A&E // 1971 // 1300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 8th, 2004
"We did aim high, and if you aim high and nearly succeed, I think television serials can be the modern day equivalent of Dickens or Trollope." -- Jean Marsh
November 1903. A young woman (Pauline Collins) comes to the front door of 165 Eaton Place. The butler sternly points her to the back. She has dubious credentials and says she is French, but the mistress of the house gives her "a proper servant's name": Sarah.
Welcome to Edwardian London, where having a good name is paramount. Two families live at 165 Eaton Place:
* Upstairs: Tory MP Richard Bellamy, who votes his conscience as often as his party's line; Lady Marjorie Bellamy, daughter of a patrician family; son James, dissolute army officer and perennial loser; daughter Elizabeth, outspoken and liberal, the bane of her parents. The Bellamys enjoy the comforts of power and privilege, the stability that comes with empire. As Lady Marjorie remarks, "I don't like change. It goes too quickly, becomes not progress but disintegration."
* Downstairs: the cool certitude of Hudson the butler ("I am older and wiser and have therefore learned humility"); the forthright cook Mrs. Hudson. And although other servants may come and go over the years, there is always Rose. Rose accepts the world of service, comforted by the knowledge that "the outside world is dangerous." Perhaps, but within the confines of this small house in the center of London, wars will rage, hearts will break, and each member of these two families will struggle to maintain dignity through nearly three decades of turmoil.
A worldwide sensation during its original five-year, sixty-eight episode run, the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs proved that even a single household held unlimited dramatic potential. Beginning in 1903, with the arrival of the free-spirited Sarah (who would cause havoc right through the second season, until she was sent off for her own short-lived spin-off), through the sinking of the Titanic and the horrors of World War I, to the tragic disillusion of the Bellamy family in 1930, this Edwardian soap opera chronicled the complex social politics of its time with a flair that suited its inclusion in later years on PBS' Masterpiece Theater.
But until the series hit its stride midway through the second season, the first season was marked by the usual problems: attempts to develop too many characters at once (causing a few to fall by the wayside), plot lines leading to nowhere, and severe budget limitations. In fact, the first six episodes were shot in black and white due to a technician's strike. Few exterior shots or unique sets are used until late in the season (most of the action takes place in a handful of rooms in the Bellamy house).
Nonetheless, the series holds up on the strength of its performances, especially the core cast members. Rachel Gurney and David Langton play the elder Bellamys with cool compassion, making them sharper and more sympathetic than the pompous caricatures they might have been in lesser hands. They are imperious only when certain they are right, and their propriety is heartfelt and not a mask to cover hypocritical egotism. Gordon Jackson and Angela Baddeley do not allow Hudson and Mrs. Bridges to become superficial bumbling servants -- or overwise and ahead of their masters -- but rather strong personalities who have willingly tempered themselves in the belief that unfailing loyalty to the Bellamys is also loyalty to Britain itself. Series cocreator Jean Marsh wisely leaves house parlor maid Rose out of the spotlight, developing her relationships with the other residents of 165 Eaton Place slowly (especially her complex relationship with Elizabeth Bellamy) and allowing the other cast members more room. Rose would come into her own later in the series, but for now, Rose is the calm eye at the center of a thousand storms.
Released by A&E in separate season boxed sets (at $80 apiece), and as one expensive "megaset" with the complete series (five seasons for $300), Upstairs, Downstairs will cost fans a pretty penny. Extras are almost nonexistent (with one notable exception, discussed below). The episodes, though shot on video and now thirty years old, are in good condition, apart from occasional tape glitches and flat sound -- all products of the technology of the day. The transfer quality varies among the episodes, mostly due to their age and the poor recording technology employed by London Weekend Television. This is a series you watch for the characters, not for technical fireworks. Each episode offers a glimpse into the volatile world of 165 Eaton Place.
The first season consists of 13 episodes spread over four discs:
* "On Trial" (November 1903)
New underhouse parlor maid Sarah arrives at the Bellamy house and quickly causes an uproar. She finally settles down when she is forced to accept that she is merely (as Hudson puts it) "an ordinary person." Believe me, it will not last long. This first episode was written by Fay Weldon, later a successful and popular novelist, and was originally shot in black and white. But the original version has since been lost: the version included on this disc is a 1973 color remake shot for the series' American broadcast.
