Sometimes I am faced with a review so monumental I don’t quite know how to begin. Normally this occurs with some sort of overwhelmingly massive release, a classic television or film series which is so monolithic that it becomes somewhat hard to dissect it and examine the component elements.
Enter today’s review, Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete Series – 40th Anniversary Edition.
Originally broadcast beginning in 1971 and running through 1975, Upstairs, Downstairs helped spark a whole genre of show (or, at the very least, is credited with it). The idea is actually a terribly simple one – set in the early 20th Century (the series spans the years 1903 to 1930), the show follows the life of those residing at 165 Eaton Place in London, be they servants or the family being served.
And it is at this point where I start to run into trouble with the actual review. How much should I divulge about what happens on the show? How much should I go into the various cast changes? How much should I talk about the new Upstairs, Downstairs series which picks up six years after the original ends?
On the one hand it could be suggested that the entire plot of the original tale is fair game, that as the series began 40 years ago and finished 36 years ago, anyone who is truly curious about the show has either already seen it or expects the possibility of finding out what occurs in it. But, I disagree. Even 40 years down the line, Upstairs, Downstairs remains a fantastic drama series, one well worth watching, and one which I wouldn’t spoil for anyone.
There is a certain challenge present in the creation of such a series with two very distinct groups of people whose stories must both intersect and remain separate. It’s a balance that Upstairs, Downstairs, more often than not, strikes beautifully. You do hear in the show that what’s taking place simply with the staff and family would never have happened years ago, and whether that’s true or not, the various scandals that rock the house do make the show enjoyable.
As the series’ 68 episodes span several decades of life, the cast does change and their roles do alter as well. There are many individuals who appear and disappear, but there is certainly a solid core of both staff and owners. On the downstairs side these include (but aren’t necessarily limited to) Hudson, the butler (Gordon Jackson); Rose, the head house parlour maid (Jean Marsh who also co-created the series with Eileen Atkins), Mrs. Bridges, the cook (Angela Baddeley); Ruby, the kitchen maid (Jenny Tomasin); Edward, the footman (Christopher Beeny); and Daisy, under house parlor maid (Jacqueline Tong). On the upstairs side is Richard Bellamy, the head of the house (David Langton); Lady Marjorie, his wife (Rachel Gurney); James, their son (Simon Williams); Georgina Worsley, the step-daughter of Lady Marjorie’s brother (Lesley-Anne Down), and Hazel, who first appears as Richard’s secretary (Meg Wynn Owen). Again, there are more, and some of those listed here aren’t perhaps on the show as long as one might like but they do comprise a good starting point.
Perhaps one of the reasons Upstairs, Downstairs still works so well today is that it is a period piece and as the daily life of that already set time period can’t change between the early 1970s and today. Between that, the truly interesting tales, and the amazingly nonstop problems that cover the Bellamy household, the show holds up exceptionally well.
Upstairs, Downstairs is a well-scripted, well-plotted show. It is an example of great, classic, television making. What it really does is provide its audience—both the original one and anyone watching the series today—with a look at how society changed over the course of a nearly 30 year period in England. While the major events of the day are highlighted, and those unquestionably make for memorable and wonderful episodes, the show delves into any number of trends, fads, and thoughts that were espoused during the same time frame. It is brilliantly made classic television about a moment (or set of moments) in history.
The 40th anniversary release of the series is nearly as monolithic as the series itself and includes more than 25 hours of new bonus material including a truly excellent and in-depth five-part making-of documentary (one part appears on a bonus disc included with every season’s box). There are also interviews, episode commentaries, and an alternate version of the pilot episode, moments from the Russell Harty Plus talk show where Harty sits down with various cast members on the series, and another documentary on the show called Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered.
The weather seems, perhaps, to finally be getting nicer for the summer, but it’s entirely possible that it will turn gloomy and cool again in the not too distant future. Anyone who has never experienced Upstairs, Downstairs before, or who wants a great look at what happened behind the scenes on the series, would do very well to squirrel this away for that moment. I’m not sure that one can be a student of television without a knowledge of Upstairs, Downstairs, but the show will be of interest to those beyond that narrow cross-section as well. It’s Upstairs, Downstairs, and while I can’t say that it’s every bit as good now as it was when it originally aired (I’m not old enough to know that), I can tell you that while the set will suck hours and days of your time, it’s well worth it and a truly great television experience.