Acorn Media // 1971 // 3420 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // March 29th, 2011
Upstairs: the wealthy, aristocratic Bellamys. Downstairs: their loyal and lively servants. For nearly 30 years, they share a fashionable townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in London's posh Belgravia neighborhood, surviving social change, political upheaval, scandals, and the horrors of the First World War.
Seen by a billion people in over 40 countries, Upstairs, Downstairs, a soap opera produced by ITV that ran on British television during the early 1970s, is the most popular British drama series in history. In the United States, the series was aired as part of the Masterpiece Theater program on public television, and has seen several DVD releases from A&E, including individual season sets and two "Megaset" complete series collections (all currently out of print).
In advance of the 2010 series revival, to be released on DVD on April 26th, Acorn Media has packaged all 68 original episodes, along with over 25 hours of extras, in a new, definitive 40th anniversary collection that should delight Region 1 fans of the series.
Spanning three decades of British history, from the Edwardian era to the Great Depression, Upstairs, Downstairs is epic in scale, but intimate in scope, confining itself largely to the goings-on at 165 Eaton Place. The "upstairs" Bellamys are Richard and Lady Marjorie, and their grown children James and Elizabeth. "Downstairs" is where their servant staff reside -- including butler Mr. Hudson, cook Mrs. Bridges, and head house parlourmaid Rose.
The organizing conceit of the series is that there are two families living in the house -- the upstairs family, the Bellamys, and the downstairs family, headed by Mr. Hudson and Mrs. Bridges. Over the course of nearly thirty years, we follow the lives and loves, crises and tragedies, of these two families, through the twilight of the British Empire and the decline of the old social order of master and servant.
I'm going to cut to the chase for those Upstairs, Downstairs fans who own the previous DVD releases of the show and are wondering if the new collection is worth the duplicate purchase: yes. The earlier A&E releases were greeted with boos by many who were disappointed by the shoddy picture quality and lack of subtitles. This new set by Acorn uses the digitally remastered episodes released in the U.K. in 2005, and offer greatly improved video and English subtitles, as well as a trove of special features unavailable at the time of the A&E release. So fans with the older sets will benefit from the upgrade, and newcomers to the series will want to avoid a great deal of eyestrain and head directly to this new release.
As someone who skipped Upstairs, Downstairs when it aired on PBS back in the 1970s -- I was more into Monty Python parodies of this type of show than the shows themselves -- and watching it for the first time, I'm a little surprised that it became such a massive global hit. It's a very British series, about very British characters with very British concerns, told from a very British point of view. So much so, in fact, that I had to resort to turning on the subtitles occasionally in order to decipher some of the slang expressions and working class English accents, as well as Googling the more obscure Edwardian-era references. This is not the kind of tale that I'd imagine being accessible to audiences that don't have portraits of Queen Elizabeth II on their currency.
On the other hand, there's much here that I imagine crosses many cultural boundaries: the master-servant, employer-employee relationships, the escapist glamour of the lives of aristocrats and the novelty of seeing how the other half live -- the normally seen-but-not-heard servants lurking in the background of all those Jane Austen movies. Above all, Upstairs, Downstairs offers what the most universally adored TV shows offer: a sense of family, of a living, breathing family unit that we sit down with once a week and catch up with their lives.
Upstairs, Downstairs has that look and feel familiar to fans of 1970's British television -- cheaply made, shot on videotape, and limited to a few indoor sets with almost no location shooting. Here, these limitations often work to the show's advantage, creating a close, intimate atmosphere that is almost entirely focused on the relationships within and between the two family units in the Bellamy household. A staff of servants that at first feel forbidding and distant very quickly becomes familiar, even lovable. And the Bellamys, seemingly a completely ordinary upper-crust English family, turn out to be a complex, quirky bunch. We soon come to cherish the journey, viewing the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century, from the relative calm of the Edwardian era through the nightmare of of World War I and the catastrophic Depression, from the perspective of this one ordinary household.
As starkly different as the quality of life and power status are between the two families, we're constantly reminded that both groups are equally bound in service to the greater British society. The servants' lives are almost entirely devoted, from before dawn to late at night, to the innumerable domestic chores that enable the smooth functioning of the household. The Bellamys, too, are required to uphold the social and political responsibilities of the aristocracy, which overrule, with depressing regularity, the family members' true desires or even their moral codes. As the family butler, Mr. Hudson, states at one point, whatever they might wish for themselves as individuals, they are -- or should be -- all proud to fulfill their roles as part of the great British Empire. The Bellamys are shown as admirable because they are good at being masters; they're fair-minded, don't abuse their servants, and behave in a manner worthy of respect. The servants, for their part, are the "spokes in the wheel," quietly ensuring that the mechanism of society runs with seemingly effortless efficiency.
