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Women of the 'Theatre'

January 13, 1991|SUSAN KING

It's hard to imagine 1970s television without the Bellamys of 165 Eaton Place and their colorful downstairs staff.

Yet if actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins hadn't been broke, "Upstairs, Downstairs" might never have been created.

"It wasn't a serious thing to start off with," said Marsh, who had created the series with Atkins when they were both out of work. "One day I said, 'This is ridiculous. I am so poor. I should try and sell the series.' London Weekend TV people were the first to read it and they bought it. It was very simple."

"Masterpiece Theatre" was a harder sell, said Marsh, who portrayed parlor maid Rose. "They weren't interested because it wasn't a masterpiece. It was an original. But I always say it isn't a masterpiece to show an adaptation from a book. It isn't a literary experience. It doesn't mean you've read it. It's the story you've adapted, so there's no reason why it should be any more masterful than an original like 'Upstairs, Downstairs.' "

Marsh is still recognized everywhere as the good-hearted Rose. "It's still extraordinary," she said. "I went out last night (in New York City)," she said. "It was a fund-raising thing for AIDS and I was an usher. People usually don't look at ushers but when they looked at me they fell back in amazement. I guess because they loved the show so much they think you are part of the family. And most people identified more with the downstairs' characters."

Marsh has created another dramatic series for British television, scheduled to go into production next month. This time, however, Marsh didn't write a role for herself.

Actress Susan Hampshire probably should be called "Ms. Masterpiece Theatre." She starred in the first "Masterpiece" series, "The First Churchills" and later on in "Vanity Fair" and "The Barchester Chronicles."

Hampshire came to the attention of American TV audiences in 1969 in the precursor to "Masterpiece Theatre," "The Forsyte Saga," for which she won an Emmy. She also received one for "The First Churchills."

"Masterpiece Theatre" fans haven't seen Hampshire since "The Barchester Chronicles" aired six years ago. She has been working primarily on the London stage and is currently touring England in "The King and I."

But Hampshire has fond memories of her life on the miniseries. "I think it was a very lucky thing to do something where you rehearsed like you did in the theater and still had the same kind of excitement (of the theater) when you were filming," she said. "It was almost done as a continuous thing. You only had four to five hours to tape the whole show. We would run from one set to another."

Margaret Tyzack, who won a Tony Award last year for Broadway's "Lettice and Lovage," appeared with Hampshire in "The Forsyte Saga" and "The First Churchills." Tyzack also played Claudius' mother in "I, Claudius." But she's best known by "Masterpiece Theatre" buffs as Honore Balzac's tragic heroine, "Cousin Bette." That series aired in 1972.

"When I come out of the theater there's hardly a week that passes that an American doesn't talk about 'Cousin Bette,' " she said. "Americans loved it, but it didn't even get one repeat in England and I will never know why. I still get letters mostly from people who were students at the time. Some people talk about 'The Forsyte Saga,' but more people remember 'Cousin Bette.' "

Though Tyzack has been away from England for a year, she feels that British TV is changing and not for the better. "I have a fear that quality may start to be sacrificed," she said. "I am going to be optimistic and hope and pray the very wealthy men who have their eyes on the (TV) franchises are not allowed to just do talk shows and game shows which is the cheapest way of shoveling out TV."

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