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A&E Home Video presents
Upstairs, Downstairs: The Complete First Season (1971)

"If disaster ever comes to this house through the chattering of your senseless loose tongues, we'd all be better dead for the shame of it."
- Hudson (Gordon Jackson)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: October 18, 2001

Stars: Gordon Jackson, Jean Marsh, Rachel Gurney, David Langton, Angela Baddeley, Christopher Beeny, Pauline Collins, Simon Williams, Nicola Pagett
Other Stars: Evin Crowley, George Innes, Patsy Smart, Jenifer Armitage, Brian Osborne, Maggie Wells, Joan Benham, Ian Ogilvy, Susan Porrett, Anton Rodgers, Geoffrey Whitehead, Sven-Bertil Taube
Director: Raymond Menmuir, Derek Bennett, Joan Kemp-Welch, Brian Parker, Herbert Wise

Manufacturer: IFPI
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (Some adult themes)
Run Time: 10h:44m:37s
Release Date: September 25, 2001
UPC: 733961702606
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-C+C+ C+

DVD Review

With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the conservative past was about to undergo a major transition with the reign of Edward VII. The stark aristocracy was beginning to crumble, as the classes began to intermingle and women found a more liberated role in society. The lavish and carefree life of the nobility had but a decade left in its splendor. Despite a half-century of social reforms, the problems of the lower classes persisted, with nearly a third of the population living in poverty.

The 1971 serial Upstairs, Downstairs opens in turn-of-the-century Edwardian England, and follows the lives of those in the household at 165 Eaton Place, both upstairs, where Richard (David Langton) and Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) live with their family, and downstairs, where the servants in their employ tend to their daily routine services for the Bellamys. Easily one of the most loved British television series ever, it ran a total of 68 episodes over its five-year production. The strength of the series is apparent from its outset, with rich, strongly defined characters, and a fastidious attention to historical detail, both in the set dressings and mannerisms of the cast. The dichotomy of the serving class, who hold a pride in their place in life, and their masters, is contrasted brilliantly with both humor and drama. The hierarchy these people live within is also defined in the ranks of the servants, with very strict attention to those allowed upstairs, and those who must remain in quarters.

A diverse and wonderful cast bring the family and staff to life, set against a time of intense societal change, and looming global conflicts. The first season covers 1903 to 1909, although US audiences may not have seen how it was originally debuted in England in 1971. Due to a technician's strike, the first six episodes were shot in black and white, but when color became available again, the first episode was reshot, and its black & white predecessor apparently lost. The US release of Masterpiece Theatre saw a different ending to the opener; discarded the remaining five black & white episodes from the first season (as well as episodes from the second), and instead combined the two seasons into one. This led to some serious discrepancies in the timeline, which meant discarding the dated placards seen at the beginning of each episode. The edited first season won an Emmy® for Outstanding Drama Series and a nomination for Jean Marsh as Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Thankfully, this release leaves the original black & white episodes intact, save the first.

On Trial

"You are what you are. There's no escape... not for you, or me." - Rose (Jean Marsh)

November 1903. A young Cockney girl (Pauline Collins) shows up at Eaton Place for the position of underparlormaid, immediately making the faux pas of ringing the front door instead of at the servant's entrance. She indicates her name is Clemence Dumas, of French background, but is renamed Sarah by the mistress of the house, Lady Marjorie Bellamy. With her wild stories of life abroad, she rubs the rest of the serving staff the wrong way, and when she is caught with her hands in the pantry stock, she is put in her place by Rose (series co-creator Jean Marsh), the houseparlormaid, Angus Hudson (Gordon Jackson), butler and master of servants, and Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), the cook.

4.5 of a possible 5 dinner bells.

Mistress and the Maids (black & white)

"We all want our mysteries." - Guthrie Scone (Anton Rodgers)

An aristocratic, avant-garde artist (Anton Rodgers) is hired to paint a portrait of Lady Bellamy, but when Sarah is sent to his studio with her mistress' dresses from the work, he strikes up a relationship with the underparlormaid, and the results could end up in a scandal for the Bellamy household.

4 dinner bells.

