Upstairs, Downstairs - The Complete Series One Review
The past fascinates - both in itself and in the way it acts as a prism through which the present is refracted. The BBC's The Forsyte Saga showed there was an appetite for an ongoing family narrative set in the late Victorian/Edwardian era, and Upstairs, Downstairs follows in that trend, formulating a winning combination of historical drama and soap. It was thought up by actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins as a vehicle for their performances, and was commissioned by LWT in 1970. However when new drama boss Cyril Bennett took over after completion, it languished on the shelves for six months as he deemed it 'not commercial television'. It was eventually aired in a late Sunday evening drama slot, and against all expectations was a massive ratings success. Upstairs, Downstairs went on to run for five series, and garnered numerous BAFTA, Golden Globe, Emmy and RTS Awards, and of course became part of British TV history.
Its success can be put down to the simple virtue of vivid characters, well drawn and well acted to the point where they assume the status of archetypes. The two worlds of the household are given equal weight and mirror one another, but it's the downstairs characters who are the real stars - the cantankerous cook Mrs Bridges (Angela Baddeley), the upright and outspoken parlour maid Rose (Jean Marsh), the feisty and mischievous maid Sarah (Pauline Collins), who will never know her place, the cheeky footman Edward (Christopher Beeny), and the loyal and virtuous butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson), as much a bastion of Edwardian patriarchy as his master ever could be, and undoubtedly the show's leading man. By comparison the Bellamy family upstairs - Tory MP Richard (David Langton), his elegant wife Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney), and their young adult children Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) and James (Simon Williams) - are mere supporting players, though they too are well realized and have their own foibles.
With an array of different writers, including Fay Weldon, the team of Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham, and Rosemary Anne Sisson, the first series has something of an experimental texture as various scenarios are tried out to develop the counterpointing between the two social spheres. Starting in 1903 and moving onto 1909, the drama has a sure feel for the period, with a background of rumblings over German armaments, trouble on the North West Frontier, political intrigue and skulduggery at large. The individual storylines touch on challenging topics, such as the rape of servant by master, homosexual seduction of a servant, and the manipulation of servants' private lives to the point where servitude appears to be more like slavery.
Peculiarly the first episode is in colour, the next five in black and white, and the remainder in colour. This was due to a dispute with the technicians union, which led to the initial abandonment of colour. Later the first episode was re-shot in colour, with two versions made - the second for the American market, enabling the black and white episodes to be excised from the storyline. All thirteen episodes are gathered together, including the second version of Episode 1.
1. On Trial. New parlour maid Sarah joins the household, meeting contempt from her fellow workers for her airs and graces, and her superior attitude. Gradually she comes to terms with the rigours of a servant's life, and makes a particular friend of Rose, with whom she shares a bed in their attic room.
2. The Mistress and the Maids. Flamboyant artist Guthrie Scone (Anton Rodgers) is commissioned to do a portrait of Lady Marjorie, but he also encounters Sarah, whom he lures to his studio to pose as a model. When exhibited together, the respective upstairs and downstairs paintings cause a controversy that threatens the social order, with dire consequences for the hapless Sarah.
3. Board Wages. With the Bellamy's and the senior staff away, the remaining maids and footmen throw a party in the main house, imitating the voices and mannerisms of their betters. James Bellamy unexpectedly appears, though instead of becoming enraged he plays mind-games with the staff, forcing drink on them. His games with Sarah get too amorously inclined, and she leaves the household, but re-appears later in the series.
4. A Path of Duty. Having returned from finishing school in Germany, daughter of the house Elizabeth is full of progressive, socialist ideas and dreams of changing the world. When she has to attend a grand ball and be presented to the King and Queen, she rebels and storms off, but is eventually brought to heel by none other than her maid Rose.