* "The Mistress and the Maids" (June 1904)
In public, the Bellamys are the most proper of British families. So, when a liberal-minded artist (Anton Rogers) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Lady Marjorie, the couple is shocked to discover the painting's counterpart: a risqué portrait of Sarah and Rose in bed. Almost immediately in the run of the series, we see how fragile the "good name" can be, as the Bellamys are humiliated by the first of many scandals that will shake the household over the course of the years.
* "Board Wages" (August 1904)
With Richard and Marjorie on vacation (along with the senior servants), the underservants have a little fun. But when James (Simon Williams) returns home, we see a glimpse of the oldest son's hidden resentment toward his family: "Nobody ever asked what I wanted...It's wrong for people like us to question things." Sarah and James, both frustrated by their limited roles, find themselves drawn toward one another. But while James remains trapped at 165 Eaton Place, Sarah still takes what little freedom she can and heads into the world to make her fortune.
* "The Path of Duty" (May 1905)
Elizabeth Bellamy (Nicola Pagett), now 17 years old, comes home from school in Dresden. She arrives with strong opinions about politics and her social obligations that clash with her father's conservatism, and she has no patience with the upper-class twit her parents try to match her with. Elizabeth's socialist leanings also bother Rose, and we see how real members of the lower class might have perceived the British caste system while the idle intelligentsia spouted their rhetoric.
* "A Suitable Marriage" (December 1905)
It is time for a grand upper-class ritual: selling the daughter off into marriage. Suitors swarm around Elizabeth as her birthday approaches. Baron Von Rimmer arrives from Germany for the latest bid, but his real agenda is a covert arms deal with the British government, which he hopes to negotiate through Richard's connections to the Admiralty. Von Rimmer has another secret too: he is carrying on an affair with creepy footman Alfred. If Upstairs, Downstairs has any failing, it is its near-constant depiction of foreigners as seedy and corrupt during these early episodes.
* "A Cry for Help" (October 1906)
When the new parlor maid Mary reveals that she is pregnant from her previous household, Richard Bellamy shows reason and compassion in his efforts to help her -- which of course only leads to suspicion that he is the father. And when Richard does try to confront the real father, he ends up in a lawsuit. Here we see how the system is stacked against the lower class, maintaining the integrity of the caste structure even to the point of hypocrisy.
* "Magic Casements" (Summer 1906)
Chronologically, this episode appears to take place prior to "A Cry for Help," as flippant footman Edward (Christopher Beeny) seems less settled in his new job. Marjorie has an affair with a young friend of James, creating tension in the Bellamy household. As Mrs. Bridges remarks, "Love can make a woman uncommon devious in her ways." This is easily the most sentimental episode of the first season, but it is good to see the pampered Lady Marjorie in focus for a change. It is also the first episode (apart from the reshot pilot) in color.
* "I Dies From Love" (April 1907)
In the most brutal tragedy to hit the Bellamy household yet, Emily, overwhelmed with work and heartsick over the footman of an ostentatious and manipulative friend of Marjorie, commits suicide. The story wisely avoids sentiment and offers a strong final performance for Evin Crowley.
* "Why Is Her Door Locked?" (November 1907)
Mrs. Bridges, still crushed by Emily's death, kidnaps a baby while in a depressed haze. When the baby's real family has her arrested, Hudson, in full Jeeves mode, plays advocate behind the scenes to spin the trial in her favor.
* "A Voice From the Past" (Autumn 1908)
Elizabeth and James volunteer in a soup kitchen while their parents are away. Okay -- Elizabeth, ever the advocate of the downtrodden, volunteers, and drags James along. Together, they stumble upon the defiant Sarah and offer her a new job of scullery maid. But Sarah covets her old job of underhouse parlor maid, and cooks up a phony séance con to scare off the current maid.
* "The Swedish Tiger" (October 1908)
Easily the weakest episode of the first season, this one features Sarah concocting a scheme to rob the Bellamys with the help of a suave Swedish con man. The overly convoluted plot and ambiguous ending (contradicted by Sarah's reappearance at the end of the season) tends to be more confusing than suspenseful.
