Friday Hoyden: Jean Marsh

Our guest hoyden today is Tasmanian author Tansy Rayner Roberts, who has the second book of her fantasy trilogy released today! woot!

a pale skinned woman in Edwardian-era maid's clothing, pouring tea into a fine bone china cup

as Rose in Upstairs Downstairs

I can’t remember not knowing who Jean Marsh was. She played Rose on Upstairs Downstairs, and even though I was rather young when I first watched the costume drama to end all costume dramas, I was also keenly aware that she didn’t only act, but was one the co-creators and writers of the show. Later, I fell in love with the House of Eliott, created and written by Jean Marsh and her best friend (now Dame) Eileen Atkins. House of Eliott wasn’t just a costume drama, it was a drama about costumes, with a focus on two sisters who set up their own fashion house in the 1920’s.

Being a Doctor Who fangirl from even earlier than I was a costume drama fangirl, I was also aware of Marsh’s appearances in two classic lost black and white stories, playing Princess Joanna, sister to Julian Glover’s Richard the Lionheart, and later Sara Kingdom, a ruthless soldier from the future who guns down her own brother out of political loyalty.

a pale skinned woman in queenly mediaeval garb holds her arms high while mouthing an incantation

as Bavmorda in George Lucas’s Willow

In the 1980’s, Marsh played two iconic evil queens: Bavmorda in George Lucas’s Willow, who sends her forces to destroy an innocent baby and is screechingly furious when her sexy chainmail-clad redhead daughter Joanne Whalley leaves her side to marry Val Kilmer (that’s how *I* remember the movie); and also a science fictional version of Morgaine le Fey in Doctor Who: Battlefield.

a pale skinned woman with long red hair is wearing a crown and a chainmail shirt, holding up one hand with very long fingernails and looking angry

as Morgaine le Fey in Doctor Who: Battlefield

No one plays villainous feminine power like Jean Marsh. When she points a finger at you and her eyes glow red, you damn well cringe at her feet.

Of course, this is just a handful of the achievements of a magnificent, fiercely talented woman’s life – the few roles that most affected me, and that drilled her into my brain as the personification of evil and writing success, rolled in together. She won an Emmy (and received two Golden Globe nominations) for her performance as Rose in Upstairs Downstairs, she has appeared in the West End and Broadway, and appeared in shows such as The Saint, Hawaii Five-0, The Love Boat, The Twilight Zone, Murder She Wrote and Holby City.

Jean Marsh was married once, briefly in the late 50’s (to Jon Pertwee!) but never bought into the idea that marriage was an essential to life.

“I lived with the man I ran away with for 10 years. We talked about marriage but never talked about it at the same time. He would want to get married, I’d say, ‘No, I’ve got to do the laundry.’ Then I’d say, ‘Shouldn’t we get married?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m going away on tour.’ So we never quite got together.”

a pale skinned smartly dressed elderly woman is wearing a lapel mic for an interview and smilingListening to her being interviewed in recent years, on the Battlefield DVD as well as in the Big Finish audio plays (where she reprises her role as Sara Kingdom despite the fact that the character famously died after only a handful of episodes in the late 1960’s) I was struck by her wicked sense of humour. Her eyes sparkle as she tells an anecdote about how she kept her lunch in the compartment of her belt that was supposed to hold a ray gun, (“I wasn’t issued with a BBC raygun!”) or how she and Julian Glover tried to sneak some incestuous vibes into a children’s TV show to make it more interesting (“I know what you’re up to!” said producer Verity Lambert).

I always knew that Jean Marsh was talented, and scary, but I suppose if I assumed anything, it was that she was like Rose the parlour maid: meek, judgemental and uptight, or possibly like Queen Bavmorda: sinister, powerful and vengeful. What a delight to discover that she is an impish old lady who thoroughly enjoys her life, and her work, and being sarcastic when people deserve it.

