Upstairs, Downstairs is the most popular and successful British television series of all time. The show debuted in 1971, and ran for five incredible seasons. It has been seen by an estimated one billion people in 40 countries over the years – and won a slew of awards including seven Emmys. The Acorn Media Company has outdone itself in celebration with Upstairs, Downstairs Complete Series: 40th Anniversary Edition.
This is a pretty incredible set, containing 21 DVDs, including a disc full of exclusive bonus features. Unlike many television series, each season of Upstairs, Downstairs was conceived of as a stand-alone individual series. The first spans the years 1903 to 1909, the second 1908 to 1910, the third 1912 to 1914. The fourth series covers World War I from 1914 to 1918, and the fifth and final season is concerned with the years 1919 to 1930.
It is a remarkable storytelling achievement, made all the more impressive as nobody had ever attempted anything like it before. In the most basic terms, Upstairs, Downstairs explores the lives of an upper-class British family (upstairs), and those of their servants (downstairs). One thing becoming instantly clear is that the hierarchical roles of those who live upstairs are reflected by the staff living downstairs. The endless variations of the dynamics between all are uniformly fascinating.
One element of which I was previously unaware is that due to a British technicians strike, the first six episodes were filmed in black and white. When the strike ended, the cast and crew went back and re-shot the pilot “On Trial” in color. The other episodes were never re-done however, and appear here in the original black and white. Evidently the original pilot has been lost however, although as one of the extras the alternate version of the episode is included – with a completely different ending.
Upstairs, Downstairs broke all kinds of new ground during its run. There were episodes dealing with suicide, homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, and many many other television taboos. Far from being a British soap opera, which a lot of people mistakenly assumed, each episode was a completely stand-alone work – and the writing was fantastic throughout.
Every series from the five years the show aired had its merits, but I think series four was the most poignant. The 13 episodes directly dealt with World War One, and the years 1914 to 1918. Everyone in the house, both upstairs and downstairs were affected by the war in one way or another. Many of the class distinctions fell away between the characters as they were all faced with great loss and sacrifice.
It is little surprise that Upstairs, Downstairs were honored with a plethora of awards over the years. These include seven Emmys, two BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award.
In addition to the 68 original episodes, spread out over 20 DVDs, there is also a full disc of bonus materials, for a total of 25 hours of extras. These include a five-part behind the scenes documentary (one about each series), a 25th anniversary retrospective, loads of interviews with stars, writers, and others involved, and much much more.
All in all, this treatment of Upstairs, Downstairs is as thorough as one could possibly be. Amazingly enough, after forty years, this little British show that nobody thought had half a chance of making it past six episodes has become an unqualified television legend. There is no better way to experience it than with the Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series package. It is an incredibly beautiful set.