5. A Suitable Marriage. Elizabeth is about to get engaged to a young Scotsman, but ducks out at the last minute. Soon she becomes enamoured by Baron Klaus von Rimmer, a guest of the Bellamy's. But the Baron has a hidden agenda, tied into his involvement with German armaments, and a potential scandal looms.
6. A Cry for Help. New maid Mary (Susan Penhaligon) has become pregnant from a forced encounter, and Richard Bellamy agrees to help her rather than throw her out on the streets. But in taking an interest he finds he has bitten off too much, and risks his own reputation being compromised.
7. Magic Casements. Lady Marjorie falls in love with Captain Hammond, a friend of her son's, and commences a steamy affair. The servants get wind of it and gossip amongst themselves, fearing for their own positions if the news were to get out. But Hudson quickly puts them in their places, and events resolve in a way that preserves the important social order.
8. I Dies from Love. In this famous episode, kitchen maid Emily becomes enamoured with Carl, the footman of a friend of the Bellamy's, who is treated like a pet poodle by his mistress, and made to dress in ridiculously fancy eighteenth century uniforms. When Carl's possessive mistress learns of their friendship, she forbids any further liaison, and Emily takes it badly with tragic consequences.
9. Why is Her Door Locked?. Mrs Bridges is not herself, stricken with guilt over her unkindness to Emily. She sleeps in late, neglects her duties and keeps her door locked. After noises are heard in her room, Hudson enters and finds a baby, which Mrs Bridges has abducted. Fearful of losing their valued cook, the Bellamys attempt to sneak back the child to its parents, bypassing the usual channels of the law.
10. A Voice from the Past. On a charitable visit to a soup kitchen, Elizabeth and James discover their former maid Sarah, now down on her luck. She comes back into the household as a lowly scullery maid, but uses her guile - including her alleged psychic powers - to claw herself back to her previous status.
11. The Swedish Tiger. This clumsily written episode features a sting perpetrated on James by his Swedish friend Captain Ryttsen and his batman Kraft, who has the knack of passing himself off as a gentleman. The structure is so awkward and the dialogue so poor, it's hard to work out what is happening till close to the end - a strange aberration.
12. The Key of the Door. Whilst her parents are away, Elizabeth throws a party for her bohemian friends, and in time-honoured fashion the Bellamy's return to find things have got out of hand, with many of the guests drunk and unruly. A big row develops, but the fiery Elizabeth stands her ground and ends up leaving home. But as a displaced little rich girl, she doesn't get the reception she expects from her new crowd.
13. For Love of Love. Now living with a friend, Elizabeth continues to see poet Lawrence (Ian Ogilvy), and the two fall in love. With her revolutionary idealism, she doesn't believe in marriage, and again it is Rose who restores order by persuading Elizabeth it's the right thing to do. So the series ends on a lavish wedding, with a splash of location filming and everyone in their finest.
There have been many releases of Upstairs, Downstairs before, on VHS and on DVD, combining the episodes in various groupings; but this release is definitive in gathering together the entire first series in digitally remastered form. The results are most variable from episode to episode, with some noise, break-up, shimmering and ghosting of the video image, and occasional poor black-levels, with a green cast to shadow areas sometimes very noticeable. Episode 9 is particularly bad in these respects, but after that the quality generally improves, with less noise, better grading and more sparkle to the image. The mono soundtrack is satisfactory throughout.
The Making of documentary is striking for how it shows the passage of thirty-four years on the faces of Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, Simon Williams and others. Writers Fay Weldon, Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham also appear, and what interests most are the little insider tales of disputes and power struggles between the many personnel involved, and how different flavours arose from the various combinations of writer, director and script editor. This carries over into the commentaries - six in all - with writers and actors interacting together.
Despite the clunkiness of some of the production values, and a few over-long scenes, which would be much more tightly edited today, the thirteen episodes were surprisingly digestible, and the storylines serious and credible enough to hold interest. The quality of the writing and the acting still shine through, and as middlebrow TV drama Upstairs, Downstairs remains compulsive viewing!