With the success of Downton Abbey and the airing of the BBC’s revival of Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS beginning April 10, it’s no wonder Acorn Media decided to release the original Upstairs, Downstairs on DVD. Series 1 is available today, providing a glimpse of the lives of the upper and serving classes in Edwardian England.
Broadcast in 1971, series 1 of Upstairs, Downstairs introduces us to the wealthy, aristocratic Bellamys and their loyal servants, occupying separate yet colliding spheres at a posh townhouse in Belgravia between 1903 and 1909. I’d watched reruns of the series on PBS a few years ago, and it turns out many were from this first year when we were being introduced to watchful upper-parlourmaid Rose, magnet for trouble under-parlourmaid Sarah, aloof butler Hudson, harried cook Mrs. Bridges, slightly touched valet Alfred, and timid scullery maid Emily downstairs. Drawing us into the lives of the servants first proved wise; upstairs seems deadly dull. Elegant Lady Marjorie spends her days making and receiving calls, accompanying her Parliamentarian husband Sir Richard Bellamy to evening events, and generally whiling away the hours in luxurious tedium. The Bellamy children, grown son James and daughter Elizabeth, provide some drama as they navigate the era’s changes and increasing freedoms, particularly for outspoken Elizabeth. It is between the younger generations of the house, both upstairs and downstairs, that sparks fly. Romantic and political agreements and disagreements abound as the class lines start to blur, providing an undercurrent of excitement.
The production quality of the series stands up well enough, particularly for those familiar with soap operas and/or British television. The movie-quality values we experience with most television today are absent, but from a 2011 viewer perspective, this lends an almost documentarian feel to the proceedings. A technicians’ strike during the first season of production resulted in episodes 2-5 and episode 7 being filmed in black and white, which lends a certain period air to the proceedings. The remaining 7 episodes are in color, and at times I wonder if the series suffers for that. This might be my prejudice against some of the ’70s color choices, though.
What makes this DVD collection of the first 13 episodes superior to your VHS tapes from the previous century are the extras: an alternate pilot episode is included, plus episode commentary and a “Making Of…” feature provide hours of behind-the-scenes insight into the celebrated series. I was particularly happy to see members of the cast and crew reunited for the episode commentaries, remembering their work on the project 40 years later.
Upstairs, Downstairs: Series One is now available on DVD.