Board Wages (black & white)

"There's a lot more to life than they let on." - Sarah (Pauline Collins)

While the cat's away, the mice will play. The younger servant staff, left behind on reduced pay, take advantage of the Bellamy's absence on vacation by holding a society party in the upstairs morning parlor—in their masters' clothes. The frivolity of the evening takes an interesting twist when an unexpected guest arrives. One of our major characters is introduced here.

Shall I bring in the tea, m'lord? 5 dinner bells.

The Path of Duty (black & white)

"The whole place is topsy-tiry!" - Hudson (Gordon Jackson)

Back from her stay in Dresden, Elizabeth Bellamy's new ideas conflict with her duties as a lady in contemporary London society. When she has the honor of presentation to the king on her coming out, she has the reputation of the Bellamy household on her shoulders. An interesting commentary on the changing values of the younger generation.

4 dinner bells.

A Suitable Marriage (black & white)

"Don't be so shocked Rose. We're living in modern times." - Elizabeth Bellamy (Nicola Pagett)

It seems that Elizabeth may have found a suitor when a German baron she had met while away shows up, and a relationship ensues. However, what seems one way on the surface may not be so underneath, as Richard Bellamy discover's the young man's true intentions, with Rose as a witness to something even worse. I'd speculate this raised a few eyebrows in its time.

4 dinner bells.

A Cry for Help (black & white)

"How am I going to manage now?" - Mary (Susan Penhaligon)

The loyalty between master and servant is tested when Richard Bellamy discovers the reason behind his young underparlormaid's (Susan Penhaligon) outbreaks of tears. However, his efforts may put his political future at stake when he takes up her cause. Originally slated to air after Magic Casements, this was, instead, grouped with the rest of the black & white episodes.

4 dinner bells.

Magic Casements

"You have a real life, exciting and worthwhile, which I can never enjoy." - Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney)

When James (Simon Williams) suggests his visitor, the handsome Capt. Charles Hammond (David Kernan), escort his mother to the opera, little does he suspect the possible outcome. When gossip that their mistress has taken a lover reaches downstairs, Hudson has to remind his staff that the affairs of those upstairs is no business of theirs.

4 dinner bells.

I Dies from Love

"A passion spends itself very quickly." - Lady Marjorie Bellamy

With plans afoot for a picnic to honor their servants, the ladies of four houses meet at the Bellamy house. Emily, the much harassed kitchen maid, strikes up a relationship and falls hopelessly in love with the young footman of one of Lady Bellamy's guests. When their masters find out, they are ordered to stop seeing each other, which has a devastating effect on the young girl. An interesting contrast to the previous episode.

Dinner is served. 5 dinner bells.

Why is Her Door Locked?

"Everyone's against me." - Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley)

It starts with Mrs. Bridges being late for breakfast, but when the Bellamys discover what lies behind their cook's locked door, another scandal is in the offing if they don't intervene—after all, good help is hard to find. Not quite on par with its predecessors, but saved by the ending.

4.5 dinner bells.

A Voice from The Past

"A good cook never sleeps." Mrs. Bridges

Accompanying his sister on her humanitarian adventures in an East End soup kitchen, James runs into their former underparlormaid, Sarah, whom Elizabeth decides should be reinstated at the house. However, true to character, Sarah has a knack for stirring up trouble both up- and downstairs. (Where did they find the master for this one?)

4.5 dinner bells.

The Swedish Tiger

"They're all the same—different." - Sarah

Oh! Ornaments from the house begin to vanish with the arrival of James' guest, Capt. Ryttsen (Geoffrey Whitehead) and his valet, Thorkil Kraft (Sven-Bertil Taube), who has a dangerous influence on Sarah, still on probation at Eaton Place. The intrigue intensifies once fingers start being pointed. I'm a sucker for Sarah, so this probably gets a higher rating than it deserves.

3.5 dinner bells.

The Key of the Door

"All eyes shall be open one day." - Elizabeth Bellamy

The clash of generations comes to the fore as Elizabeth nears her 21st birthday. Entranced with Lawrence Kirbridge, a leftist poet, and the motley group of Socialists he associates with, Elizabeth's rite of initiation lands her in police custody, and in a conflict of ideals with her parents.

4 dinner bells.