“I was in a pub and these two young men came up to me. They said I looked like I’d had a hard day. I realised they’d just been watching a repeat of Upstairs, Downstairs. I said, ‘That was filmed 40 years ago, anyone would look tired. And by the way, shouldn’t you be at school?’ ”

Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of Power and Majesty (Creature Court Book One) and The Shattered City (Creature Court Book Two, April 2011) with Reign of Beasts (Creature Court Book Three, coming in November 2011) hot on its tail. Her short story collection Love and Romanpunk will be published as part of the Twelfth Planet Press “Twelve Planets” series in May. She is also one of the voices of the feminist SF podcast Galactic Suburbia.

House of Eliott was one of Tansy’s inspirations for the Creature Court, a fantasy trilogy about a dressmaker who is pulled into an unseen world of night horrors, sky battles, bloodthirsty court politics and naked people.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Life

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15 replies

  1. I had never known that she was a writer/co-creator on Upstairs Downstairs or House of Elliott. I’ve always enjoyed her acting but wow – that’s really impressive.

  2. a fantasy trilogy about a dressmaker who is pulled into an unseen world

    *swoon* *puts bookshop on to-do list for the weekend*
    I don’t think we got Upstairs Downstairs in my small country town, or if we did my parents never let me watch it. [for anyone who didn’t grow up in a small country town or is younger than 35ish – we only had two channels until I was 14, then we doubled to four and wasn’t that amazing! I still remember when we got our first colour TV]. Ahem, anyway I am going to catch up on a really good show by the sounds of it.
    I think Jean might just be the role model I didn’t know I was looking for.

    • @Mindy, Tansy said on her blog that not all bookshops will stock it immediately after release. You’re probably better off ringing them up and asking them whether they’ve got it, so that they can order it in if they don’t.

  3. I only just clicked through on the linked source for that first quote – there’s a brand new sequel to Upstairs Downstairs? And Rose is the housekeeper now?
    Oh, I wonder when we’ll get to see it here.

  4. Oh, my. I haven’t watched Masterpiece Theatre in years. I just set the DVR for this. Thanks.

  5. @ Tigtog – I haven’t read the first one so I will go in search of it and go from there.

  6. Great post – thanks, Tansy!
    I love this sentence:

    He would want to get married, I’d say, ‘No, I’ve got to do the laundry.’

    I think Stanley Fish would love it, too. There’s just so many layers of meaning. Wonderful.
    I also did not know she was co-creator of those shows. I never watched Upstairs Downstairs (thinking maybe I should!), but I loved House of Elliott, possibly because it was all about women. It makes sense, now, to discover it was created by women. (I was too young to think about that sort of thing at the time, although it seems I was old enough to appreciate the fact that it was all about women.)

  7. *adds House of Elliot to list of things to look up on the weekend*

  8. Jean Marsh is so badass, and she is a rocking Morgaine in Doctor Who.
    I also feel the need to plug Gosford Park, which while written by a bloke is very much a homage to Upstairs, Downstairs and has Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Helen Mirren as the chief housekeeper and cook and is very woman-focused (also Emily Watson and Kelly MacDonald and Dame Maggie Smith and on the other side of the coin Clive Owen nom nom nom). But no Jean Marsh, which would make it even more badass.

  9. I rewatched Battlefield, and thoroughly enjoyed Jean Marsh’s appearance in that, after the Brigadier died. Apparently the Doctor is Merlin, and since Merlin aged backwards and we have a significantly younger doctor now, it’d be really cool if he gets to be Merlin again.

  10. Fabulously entertaining Friday Hoyden this week, thank you for writing it Tansy Rayner Roberts.

  11. Thanks from me too!
    I have very fond memories of that Doctor Who story. I just discovered too that she was Mombi (and head nurse) from Return to Oz, and so a huge part of why that film was one of the scariest films I’d ever seen as a child. Delightful!

  12. Thanks everyone for all your comments! I was very happy to get a chance to add a Hoyden of my very own.

    • Very happy to have you as our guest, Tansy! We’ll have to get you to write us another one when your next novel comes out 🙂
      P.S. I very much enjoyed the first book in your Creature Court series, and will shortly get the new one for my Kindle. It’s an exciting pleasure to read about a genuinely new kind of magic for once.

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