Entertaining follow-up for two of Upstairs Downstairs' most popular characters. Acorn Media has released 1979's Thomas & Sarah, the 4-disc, 13-episode single season spin-off of the wildly-popular U.K. series, Upstairs Downstairs. Starring Pauline Collins and John Alderton, Thomas & Sarah's uncomplicated but generally well-written adventures will appeal most to those who are already familiar with the original series...but newcomers can enjoy it, too. No extras for these okay-looking transfers.
A brief synopsis to set the stage. Willful Cockney maid Sarah Moffat, last seen as a downstairs servant in the toney, fashionable Belgravia home of the upper-class Bellamys, has now found a position in Surrey: she's a nanny for Grace Laughton (Jessica Benton), an invalided wife of an overseas military officer. Having spun an elaborate story about her own recent past, including a nonexistent dead husband who died a hero's death at sea, Sarah is shocked to see one day Thomas Watkins (John Alderton), the former Bellamy chauffer and the great love of Sarah's life...as well as the father of her baby. What the charismatic, mysterious Welshman, now working in his own garage, doesn't know, is that their own baby died shortly after birth, so his plan to reunite with Sarah―born out of wanting to impress his boss with an instant family just as much as a desire for Sarah and the child―is complicated. Soon, Thomas and Sarah join up again as quarrelling, tempestuous lovers, and their varied adventures take them far away from Surrey.
Last year I was lucky enough to review the massive 40th anniversary boxed set of Upstairs Downstairs from Acorn, reacquainting myself with a childhood favorite after many, many years. With Collins' and Alderton's characters still fresh in my mind, I picked up Thomas & Sarah mostly out of curiosity, to see if any of the spark of the superior original carried over into this little-known (at least here in the States) spin-off. To make a long story short...it didn't, at least to the degree of the host series. That isn't to say that Thomas & Sarah isn't entertaining, or well-written (by quite a few U D scribes), or well-performed. It is...just not at the same level as U D.
Thomas & Sarah was in the planning stage for years after the 1975 cancellation of U D. U D writers and producers Alfred Shaughnessy and John Hawkesworth were called in to shepherd the series, with real-life couple Collins and Alderton set from the start to recreate their popular roles. By 1979, Thomas & Sarah aired to apparently good-enough numbers to merit a production green-light on a second "series" (season), with the production company going so far as to commission four scripts while beginning second-unit location shooting. However, a network strike apparently caused a significant-enough delay that production was halted and then eventually scrapped, with the location tapes actually wiped (U.K. television is hilarious). So Thomas & Sarah became a one-shot curiosity for fans of U D.
Watching these 13 episodes, what struck me immediately was, despite its period setting, Thomas & Sarah had almost none of the intricate social commentary subtexts of U D. When the Sarah character left the original show, she was married to Thomas, but for this spin-off, the producers switch them back to illicit lovers, apparently so there can be more romantic complications, as well as facilitating geographical movement for the couple (not tied down to a baby and house). Unfortunately, taking away the family element only drives home the transient feel of the series, isolating the episodes into stand-alone outings that, while entertaining in themselves, don't help to build the overall show into a cohesive whole. And as such, these catch-as-catch-can episodes seem to skirt the possibility of commenting on larger issues outside their plots―as U D did so well.
Still...Thomas & Sarah is fun within its more limited focus. The opener, Birds of a Feather seems to promise more U D fun, with Sarah "in service" again, albeit in much reduced circumstances, but the producers quickly ditch this format to shuffle Thomas and Sarah around. The Silver Ghost shows the writers willing to continually put Sarah in a bad light, as she falls for gift-giving creep John Castle, versus noncommittal Thomas' unpredictable schemes. The completely unmotivated The Biters Bit doesn't make much sense, serving merely as an amusing excuse to give the abrasive Collins a chance to thumb her nose at the rich'uns while proving again to be an outrageous flirt (...or worse). Alderton, though, shines in a great scene with commoner-eating Sarah Badel where he tells her how excited he is for the future in this Edwardian England. The self-contained The Vanishing Lady, on the other hand, feels like a very minor combination of Robert Louis Stevenson and O. Henry short story as Thomas and Sarah's luck continues to run out as they become magicians (I told you the show was all over the place...).
Made in Heaven sees the series really hitting its stride with this frequently amusing story of Sarah and Thomas scamming their way into running a dating service in a "borrowed" town house (sturdy ex-Queens Guard Captain Dooley, played beautifully by Raymond Francis, is my favorite bachelor, looking for a cook/wife: "I like my vittles and my vittles like me!" he commands). Alma Mater is another funny turn, as Sarah and Thomas push their way into a run-down public school for boys, with Thomas posing as an Instructor of English and History, no less (John Welsh as the elderly Mr. Chater steals the show; when Thomas confesses he doesn't know what to do for his first class, Chater tells him, "Read from the book, and ignore the questions you can't answer."). A minor supporting character again gets the best scene in A Day at the Metropole, when Ruby Head scores a terrific, funny/spooky scene as a fortune teller warning Sarah to take off a charm she's wearing. The Poor Young Widow of Peckham, though, lays the bathos on with a trowel when Thomas almost dies of pneumonia (the writers really blow it when Thomas breathes his almost-last breath...and Sarah cracks, "He ain't gonna snuff it, is he?" Often Collins mistakes crude commonness for cuteness).
There Is a Happy Land continues in this dramatic vein (the show swings wide) as the unmarried couple open a haberdashery shop, with Thomas thriving as a salesman...until he learns that Sarah was lying about being pregnant, causing the disillusioned Thomas to deliberately destroy their new life (Alderton is always good when he shows the conflicted Thomas sadly acknowledging that life continually deals him heavy blows). You can pretty much figure out what's going on in Return to Gethyn way before the characters do, but this heavy, clichéd melodrama, where Thomas returns to his hometown...and scandal, still works because of Alderton's impressively careful turn. Putting on the Ritz is an enjoyable, fluffy little con job where Thomas and Sarah almost meet their match with two other con artists (it feels like a funny little Christie short story). The New Rich is merely a rehash of themes from U D (Collins is at her most unpleasant here), while the series finale, Love Into Three Won't Go, creates an interesting love triangle with the addition of Anton Rodgers as a tortured Maxim deWinter-type who falls for Sarah. Unfortunately, the cliffhanger ending (who's in the grave: Rodgers or Alderton?) is never solved...since the show wasn't continued. But quite honestly, as superficially entertaining as these 13 episodes of Thomas & Sarah are...the show pretty much shot its bolt in this one-off go-around.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.