NewnhamWrites … Rosemary is for Remembrance
One of television’s finest period storytellers, 93-year-old Rosemary Anne Sisson, on World War II, Upstairs, Downstairs, and what she said to Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes.
Rosemary Ann Sisson’s home is a place filled with memories, charting a life well lived through words and photographs, posters and paintings. She’s lived in this house on the New King’s Road, London since she was a young child, long used to the traffic crawling along this major throughway. When I arrive, she’s already made coffee and we go into her sitting room with the noise of the capital grumbling like a troublesome giant outside. Books fight for space on shelves, including the biggest dictionary I have ever seen; framed letters from The Queen, decorate the walls, together with a host of family photographs. Of course, she has a television, and a vast collection of video cassettes of old TV series. And by the window overlooking Parsons Green is her writing desk. She eases herself into her armchair – strategically positioned in front of the television and within reaching distance of her coffee table and a copy of The Times. I sink into the sofa. It’s so cosy, I could curl up and fall asleep on it.
I wish I could have met Rosemary five or ten years earlier to listen to her anecdotes and her adventures through screenwriting that took her from the dingy rooms of the BBC to flying first class to Hollywood where she stayed at the Chateau Marmont. Today, Rosemary’s thoughts are interrupted by other loose threads wanting to be tied up. She blames this on an incident two years ago when a man knocked her off her feet. She bumped her head on the pavement and broke her arm. The doctors, she tells me, were too absorbed fixing her arm to check if her head was okay. She’s apologetic. Frustrated too. But I tell her it doesn’t matter. I’m sitting before screenwriting royalty.
For those who don’t know, Rosemary was part of the award-winning team behind Upstairs, Downstairs, the precursor to Downton Abby. The series, depicting the comings and goings of the wealthy Bellamy family (“upstairs”), who reside at 165 Eaton Place in London’s fashionable Belgravia, and their servants (“downstairs”), hooked the television-watching population on both sides of the Atlantic. Between 1971 and 1975, Upstairs, Downstairs was nominated for, and won, a host of national and international awards, winning two BAFTA awards, two Royal Television Society awards, three Writers Guild Awards, eight Emmys, and a Golden Globe. They never expected it to be such a hit, and when they celebrated, it was with cheap wine in a room down in the basement of London Weekend Television studios.
Thanks to an ‘horrendous’ english teacher at Ladies’ Cheltenham College, Rosemary very nearly didn’t become a writer. Her teacher, she says, had a tendency to destroy anything literary. Particularly Shakespeare. It was on a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, however, that Rosemary’s mindset changed. Watching Much Ado About Nothing, she was captivated by the acting. Shakespeare was, ‘actually funny’. The experience invigorated her with the idea that great stories could be told and acted well, and in turn, it awoke a dormant wish to write. And write she did – stories – long and short, and poetry. At the same time, she continued with her education, but then the War came.
She mentions it in a way that it’s clear it marked her for life. When World War II broke out, Rosemary was on the cusp of adulthood. She should have gone to university, enjoying life as a young adult, but instead she volunteered for the RAF, plotting aircraft in the Royal Observer Corps. It was, she says, a depressing existence, far removed from the glamour of meeting ‘handsome RAF pilots’. Everyday, she took the train from her family’s cottage in West Sussex (where she lived alone – her parents and sister still in London), to Horsham, sitting in a cold, dank basement from morning until night. She missed her parents, her older sister, and couldn’t wait for the war to be over.
War-time memories, the colours, the feelings, the before and after are captured in a book of poetry she published herself. This for me, is the most fascinating and intimate insight into her work. Written over a number of years, Rosemary is for Remembrance brings together verse painting the idyllic and the horrific in either rose-tinted words …
Cotton dresses hitched up in ice-cold water-meadows,
Feet on the smooth chalk feeling the flow
Of minnows and sticklebacks flicking round the instep
Feet and fish in mud and water, long, long ago …
… Or acerbic dark humour:
How sad to think that my Aunt Mabel,
was killed while underneath a table!
One feels that one can write a saga,
on someone killed while drinking lager …
After the war, she did go to university. First, following her father (Professor of English Language and Literature and a Shakespeare scholar) to University College London, to study English Literature, and then to Newnham College, Cambridge where she completed her M.Litt.. While she was intent to stay on to do her Ph.D., a meeting with a friend of her father’s changed her mind. He was a professor of English Literature from Wisconsin University in the USA and over dinner one evening, he offered her a job to come work with him. The prospect of going far away from the aftermath of the war was so attractive that she ditched her Ph.D. plans and went off to Wisconsin. ‘I would have stayed there,’ she says, ‘but then the King (George VI) got ill.’ Rosemary’s family had no connection to the royal family, but she frames her return to England with a sense of duty. Her reverence to the royal family remains unchanged. She dislikes the press treatment of the royals, the kiss-and-tell tales sold to the tabloids. And don’t get her started on Netflix’s current hit, The Crown which she feels is despicable given the Queen’s still alive.
Rosemary never returned to Wisconsin. When she and her parents went to see Richard Burton in Henry V she was inspired to pen her own play, The Queen and the Welshmen which was then picked up and produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with a very young Edward Woodward in the leading role. On the back of that success, she wrote for BBC Radio One – mainly for Women’s Hour – and from there she transitioned to television. One of the first series she worked on was the acclaimed BBC series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII penning the story of Catherine of Aragon. That was probably her first taste of television success, earning a string of BAFTAs and Emmys. Next came the sequel to the series, Elizabeth R, with an Emmy-winning turn from Glenda Jackson. The series itself won the Emmy for the Best Dramatic Series in 1972 (the first British TV series ever to win the American TV award).
And then Upstairs, Downstairs came along. That series is one of the things she’s most proud of. When Downton Abbey first aired, she happened to be at an event at The Groucho Club. As luck would have it, she had been seated next to Downton’s creator, Sir Julian Fellowes. ‘He was incredibly nervous because he knew Downton was effectively Upstairs, Downstairs,’ but then she sent him a letter, allaying his fears, telling him she had watched it and how she enjoyed it ‘tremendously’.
After Upstairs, Downstairs, the offers came flying in. She wrote five films for Disney, including, Watcher in the Woods and The Black Cauldron. She also co-wrote the animated series of Wind and the Willows which I loved as a child. She then worked for George Lucas on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. She remembers George Lucas as, ‘wonderful to work with’ and, ‘so nice’. She says he loved the idea of writing, but adds with a cheeky smile, ‘he wasn’t such a good writer.’ That is the worst thing she will say about anybody. For Rosemary, it’s her work that matters the most. She penned novels, plays and screenplays at a ferocious rate. In fact, her basement is a monument to her life’s work. All her research for her novels and screenplays are archived in thick files, copies of her plays and novels and poetry line the shelves and on a desk are photographs and framed signatures of cast and crew from the various productions she’s been associated with. In all, a treasure trove of memorabilia and a testament to one of television’s finest period storytellers.