Most of the show's drama stems from the friction between the characters' belief in the system, and their aspirations and desires that conflict with the system. Elizabeth Bellamy, the modern, independent young daughter with enlightened ideas about women's rights and concern for the underprivileged, is almost a tragic figure in her often-doomed efforts to express her individuality in direct conflict with her family, her traditions, and her own class status. And her downstairs counterpart, Sarah Moffat, aspires to a greatness that simply not permissible for someone of her station. That this turmoil occurs, unbeknownst (at least initially) to any of them, during the final, fading years of this way of life, adds a layer of bittersweet irony that viewers of Mad Men will instantly recognize.
Acorn Media presents Upstairs, Downstairs on DVD with a bounty of extra features, most of which are new to this release, at least in Region 1. The 25th anniversary making-of documentary from A&E's Megaset collection is included here, but superceding it in length and quality is a 5-part making-of documentary from 2006, each part nearly an hour in length, that focuses on key episodes from the series and includes old and new interview footage with the creators and cast. Equally impressive is the inclusion of twenty-four episode commentary tracks with various episode writers, actors, and directors, reminiscing about their experiences and engaging in a fair bit of funny (and spicy) banter. Rounding out the features are some shorter interview segments scattered across the five discs, an essay by Jean Marsh, who co-created the series (as well as starring as Rose), and an alternate version of the first episode, which included some scenes to account for the episodes shot in black & white (see below), which were omitted in many transmissions of the show.
The one feature that is not included with this set that was included in the previous Megaset is the Upstairs, Downstairs spinoff series Thomas & Sarah, which ran for 13 episodes in 1979. Since this series is readily available on Amazon, however, it's certainly not worth seeking out the inferior Megaset merely to get this extra.
The video and audio quality...are what they are. This being a typically low-budget, shot-on-video drama from the 1970s, an era that did not have great respect for TV show preservation, there's no avoiding the ravages of time and neglect. Viewers accustomed to 16:9, 1080p HD programming may find the series tough sledding, at least initially. The picture in most episodes is not great, even with the remastered video, with the washed out colors, flares, and other defects typical of the day. The Dolby mono audio is listenable, but not great; expect a noticeable amount of buzzing and other distortion.
Viewers new to the series should also be alerted to the fact that several of the early episodes are presented in black & white. Upstairs, Downstairs was made during the early days of color television, and due to a technician's strike early in production, six episodes were shot in monochrome. (It's especially unfortunate on one episode that is about an artist painting Lady Marjorie's and Sarah's portraits, and certainly should have been seen in color.) After the strike was settled, ITV had the first episode re-shot in color to make it more palatable to overseas markets, which is why many viewers may be confused by the sudden shift.
While Upstairs, Downstairs is undoubtedly a landmark television series and a genuine classic, it's also very much a soap opera, with the kind of melodramatic acting and crazy storylines one expects from a soap opera. There's a good deal of extremely dramatic looking toward and away from the camera, windows, and other characters, and more than a few over-the-top plots (Mrs. Bridges steals a baby! Gay German spy seduces the footman!), mostly in the early seasons.
The pacing and editing of the show, too, may not be to all tastes. As Jean Marsh points out in one of her interviews, Upstairs, Downstairs was shot with many long, unbroken takes that gave the show a feeling of a stage performance, and an intimacy and reality that's often missing from modern television with its much faster editing. I have to admit that the style of the show was a little jarring at first, but I quickly came to appreciate the staginess -- as well as charming little details like minor mistakes that the actors cover for, that normally would be edited out or reshot. Whether this is a negative or positive is up to the individual viewer's taste, but anyone on the fence about investing in this expensive box set might be well served by renting a sample disc.
One of the joys of discovering a terrific older series like Upstairs, Downstairs is the opportunity to take a long and satisfying journey through the lives of its characters, all in a single whopping ginormous go. If you're a fan of Downton Abbey or other period British dramas, you will very likely enjoy spending a weekend...or five...at 165 Eaton Place.
The court is most delighted for the opportunity to don a powdered wig and red
judicial robe to pronounce Upstairs, Downstairs...not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Bryan Byun; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 3420 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Pilot