After repeated trips up and down stairs, Judge Mike Pinsky was peeved that no one had introduced Edwardian England to the concept of the escalator.
Our reviews of Upstairs, Downstairs: Season Two (published November 30th, 2012), Upstairs, Downstairs: 40th Anniversary Collection (published March 29th, 2011), and Upstairs, Downstairs: Season One (published April 26th, 2011) are also available.
"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)
• "The Mistress and the Maids" (June 1904)
• "Board Wages" (August 1904)
• "The Path of Duty" (May 1905)
• "A Suitable Marriage" (December 1905)
• "A Cry for Help" (October 1906)
• "Magic Casements" (Summer 1906)
• "I Dies From Love" (April 1907)
• "Why Is Her Door Locked?" (November 1907)
• "A Voice From the Past" (Autumn 1908)
• "The Swedish Tiger" (October 1908)
• "The Key of the Door" (Winter 1908)
• "For Love of Love" (June 1909)
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"
• "A Pair of Exiles"
• "Married Love"
• "Whom God Hath Joined"
• "Guest of Honour"
• "The Property of a Lady"
• "Your Obedient Servant"
• "Out of the Everywhere"
• "An Object of Value"
• "A Special Mischief"
• "The Fruits of Love"
• "The Wages of Sin"
• "A Family Gathering"
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.
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• 25th Anniversary Special: "Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered"
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