* "The Key of the Door" (Winter 1908)
Headstrong Elizabeth hangs around with the bohemian Bloomsbury crowd and fancies herself a socialist. "I've seen enough of the world to know how I feel," she announces, although her behavior is more that of a rebellious child looking for a reason to be contrary. She finds it when she falls in with Byronic poet (and poser) Lawrence Kurbridge (Ian Ogilvy) and the vengeful ringleader Evelyn.
* "For Love of Love" (June 1909)
All recent plot threads come together in this season cliffhanger. Still estranged from her family, Elizabeth falls for Lawrence. Soon, she finds herself talked into marriage by her parents, Lawrence, and even Rose. Meanwhile, James carries on an affair with Sarah, now a vaudeville star. To him, she is a dalliance, like too much liquor, but she takes the relationship very seriously.
As one might deduce from these thirteen episodes, Upstairs, Downstairs, while demonstrating its early strengths in characterization and depiction of the complex class structure of Edwardian society, showed a tendency in its first season to jump around a bit too much. Cast changes, wild mood swings, stage-bound premises -- these were signs of a series trying to find its footing. Indeed, the show would do so later, as World War I loomed on the horizon and the soap opera plots began to take on deeper significance. But in this first season, budget limitations tend to be even more pronounced than the continuity errors that would plague the series by its end.
Given the complicated timeline of the show, it is unfortunate that A&E does not include any sort of historical background on the series. An essay or two, or even just a chronology covering the events of the period and the culture of Edwardian England, would be very welcome, especially for American audiences who are not likely to have learned this stuff in school. The one extra that A&E does include -- and only in this first season set -- is a 1996 television special produced for the show's 25th anniversary in England. Entitled "Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered," this hour-long special (with no chapter breaks) is hosted by Gareth Hunt (who played footman Frederick Norton in the fifth season). The origins of "Up Down," as cast and crew dubbed it, are traced through interviews with Jean Marsh and the producers. Many of the cast and crew were familiar with the servant culture of the period from family members, so recreating the atmosphere of the Bellamy household seemed quite easy. Through interviews with the actors, writers, and producers, we learn behind-the-scenes stories about all the major events along the course of the series, right up to the end. Prepare for major spoilers in this documentary: everything from who lives and dies to the odd comment that no one on the show ever seemed to age over its thirty-year span, with plenty of clips from all five seasons. We also learn about the show's battles with its network, London Weekend Television, at first to merely keep the show on the air, and later to retire it with dignity while the network tried to milk it dry. There are short tributes to Gordon Jackson and Angela Baddeley, and particular attention paid to the famous "royal visit" episode and the wartime experiences of Edward and James.
The aforementioned "royal visit" episode takes place during the show's second season. In order to keep the series set in Edwardian England, the producers decided to wind the clock back to 1908, so that the season could culminate in Edward VII's death in 1910. But, temporal anomalies aside, it must be said that Season Two, while it has its strong moments ("Guest of Honour" and "Your Obedient Servant" come to mind), sometimes feels like it is still struggling to find something important to say. Much of the fault lay with the producers' reliance on Elizabeth to carry the bulk of the one of the season's two major plot threads (the sneaky servant Thomas Watkins holds up the other). Not to fault Nicola Pagett, whose performance as Elizabeth is consistently fine, but the character's love life becomes a frustrating mess, and her dabbling in independent living (especially politics) feels like a temporary schoolgirl crush. But with brother James absent for most of the season, it falls to Elizabeth to follow the usual "Bellamy gets in trouble and needs bailing out" pattern familiar to viewers of the show. Season Two wastes no time getting Elizabeth into the thick of it. Here is a rundown of the 13 episodes:
* "The New Man"
Elizabeth and Lawrence return from their honeymoon, but the daughter of the Bellamy clan finds that running a household is a complicated affair. As Mrs. Bridges remarks, setting the tone for the entire season, "She'll never grow up, not altogether." Meanwhile, the new valet, Thomas Watkins, works his own angle.
