and diaries in a delightful book, Sarah.

Freddie's mother and stepfather lived a life which circled round the court, and young Freddie often entertained and danced with the young princesses. He went via Summerfields to Eton with a scholarship. There he enjoyed success in athletics, became second Keeper of the Field, won a boxing Blue, and was elected to "Pop". He then went to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, the intention being that he would be commissioned into the Grenadier Guards, but he lacked the necessary private income.

Instead he was billeted on the London Stock Exchange firm Nathan and Rosselli, for which he was admirably unsuited. More appealing to him, and ultimately more useful, was his enjoyment of the social season. He plied his way between Belvoir and Luton Hoo, although he was thrown out of Chatsworth for rowdy behaviour. From January 1936 he was based with his mother in a grace-and-favour house at St James's Palace. When Edward VIII abdicated, Joey Legh accompanied the ex-King on his poignant voyage from Portsmouth.

At the earliest opportunity, Freddie Shaughnessy followed his dream and headed towards the theatre. His first effort as a theatre manager, aged 20, was not a success, but in 1937 he teamed up with Robert Ellison, a Daily Express show-business columnist, and an agent, Dennis van Thal, to handle publicity for plays such as The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams. As things began to go more promisingly, so war was declared against Germany and Shaughnessy immediately joined the Grenadier Guards.

After long periods of training, he finally saw battle in Normandy in July 1944 - "quite soon enough for me", as he put it. He recalled war as being far from glamorous, but gruesome, remembering a dead officer as "an obscene twisted human trunk hanging bent and blackened out of the turret of a wrecked armoured car, rotting in the sun, at the mercy of flies and the putrefaction". That, he wrote, was war.

In the immediate post-war period, he was given the job of giving pleasure and enlightenment to troops still stationed in Germany by organising German prisoners of war into orchestras, and boosting morale on both sides by getting them to perform, a job for which his inherent kindness and natural sympathy well suited him.

Demobilised in 1946, Shaughnessy secured a job at Ealing Studios with Michael Balcon by writing to him on Windsor Castle writing paper (his mother was living there at the time). He became a "reader" and his foot was in the door. One of his contributions was to secure Leeds Castle as the ducal residence for the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

In 1948 Shaughnessy married a Yorkshire girl, Jean Lodge, who worked at the fashion house Spectator Sports. He soon converted her into an actress in various films, repertory productions and television plays, although her career eventually took second place to motherhood. She gave him, he wrote, "a lifetime of exquisite happiness" and enabled him to "bask in the rare luxury of a wonderful marriage, blessed with two splendid sons".

Shaughnessy's film career continued with the making, directing and producing of a number of movies, work on theatre and film scripts, a radio play and various television productions. He was successful, but never more so than when the many elements of his earlier life crystallised in Upstairs, Downstairs, by which time he was 56. It ran to five series, and for Shaughnessy there were two special moments of triumph - when the Edward VII episode was shown to a packed audience at the 1975 Prix Italia Festival in Florence and when the brilliant New Yorker television critic Michael J. Arlen reprinted an entire scene written by Shaughnessy as an example of the quality of his scripts.

Freddie Shaughnessy remained a popular figure in the social world, and he and his wife entertained a great deal - I once met the redoubtable Sonia Cubitt (grandmother of the Duchess of Cornwall, and sister of Violet Trefusis) at their table. He had the ability to sit down at a piano and play and sing any number from any musical of the last 50 years.

He wrote scripts for The Irish RM and All Creatures Great and Small and in 1991 wrote a novel, Dearest Enemy, based on a deeply romantic wartime encounter with a German girl, whom he did not see again for 44 years (risking the irritation of his wife by so doing). In 1975 he published his memoirs, Both Ends of the Candle, in which names are not so much dropped but rather bubble up on every page. Other novels followed, and in 1997 came a further volume of memoirs, A Confession in Writing.

Hugo Vickers

Alfred Shaughnessy used to describe himself as a "sort of mongrel" but he was well grounded for Upstairs, Downstairs, writes Frank Gray [further to the obituary by Hugo Vickers, 7 November]. While his stepfather was equerry to the future king, there was much entertaining at the family home in Norfolk Square.

"I learned a great deal from this," Shaughnessy told me: " the relations between the upstairs and the downstairs staff, the relationships with the cooks in the kitchen spoiling the children of the household with surreptitious snacks, the arrival of VIPs such as the Mountbattens . . ."

At the outset of the television drama, Shaughnessy said he took a cautious view on depicting in-the-flesh actors trying to play famous personalities such as Edward VII, Lily Langtry and Oscar Wilde. "If you are able to," he said, "I have found that, if you are telling a fictional story about fictional people, it is better to keep the celebrities off-stage in the sense that they are more present if you don't see them."

He recalled one chapter when Bellamy, the head of household, is taking tea with some guests when the doorbell rings and his butler tells him of the arrival of Mr Bonar Law (later to be Prime Minister), and Sir Edward Carson. Bellamy excuses himself, returning later, rubbing his hands and saying, "Well, that went off all right."

But, sometimes, exceptions had to be made: "On the other hand, when we got to the King Edward scene, I was anxious to bring him in. My intention was at first never to see him head on but to get the servant's view of the King, in the sense that the servants would go round the table serving food; you would just see a sort of huge bulky figure, back to camera, and cigar smoke coming up and the maid handling the food from behind."

But I found that this was too restricting . . . In the end we did have him portrayed by an actor called Lockwood West. Strangely enough, not long afterwards, ATV television decided to do a series about Edward VII and who should they cast but Timothy West, Lockwood West's son.