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Monday, February 14, 2011


I never watched the classic British TV series "Upstairs, Downstairs" during its 70s run, regarding it from afar as one of those dry PBS shows that was only good for padding between pledge breaks.  But now, thanks to Acorn Media's 4-disc DVD collection UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS: SERIES ONE, I find it to be more richly entertaining than I'd ever imagined.

The show explores the divisions between the upper and lower classes in Edwardian era London by focusing on the well-to-do Bellamy family and their below-stairs servants.  In the first episode, "On Trial", a highstrung young lady named Sarah (Pauline Collins) applies for work at 165 Eaton Place and meets the stern but fair butler Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson, THE GREAT ESCAPE) and the motherly head cook, Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley).  After a shaky start due to her flighty nature and compulsive lying, Sarah is hired and eventually becomes close friends with first parlourmaid Rose (series co-creator Jean Marsh), one of the more stable members of the household with whom she shares a bed in the attic.

Whenever summoned by a bell, the servants hasten upstairs to attend to the needs and whims of the Bellamys--elegant Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney) and her mild-mannered husband Richard (David Langton), a member of Parliament who must be ever mindful of avoiding scandal.  This proves difficult thanks to their womanizing son James (Simon Williams), a military officer who will have an affair with Sarah, and their free-thinking daughter Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett), whose dalliance with a more Bohemian lifestyle will prove most distressing.

The Bellamys are a bit more indulgent, even warmhearted, than the usual upper-class twits that they hang out with--we often see their snooty friends treating the help (including random shopgirls and other inferiors) with a witheringly casual, even disdainful dismissiveness.  But any lax performance or challenge to the Bellamys' lofty rank is met with brittle remands and the threat of dismissal "without references", a bitter hardship for those "in service."  In "Board Wages", son James isn't above giving footman Alfred (George Innes) a swift kick along with a vigorous tongue-lashing. 

Alternately amusing and bleak, each episode juxtaposes the vastly different circumstances of the two groups while demonstrating how often they intertwine.  "Why Is Her Door Locked?" reveals just how much the Bellamys rely on dependable Hudson when a potentially-scandalous crisis involving Mrs. Bridges requires his bold intervention.  Rose proves a valuable friend and ally to young Elizabeth in "The Key of the Door" after the naive girl runs away to live with her manipulative Bohemian friends in defiance of her parents.  "A Suitable Marriage" finds Elizabeth on the verge of marrying an aristocratic German baron (Horst Janson, CAPTAIN KRONOS--VAMPIRE HUNTER) until Rose discovers the enigmatic man's shocking secret. 

Guest star Susan Penhaligon (THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT) gives a powerful performance in "A Cry For Help" as a new parlourmaid whom Richard risks his political reputation to help after dissuading her from getting a back-alley abortion.  (Penhaligon's final scene in this one is stunningly good.)  Ian Ogilvy (THE CONQUEROR WORM) appears as a poet who wins Elizabeth's heart with his flowery verse and iconoclastic attitudes.  The roster of other guest stars throughout the season maintains a standard of excellence that lends great substance to their characters.

While the "upstairs" cast are all fine, their characters engender much less sympathy when trouble enters their privileged lives.  Still, the episode "Magic Casements" does have its emotional resonance as Lady Marjorie finds herself swept up in a passionate but doomed love affair with a young friend of James.  The real heart of the show, however, lies with the common souls below stairs. 

The wonderful Jean Marsh is superb as Rose, and she and her castmates inhabit their characters with a theatrical yet intimate intensity.  Pauline Collins as Sarah ultimately proves the most interesting--vivacious and outgoing yet pathetic in turn, her sporadic appearances are always surprising since we never know what extreme circumstances we'll find her in.  Desperate for Rose's friendship one moment, defiantly independent the next, and always spouting some cock-and-bull story, Sarah lies and schemes her way to a better life any way she can.

Perhaps the most devastating performance of the season, however, comes from Evin Crowley as the homely, pitiful Irish kitchen maid, Emily, who is the lowest of the lower class.  In the tragic "I Dies From Love", her desperate obsession for the handsome footman of a neighboring countess is thwarted when their employers deem the pairing "unsuitable."  Crowley is heartrending in this keenly-felt tale of despair, representing anyone who ever felt hopeless and helpless, and finally showing just how shockingly low her kind were placed in proper Edwardian society.  "I Dies From Love" is an example of the show at its most bleakly Dickensian.

The 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen and Dolby Digital stereo with English subtitles.  Most of the thirteen episodes feature priceless cast and crew commentaries, and a lengthy featurette, "The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs: Part 1", details the history of the series through interviews with several of its original participants.  There's also an alternate version of the pilot, "On Trial", with an ending that skips the six early black-and-white episodes (made due to a technician's strike at the time) and blends with the continuity of the color ones.  As a fan of black-and-white, I actually find these six episodes more atmospheric than the color ones. 

If you ever skipped "Upstairs, Downstairs" because it looked like a stiff-necked borefest, you might find it as surprisingly warm and rewarding as I did.  If you're already a fan, then UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS: SERIES ONE should be a welcome addition to your DVD collection.

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