PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" celebrates its 20th year next week by reairing installments of some of its favorite offerings, beginning with Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins' delightful series, "Upstairs, Downstairs."
But before the retrospective begins, there's another gem: a short version of Atkins' one-woman show, "Virginia Woolf: A Room of Her Own," which will open in New York City later this month.
The title comes from feminist Woolf's credo, with roots in the prejudice and condescension she met at Cambridge, that "a woman must have money and a room of one's own if she is to write fiction." Woolf later combined two Girton College lectures into a book of the same title.
Patrick Garland directed and edited the play into a one-hour television presentation from the 90-minute stage version at London's Playhouse, which starred Atkins.
The presentation is a tour de force for Atkins, and her good friend Jean Marsh highly recommends it.
"She's a great actress," said Marsh, "and this is one of the best things she's ever done."
It's an assessment one can trust. Atkins and Marsh were born about a mile apart in London. They are the same age -- 56, said Marsh, although she said Atkins is two weeks older -- and both the cockney daughters of domestic servants. Their recollections would come in handy later when they wrote "Upstairs, Downstairs."
"We met because her ex-husband was understudying my current boyfriend in a play," recalled Marsh. "We hit it off straight away. We had things she was better at than me or I was better at than she was. It's a very complementary relationship.
"But we've never acted together. The only time we've worked together is our two-minute tap dance that we do for charity. We wear little satin tap pants and we always stop the show."
The two have combined again to write "The House of Elliott," a 12-part story now in pre-production and soon rehearsals for airing on BBC next October. They worked on the script at each other's homes and "laughed most of the time," she said.
The story is not a comedy, however.
"It's about two young women in 1920 whose father, who was a very successful doctor, dies," she said. "They lived very repressed lives. He's given them no education, and he doesn't leave them any money, and they have to work out a way to live. They have great flair and chic and they manage clothes very well, and they eventually start a couture house -- the House of Elliott. It contrasts with all the ghastly things that were happening in the '20s, such as the miners' strike, which was a very black time in England."
For "The House of Elliott," Marsh drew on a brief time when she worked as a model for the fashion industry.
"It's the only other thing I've ever done except acting and dance," she said. "In America, I worked for an artist who drew people in clothes, mainly for Bloomingdale's. I did it part-time when I wasn't working as an actress."
Marsh's career as a performer began in an odd way. As a child during World War II, she found she suddenly couldn't walk; doctors said the cause was mental paralysis due to continued bombing. So her parents sent Marsh to ballet classes as a form of therapy, and she stayed on at theater school until she was 16.
In 1947, she made her American TV debut in "The Moon and Sixpence" with Laurence Olivier. Two years later she made her Broadway debut in "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by and starring Sir John Gielgud. There was a stint in television's "Twilight Zone" and small roles in Alfred Hitchcock's film "Frenzy" and in "Cleopatra," with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
There also was stage work -- the innocent Gwendolyn in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," the sophisticated lead in Tom Stoppard's "Travesties," Alan Bennett's "Habeas Corpus" and on Broadway with Tom Conti in "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" And more films: "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," "La Dolce Vita," "King Lear," "Jane Eyre," "The Eagle Has Landed," a World War II mystery with Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland; "The Corsican Brothers"; George Lucas' "Willow," and Disney's "Return to Oz."
She narrated the International Animation Festival on PBS, and played five witches in a row, including Morgan LeFay on both "Dr. Who" and "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." She also showed up in CBS' "Masters of the Game," in "Tales From the Darkside," and in ABC's 1982-83 series, "Nine to Five," playing Roz Keith.
She's also made a yet-to-be-aired TV movie, "Bejeweled," starring Emma Samms.
Most American fans know her from "Upstairs, Downstairs," which, after a long run in England, appeared as a "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation. She won an Emmy for her role as Rose, the parlor maid.
The role was a vindication for Marsh, whose mother, Emmeline (called Poppy), had been a maid and who was afraid her daughter was "going backward." Later, Mrs. Marsh happily admitted she had been wrong.
Marsh talked about her career and plans as she wrapped Christmas gifts for her parents (her father is 87, her mother 83) and friends at her cottage near Henley-on-Thames.
Marsh also maintains an apartment in New York. "It has American and French country furnishings," she said. "I think it looks very American, but everyone says it looks exactly like my cottage."
The Masterpiece Theatre retrospective begins next week with the first of three installments of "Upstairs, Downstairs," followed by singles of "The Flame Trees of Thika," "On Approval," "I, Claudius," "All for Love: A Dedicated Man," "Elizabeth R," "Jewel in the Crown," "The Tale of Beatrix Potter," "Six Wives of Henry VIII," and the 20th anniversary special March 24.