For Love of Love

"I must be free to live my own life." - Elizabeth Bellamy

Having abandoned her family and their aristocratic mentality, Elizabeth stays at a roominghouse with one of her friends, Henrietta Winchmore (Jenifer Armitage), determined to lead a free and modern lifestyle. When her parents finally meet the man of her affections, her resistance to the traditions of a good family are put to the test, as Lawrence Kirbridge becomes a suitable candidate for marriage. Meanwhile, James is reacquainted with an old flame, though their situations have changed somewhat since their last encounter. Is more scandal in store for the Bellamy household? The return of my favorite character steals the show.

4.5 dinner bells.

Upstairs, Downstairs succeeds in portraying the social hierarchy and commitment to duty exhibited by both the ruling and serving classes in the early twentieth century and, as the series moves on, the challenges to the class distinctions that were surfacing through the progressive and rebellious attitudes of the younger generation. There is tremendous depth to the series by giving both the servants and their "betters" equal focus, marking the disparity between the two, and their lifestyles much more pointedly. The style of the production has an almost theatre-like atmosphere, with long scenes playing out uninterrupted by excessive cutting. Upstairs, Downstairs was shot on a tight budget, evidenced by the number of bloopers left intact, along with many technical shortcomings, such as a proliferation of sound boom shadows which would not be found in modern productions. Although a few of the episodes may seem a little slow by today's standards, the content, both comedic and serious, is worthy of the investment for those interested in period drama. The characters in this series are priceless. Fetch us some tea would you? That's a good chap.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: With nearly 12 hours of video, we get a pretty mixed bag. These looked to be sourced from an older video master, with chroma noise present in the color episodes, and some degree of rainbowing present in the black & white episodes. Other than a few of the later episodes, all suffer from some degree of video damage, from minor dropouts to a few major flaws. The third color episode, A Voice From The Past, probably looks the worst, rivalling bad VHS: poorly defined, overly dark and plagued with jitter.

The color episodes are generally dark, and often look like the color timing is off, tending to greenish hues on many occasions. The black & white episodes don't look too bad most of the time, besides video glitches which range from three or four per episode, to more frequent and distracting distortions of the image. Given its age, I wouldn't expect this to be flawless, but the image quality leaves a great deal to be desired, and there looks to have been no efforts to restore it at all.

Additionally, the commercial break intertitles have been edited out, but newer title cards denoting some of the upcoming episodes have been added.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The stereo soundtrack is generally center-focused, consisting almost entirely of location dialogue, which sometimes is difficult to discern. Sibilance is fairly dominant throughout, and there is a low-level hiss present, along with a persistent tone in the background. Several episodes also display a fair bit of distortion in the audio, and the edits between commercial breaks are somewhat abrupt. There is also an amount of pre echo present in the track.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 78 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special documentary
Extras Review: At four episodes per platter, the lone extra is relegated to the fourth disc, which shares the final installment from the first season.

The 1996 TV documentary (50m:45s ), Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special takes a look back at the series' five seasons with clips from the show and modern day interview footage of cast and crew members Gareth Hunt, Simon Williams, Meg Wynn Owen, Nicola Pagett, Jacqueline Tong, Jenny Tomasin, Chris Beeny, Jean Marsh, John Hawkesworth, Freddy Shaughnessy and Fay Weldon. A wealth of behind-the-scenes information on the production is provided, along with anecdotal recounts of the shooting. For those unfamiliar with the series however, this feature is riddled with spoilers, as many of the cast here don't appear until later seasons, and many of their roles and the stories that accompany them are exposed. Not helping matters is that there are no onscreen titles indicating who is being interviewed, which is somewhat disorienting for cast not seen in these first 13 episodes. Nice to have, but would have been better suited to the fifth season rather than the first. A more fitting addition would have been the alternate ending to the first episode used in the U.S. release.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Upstairs, Downstairs is a wonderful series, and an intriguing look at Edwardian life. Unlike its Region 2 counterpart, A&E has restored the black & white episodes to the series here, though the presentation quality of the set is somewhat disappointing, the only thing detracting from an across-the-board recommendation. This series deserves to be seen by anyone interested in great period drama, and provides a perfect balance of comedy and seriousness, populated by a cast of unique and engaging actors. Recommended.


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