One of the best-loved television series ever with a reported worldwide audience of 300 million and the program that introduced a generation of Americans to the world of British television via PBS, Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) remains a television landmark whose superior writing and characterizations supersede the budgetary and technical limitations of that era's video technology. A&E Home Video had previously released the show's 68 one-hour episodes in their usual groupings of four-disc and two-disc sets, and later as a dauntingly pricey "Complete Series Megaset" listing at $299.95. Fans of the series who understandably held off until now will be happy to learn that A&E has repackaged the same set while adding to it the 13-episode spin-off, Thomas & Sarah (1979), on -- gulp! -- 24 DVDs at a reduced $249.95. A quick search on the Internet revealed that this set can be found for about $135, less than half the cost of the original megaset's SRP.
Upstairs, Downstairs was the brainchild of two actress friends, Jean Marsh (whom American viewers will remember from Hitchcock's Frenzy and Twilight Zone) and Eileen Atkins (whose credits include the screenplay to Mrs. Dalloway), which was then further molded by producers John Hawkesworth (later a co-creator of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series) and John Whitney.
The series is set in Edwardian London, from 1903-1930 and just as its title suggests, explores the dichotomy of two disparate though interrelated "families" living under one roof at the massive, six-level home at 165 Eaton Place. The Bellamys - patriarch Sir Richard (David Langton), a member of parliament, wife Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney), son James (Simon Williams) and daughter Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) - are wealthy, upper-class society types. As they enjoy a privileged life upstairs, downstairs the Bellamys' servants, including perfect butler Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson), seemingly content housemaid Rose (Jean Marsh), and beleaguered cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), lead a household staff dedicated solely to the Bellamy's needs and whims.
The crux of Upstairs, Downstairs's drama is the stifling trap of a life people of each class and position find themselves, and that however interdependent the servants and their masters might become, there also exists an unbreakable line that separates them, a class barrier never to be crossed. As the Bellamy parents and senior servants try to uphold the British tradition others, including the Bellamy children and some of the more rebellious (or desperate) house staff, challenge it and (usually unsuccessfully) try to break free. This eventually spreads like a virus to the point where even the elder Bellamys and set-in-her-ways Rose (who early on in the series considers her life, "Safe. You know who you are and what's going to happen next. The outside world is dangerous") question the life they've seen pass them by.
To discuss plot details further would only defeat one of the great pleasures of watching the program fresh. Suffice to say that the series does a superb job capturing the essence of what for the downstairs staff was an unforgiving, brutal life of servitude, and a pall of death (to the privileged class in equal measure) and despair that hangs over much of the series, great as it is. (For a program so loved, it's actually quite dark and depressing.) Characters come and go as they do in real life over the 30-odd years in which the program is set, and it has the pacing of a stage play, with long, uninterrupted takes where the characters seem to come alive. The writing is never less than good and often excellent, and the ensemble cast is nearly flawless.
The creators of Upstairs, Downstairs decided to quit while they were ahead, this despite the fact that the program continually ranked in the Top Ten in Britain, and was enormously successful overseas. (Quite a contrast to its first season, when the network had so little faith in it that the finished program sat unaired for six months.) Thomas & Sarah was the eventual response, an uneven program that had little to do with the original series, other than it followed the earlier series' former parlor-maid Sarah (Pauline Collins, of Shirley Valentine) and chauffeur Thomas (John Alderton, Calendar Girls). The general consensus is that the show was something akin to After M*A*S*H: adequately made and certainly not terrible, but an unworthy and mostly forgettable successor.
Viewers looking for more information on the show are advised to visit Steve Phillips' excellent Upstairs, Downstairs Website.
Video & Audio
Upstairs Downstairs is presented in its original full-frame format and looks fine given the limitations of early-'70s videography. Comparing it with the restored Doctor Who episodes of similar vintage, one can see some room for improvement but the episodes generally look perfectly good, with three-to-four 52-minute shows on most of the 24 discs. (They do not seem to have been remastered since A&E's last megaset incarnation.) Audio is similarly adequate; there are no subtitle or alternate language options. An important note: a few first season shows were filmed in black and white due to a technicians strike. The effect is a bit strange but hardly ruinous.
The only supplement is a 52-minute retrospective, Upstairs Downstairs Remembered: 25th Anniversary, a 1996 program which mixes series highlights with new interviews of surviving principals, including Hawkesworth (who died in 2003), Marsh, Pagett, Williams, and writer Fay Weldon, who penned the first episode. This extra is all but hidden away, as it's found on Disc Four. For those interested in the series but not sure whether they want to commit themselves to the whole shebang and don't mind a few major plot spoilers, viewing the first few shows then watching the documentary isn't a bad way to go.
UpDown, as it is affectionately referred to by the show's cast and crew, as well as series fans, is an utterly engrossing drama, recommended to anyone interested in that period of British history or serious-minded television drama. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.