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DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series One – 40th Anniversary Edition

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My parents finally broke down and bought a colour television in 1973. At the same time they also decided that in order to get full value for the set they would try out what was still a new concept, paying to receive television channels, and signed up for cable television. Prior to then, television had been free to everyone and with a good enough aerial, you could bring in all the stations you wanted. However, there was never any guarantee of quality, or of being able to receive certain channels all the time. Cable, on the other hand, assured us we would not only have consistent picture quality, but we would always be able to receive the stations they offered.

Naturally, as a kid I was thrilled. It opened up a whole new world of television. Living in Canada we were pretty much limited to what was offered on the two Canadian stations of the time and what could make it up from the States via the antenna. However, I soon realized I wasn’t the only one who was receiving benefits from the increase in service. What I hadn’t known was my parents had very sneakily purchased cable television not with my best interests in mind, but for their own selfish reasons. They wanted to be able to watch Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) from the United States without having to worry about service interruptions.

It was an appalling predicament, as all of a sudden I was in competition with my parents for use of the television. It never seemed to matter if there was something on that I wanted to watch, no priority was given over to what they wanted to watch. To make matters worse, the damned PBS station always seemed to be running something they liked during prime time at least one or two nights a week. However, the night I came to dread most, and basically gave up on ever being able to watch anything ever again on, was Sundays. How I came to loathe Alistair Cooke and Masterpiece Theatre.

Although it wasn’t the first show broadcast on the program, the one I came to identify most, and by extension loathe the most, with it was of course Upstairs, Downstairs. To a twelve or thirteen year old male the program was almost incomprehensible. First of all the women were not only all clothed, they were covered from the neck to the feet, secondly nothing ever seemed to happen. It was close to an hour of people seeming to do nothing but sit, or stand, around and talk about, well, nothing. Yet my parents were glued to the television almost from the moment it began broadcasting in North America until it went off the air five years later.

Of course in later years I discovered what all the fuss was about and now in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the show’s first airing Acorn Media is releasing box sets of each season’s episodes, starting with Upstairs Downstairs Series 1: 40th Anniversary Edition. The four-disc set not only contains all thirteen episodes from the first season, it also offers viewers a chance to see an alternative pilot episode that never aired in North America, and the first part of the documentary The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs. For those of you who have somehow still not managed to see any of this classic piece of British television, this set will get you well on the road to discovering why people would be riveted to their television sets every Sunday night for weeks on end when it first aired in North America.

On the surface it might not sound like much; a show set in the first years of the twentieth century that deals with the goings on in the very wealthy Bellamy household in London England. The Upstairs of the title refers to the aristocratic family who owns the house, while Downstairs is in reference to their servants, who live and work behind the scenes making sure everything is just the way it should be. Like I said, doesn’t exactly sound like very entertaining stuff. However, unlike the majority of what is aired these days, instead of relying on flash and bang to draw an audience in, the show’s writers and directors assumed their audience not only had a brain, but an attention span which could focus on something for more than 30 seconds.

The combination of superlative acting, intelligent scripts and careful attention to historical accuracy – including social mores, dress, behaviour and, most importantly, the British class structure of the time – works together to create not only a fascinating portrait of a bygone era, but wonderful theatre. The two worlds, the Upstairs and the Downstairs, are so far removed from each other, that neither really has a hope of understanding the other’s reality. Even though they both occupy the same geographic territory, they live in separate planes of existence. For members of the Bellamy family can easily sit in a room and treat any servant sharing the space with the same amount of regard as they would the wallpaper or a piece of furniture until they require them to perform some task for them. The servants don’t exist as individuals when they are Upstairs, they are defined by their function.

However, appearances are deceptive, and as we discover the deeper we go into the series, it only seems like the Upstairs and the Downstairs are separated by an insurmountable divide. Aside from the fact that the Bellamy family depends on their servants to do everything from feeding to clothing them, and the servants depend on the family for their livelihood, we begin to notice there is another type of bond holding them together. While mutual respect might be stretching things to describe how they feel about each other, there’s a sense that both groups are aware of their interdependence, which in turn breeds a certain level of trust between them. Certainly there’s something paternalistic in the way Upstairs treats the servants, as they will often talk of them in the same manner as they would children. However their concern is genuine, and taken in the context of the times is more than enough to explain the servants loyalty.

The episodes in this first season do an excellent job of bringing to life both the lives the servants and the family and the relationship between the two. It’s interesting to see how the only times conflicts develop between them is when the barriers separating the two worlds come down even a little. You can’t be a master and a friend, as the family’s son, James Bellamy (Simon Williams) discovers. Unfortunately he’s not the one who suffers as he is protected by his position and his class, while the servants could end up not only losing their jobs, but their home. So when the older servants in the household, the butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) or the cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) offer the advice of “know your place” to younger servants, it’s not just to keep order, but is sage advice on how to protect themselves.

In part one of The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs series co-creator and star Jean Marsh (she plays the house maid Rose), tell us how the series came about and the story behind the extra pilot included in this collection. At the time the pilot was being shot, television in Britain was just making the switch to full colour. Camera crews had been given pay increases to reflect the extra work they were having to do with the new equipment and the sound people all of a sudden they needed more money as well because, as Marsh says, having to record in colour. So in order to prevent a strike and get the pilot shot, it was originally filmed in black and white. However that episode was never shown in North America, because it was decided to re-shoot it in colour before broadcasting it over here.

While the show is brilliantly acted and wonderfully written, and the producers obviously spared no expense in recreating the era through sets and costumes, 40-year old television is still 40-year old television. So the quality of the picture and sound aren’t going to be what you’re used to. However, whatever technical deficiencies from which the set might suffer, they are more than offset by substance. Upstairs, Downstairs was shot in the days when television had to rely on scripts, directors and actors to hold an audience’s attention instead of special effects or pseudo reality/voyeurism. While it may take you a while to get used to the slower pace, if you exercise only a little patience you’ll discover this fiction is probably one of the most realistic programs you’ll ever watch. It still might not appeal to 12-year old boys, but for the rest of us, Upstairs, Downstairs remains one of the best examples of television living up to its fullest potential.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.