April 3, 2011
From the upper opulent bowers to the bare-bones bowels below, the Bellamy family and their servants inhabit tony 165 Eaton Place in Tory London. In the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs, their ventures were chronicled for five years of super television by substantive artists telling substantial stories.
Be they the upper-crust or the down-trodden, upscale or the down-and-out, well-bred or low-born, educated or ignorant, puissant or powerless, the occupants in this Victorian household synchronize and sunder under a shared roof.
Characters act and react to social upheavals, political posturing, private upendings and public turpitude. Their lives encompass a World War, a crashing market and a global pandemic. Oh. And the shrinking of the Empire and the sinking of the Titanic.
The yin-yang of their sagas swing through the pendulum of love, elation, amity and fortuity, and with equal élan through loss, deception, defeat, infamy and agony. And let's not forget, in this close closed English environment of an entitled titled family upstairs and their sequestered domestics downstairs, their proclivity for petty folly, frivolity and hilarity.
Now for some aggregates and accolades: Foremost, this compilation, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Complete Series, contains a whopping 21 discs.
In a survey conducted to select the most popular PBS TV series ever, Upstairs, Downstairs was declared the winner. It has been seen by over a billion people in 70 countries. Out of 16 Emmy nominations, it won ten. The Emmy, BAFTA, Golden Globes and the Peabody all awarded the show as the Outstanding Drama.
For 3420 minutes, the 68 episodes aired for five years (1971 to 1975), while the show covered 27 years of Edwardian England (1903 to 1930).
There have been two spin-offs, one of which is scheduled to air on PBS, April, 2011, also starring Jean Marsh, along with her colleague, actor Eileen Atkins, with whom she originally proposed the series (albeit as a comedy).
Actors Marsh (as head maid, Rose), and Leslie-Anne Down (as maidenhead, Georgina) are the best known in the U.S., but many distinguished British talent embellished the series and enhanced their careers with stellar performances.
Among them are the fetching Upstairs clan: Richard Bellamy (David Langton), politician dad; Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney), socially adept mom, and their kids James (Simon Williams) and Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett).
The consistently engaging Downstairs coterie consists of butler Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson), cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), chauffeur Thomas (John Alderton), footman Alfred (George Innes), and maid Sarah (Pauline Collins).
As epic television, Actress Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel Bellamy) aptly synopsized the series, "The greatest strength is that you can dip into it again. You can re-look into one episode or five and still find new things. It's like a book you can reread - a classic book."
Now for more numbers: A five part commentary (about one hour for each year) and a 25th anniversary retrospective are included in this exhaustive 40th anniversary DVD assemblage, as is a documentary, and a quirky cast interview by quintessential Englishman, Russell Harty. (He's not for everybody.)
I did not see the original A&E 2005 DVD package that so angered fans and buyers for its shoddy quality, but the Acorn Media re-mastering upgrades many of the shortcomings.
(Please note that this collection is delivered on standard definition DVDs. There is not a Blu-ray version. Because this 70's show was shot in analog video and suffers the inherent degeneration that accompanies copying, the visual and audio clarity will never be comparable to 21st century digital high definition norms.)
New features have supplemented the earlier Bonus materials including a very welcomed addition of English subtitles, (for the accent impaired).
(All viewers interested in the Upstairs, Downstairs's scribes' struggles - as witnessed in their Bonus interviews - as well as any Anglo-aficionados, Showtimes' hysterical Episodes is a must see. The 2011 comedy epitomizes the ongoing impasse of writer-versus-producer-versus-director.)
Missing, however, from this 40th Anniversary edition is the spin-off series, Thomas and Sarah. A separate release is planned for later. (The 50th Anniversary edition will probably include a tidier upgrade of this spin-off, as well as the anticipated April 2011 release of the Marsh/Atkins Upstairs, Downstairs sequel.)
Meanwhile, check your PBS schedule to tune in to the three part series set in 1936, now called Upstairs Downstairs - without the comma.
If half as good as the original, it's can't be missed.
Studio: Acorn Media
Cast: Jean Marsh, Leslie-Anne Down, David Langton, Rachel Gurney, Simon Williams, Nicola Pagett, Gordon Jackson, Angela Baddeley, John Alderton, George Innes, Pauline Collins
Length: 3420 minutes
Rated: Not Rated
Aspect ratio: 4:3