Wednesday 22 February 2023

Jean Marsh


Actress Jean Marsh in Edwardian maid's costume, portraying Rose in the 1970s ITV television series 'Upstairs Downstairs'

Jean Marsh 

Well, yes, another not-so-unknown face. In fact, if you were watching television in the 1970s, the image at the top of this post will be very recognisable, almost iconic. 'Upstairs, Downstairs' was an award-winning television sensation, and Jean Marsh was its co-creator and star, in the role of put-upon housemaid, Rose Buck. A precursor to, and undoubted influence on, 'Downton Abbey' and other period social dramas, it was a massive hit in the UK and abroad, particularly on PBS in America. Although it helped lift her and many of her fellow cast-members to stardom, (Anthony Andrews, Pauline Collins and Jon Alderton for example), she was not a producer of the programme and received only a small residual payment for developing the original concept with fellow actress Eileen Atkins.

Just about recognisable in this press shot from the Laurence Olivier 
movie for television, 'The Moon & Sixpence' (1959)

Before 'Upstairs, Downstairs', Jean Marsh had been a successful actress as a child and starlet. Her elegant figure and pert, yet slightly disconcerting, good looks led to her appearing in several films in the '50s and early '60s, such as 'The Rebel' (1961) - as one of the Juliette Greco-clone beatniks, and as a South Seas beauty in 'The Moon & Sixpence (1959) with Lawrence Olivier. She also crossed the Atlantic to play a uncanny companion android in an excellent episode of 'The Twilight Zone', 'The Lonely'.            

As Alicia the realistic robot, a moral dilemma for Jack Warden
in a classic episode of 'The Twilight Zone' from 1959    

As the '60s progressed Marsh's sophisticated style was in demand for the new wave of slick spy and cop shows of the era, including 'Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre', 'Danger Man', 'The Saint', 'Department S', 'Adam Adamant Lives!' and another trip over the ocean to appear in NBC's 'I Spy'. She also appeared in the increasingly popular 'Doctor Who', first in the crusades adventure 'The Knight Of Jaffa', and later as quasi-companion Sara Kingdom. She would make a further return as sorceress Morgaine in the 1989 story, 'Battlefield'. (Trivia: In real life, she was married to the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, from 1955-1960.)    

As Sara Kingdom in mid-'60s 'Doctor Who',
she would return in another role in the '80s   

The '70s, we now know, was the decade of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' and it's enormous popularity and success. This parlayed into a plethora of higher profile roles for Jean Marsh. There's Hichcock's 'Frenzy' (1972) and she has a shrilly neurotic performance in the schlocker 'Dark Places' (1973) with its surprisingly starry cast of Joan Collins, Christopher Lee, Robert Hardy, Jane Birkin and Herbert Lom. And then there's 'The Eagle Has Landed' (1976), a proper star-studded wartime caper, with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. 

In an episode of 'UFO'

By the '80s Jean Marsh was much in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. Hollywood beckoned with a run of evil-queen roles that begins with Mombi the Witch in 'Return To Oz' (1985), Bavmorda in 'Willow' (1988) and Morgana in 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' (1989), while the US small screen saw her in episodes of 'Hawaii 5-0', The Waltons' and 'The Love Boat', with a regular role in the TV '9 to 5'. 

More UK productions feature as we move into the '90s and 2000s: the villainous Dr Culex in the rebooted 'Tomorrow People'; a return to the Who-niverse in 'An Adventure In Space And Time'; classic serials 'The Mayor Of Casterbridge' and (the BBC 2008) 'Sense & Sensibility'; and as the portmanteau ghost of all Henry VIII's wives in 'Monarch' with TP McKenna.

As Mrs Ferrars in 'Sense & Sensibility'

Sadly, a mild stroke in 2011 affected her ability to work. Although not completely unable to act, she was only able to appear in a few scenes of the new 1930s-set 'Upstairs, Downstairs', which also had the misfortune to coincide with its mega-budget clone 'Downton Abbey'.         

Jean Marsh-imdb

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