* "A Pair of Exiles"
The other Bellamy child comes into focus in this episode, which is characterized by a refreshing lack of melodrama. James piles up gambling debts and empty liquor bottles, while Sarah discovers she is pregnant. As always, the Bellamys manage to arrange a legal deus ex machina to solve the problem, packing James off to India in the process (to remain offstage until the season finale).
* "Married Love"
This somewhat more tedious episode dwells on Elizabeth's crumbling marriage. The impotent Lawrence sends a friend to get Elizabeth pregnant, and the audience has to resist trying to slap some sense into the characters.
* "Whom God Hath Joined"
Star Trek has Scotty push those engines one last time to save the day, MacGyver can always find enough chewing gum and paper clips to escape the bad guys, and Upstairs, Downstairs has its own cliché: a member of the Bellamy family gets into trouble and Sir Richard has to buy them all out of scandal. In this case, the culprit is Elizabeth. Her Christmas present: she is pregnant -- but not with Lawrence's child.
* "Guest of Honour"
Easily the most famous episode in the series (mostly due to PBS pledge drives), this mostly self-contained story features a dinner visit from King Edward VII. Of course, this being Upstairs, Downstairs, Mr. Hudson's imperious efficiency and the staff's nervousness reach critical mass when Sarah shows up -- in labor. This episode succeeds in neatly encapsulating all the layers of society explored in the series, especially through Sarah's "in-between" status.
* "The Property of a Lady"
Lady Marjorie's affair in "Magic Casements" comes back to haunt her, as a blackmailer turns up at 165 Eaton Place. Sarah and Thomas (not the Bellamy chauffeur) join forces with a wily con of their own.
* "Your Obedient Servant"
Ah, progress. As the house is wired with electricity, Richard's pushy and sarcastic brother visits. Meanwhile, Hudson feigns wealth to impress his own brother. Novelist Fay Weldon pens this witty installment, rich in character detail.
* "Out of the Everywhere"
Elizabeth brings baby Lucy home, and a battle of wills erupts between Sarah and the ferocious Nanny Webster. The impersonality of upper-class child rearing comes under the gun here, as Nanny imposes her "nursery discipline."
* "An Object of Value"
Lady Marjorie's father dies, and her mother comes to 165 Eaton Place for an extended visit. A diamond brooch disappears. Is the culprit the opportunistic Sarah? The conniving Thomas? Or will the stuffy Miss Roberts finally get her comeuppance?
* "A Special Mischief"
When her parents are away, Elizabeth parties. Suffragette party, that is. And when Rose meddles in Elizabeth's protest march, they both end up arrested. This politically charged episode was particularly timely during the women's rights movement of the early 1970s.
* "The Fruits of Love"
Elizabeth takes up insider trading, courtesy of the sardonic and predatory Karekin, who lines up married women like business deals. Meanwhile, financial troubles hit Sir Richard and Lady Marjorie and threaten to lose them 165 Eaton Place.
* "The Wages of Sin"
Sarah is caught in the middle once again: she is pregnant by Thomas Watkins, and James Bellamy is on his way home from India. And of course, Thomas only sees it all as an opportunity to cash in...
* "A Family Gathering"
Karekin calls in his marker with Richard, James arrives with a snobbish new fiancé, Lady Marjorie celebrates a birthday, and even Sarah and Thomas drop in one final time. But the death of the king casts a shadow over the occasion.
Those ambivalent final moments offer us a glimpse of an England turning a corner. The glory days of Empire, the ages of Victoria and Edward VII, draw to a close. The show itself was also about to change drastically. Say goodbye to Nicola Pagett as Elizabeth: a contract dispute would result in her character disappearing from the series, packed off to America. Thomas and Sarah spun off into their own eponymous show (which would run for 13 episodes in 1979). And Lady Marjorie would pack her bags for the Titanic shortly into Season Three. But it is with that third season that the show really hit its stride, jumping ahead to the beginning of World War I. Characters would take on a deeper tone, storylines would become more intricate and subtle, and the tragic fate of the Bellamys would begin to overtake 165 Eaton Place.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1300 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 25th Anniversary Special: "Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered"
* Upstairs Downstairs Fan Site