TV on DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs -- 40th Anniversary Edition (Complete Series)

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Related Review:
 Upstairs, Downstairs (2010)

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“Where are the servants?” Intrigued and angered more by what they didn’t see in the television adaptation of The Forsyte Saga than what they actually did witness when it aired in 1967, actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins created the Peabody, Emmy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA award-winning international smash Upstairs, Downstairs in response.

Born out of the interest that the two modern women had in exploring the past through the point-of-view of characters traditionally overlooked in period fare, Atkins and Marsh’s clever Forsyte inspired query premise focused on eponymous servants living below the stairs whilst their masters remain above.

Using more than a simple broom to sweep away false sentimentality about the division of classes and labor in Edwardian England, Atkins and Marsh’s aptly named series that began just after the turn of the century centers on two “families” housed Upstairs, Downstairs under one roof in 165 Eaton Place in London’s Belgravia neighborhood.

An extraordinarily ambitious project from a conceptual perspective alone, Upstairs, Downstairs was committed to unfolding not only shared narratives but separate ones of equal importance as well in both levels of Lord and Lady Bellamy’s flourishing household, which was bursting at the seams with a rather large group of dynamic and diverse characters.

However, the audacious decision that truly set Upstairs apart from the rest of the costume drama pack was the added structural challenge to chronicle nearly three decades worth of historical events in just five seasons.

To put this into perspective, it’s time for Don Draper to crack a smile because he won’t be writing ads forever. For even though both shows release roughly the same amount of episodes per season, the planned near-decade-long time-span for Matthew Weiner’s brilliant ‘60s set Mad Men is still twenty years shorter than Upstairs… and Upstairs, Downstairs was produced much faster than the American Men.

For Upstairs, Alfred Shaughnessy and company charted the changes in both London and abroad from the Edwardian era in 1903 up through the First World War and beyond until the American Stock Market crash signaled the end of the Roaring Twenties with the show’s 1930 stopping point.

Yet as dryly data intensive as it sounds, the completed result on display throughout all sixty-eight hour-long episodes in Acorn Media’s recent 40th Anniversary release of Upstairs, Downstairs is anything but.

While undoubtedly the twenty-seven year time span provides ample storytelling fodder for the work as a period production, for the most part, the events from the past merely serve as the overall backdrop of the series.

Rather than opting for wooden fact-driven History Channel style reenactments or even succumbing to the temptation of penning politically correct revisionist accounts, the Upstairs writers derive their plots naturally from the show’s instantly memorable characters that have been brought to life by its legendary cast to create the classiest soap you’ve ever seen.

By blending the show’s examination of the past within the context of the time in which the series was filmed in the early ‘70s era of women’s lib and Vietnam, the impressive storylines were heightened even more, making history come alive as evidenced in episodes that focus on the role of women longing for the right to vote and/or the long-lasting post-traumatic stress effects of World War I.

Despite an exceptional pilot and a few strong installments, admittedly it does take a full season for Upstairs, Downstairs to find its overall rhythm.

Initially bogged down by what Hawkesworth later realized was the wrong decision to continue full speed ahead with series production in the face of technician strike that resulted in several premiere season episodes being filmed in black and white, Upstairs had to work doubly hard to make a good first impression as the stark photography enhanced some particularly melancholic plotlines.

Likewise, in an attempt to establish all of the characters quickly, the series only enhanced its greatest criticism of “looking like a play” with stagey direction and endless comings and goings that inspired a few overly theatrical performances and in turn magnified the relatively small amount of sets they had at their disposal as most episodes divided more than half of the running time between two main rooms.

Yet what it lacked in budget, Upstairs, Downstairs more than made up for in multifaceted scripts that distracted us from any shortcomings with the sheer amount of major life-changing twists that occur in countless episodes, which rival an entire season of some contemporary repetitive comfort food programs.

From start to finish, Upstairs is anchored by a mind-blowingly talented cast including series co-creator Marsh's masterful turn as house parlour maid Rose whom we soon discover is the heart of the series.

And two of the series' most valuable players head up the downstairs "family" via Gordon Jackson’s Scottish by-the-book butler Mr. Hudson who oversees the staff alongside Angela Baddeley’s stern but supportive cook and unofficial staff matriarch Mrs. Bridges.

Despite the fact that just like its audience and co-creators, the writing staff of Upstairs, Downstairs does tend to openly favor the show's loyal, hardworking servants, all characters regardless of class are fascinatingly complicated and very real in the way that they grow and change from one season to the next for better or worse.

And although the house is initially owned by his father Lord Richard Bellamy (David Langton) and his wife Marjorie (Rachel Gurney), the master who alternately fascinates and infuriates us the most is easily Richard’s son James as played by Simon Williams in a tour de force portrayal that grows increasingly poignant as the series marches through time.

Never letting us forget that the rich male masters held all the power during the time period, in addition to exploring what life was like for the impoverished “servants” who were treated as “second class citizens” to their masters, Upstairs, Downstairs also examines the roles that women of all backgrounds played in this era.

Refreshingly female-centric in scope, the amount of women residing in all areas of the house greatly outnumbers the men both below and above the stairs.

From beautiful hippie-before-her-time Elizabeth (Nicola Paget) to the intelligent middle class self-made Hazel (Meg Wynn Owen), the feisty Sarah (Pauline Collins) who's caught between floors, the headstrong military widow Virginia (Hannah Gordon) and the self-involved “Bright Young Thing” Georgina (Lesley Anne-Down), we’re presented with a plethora of female perspectives that transcend the traditional roles of wives, mothers, sisters and friends.

Additionally, Upstairs, Downstairs becomes far more polished technically as the series continues, striving to add another layer of visual meaning to the well-written and well-acted performances, juxtaposing two otherwise unrelated shots in the editing room to subtly link two disparate stories together to remind us that the similarities between those above and below stairs outweigh the differences.

While these little distinct touches are much more apparent with a second screening, the experience of viewing the series again is greatly enhanced altogether in Acorn’s luxurious gold-foil packaged anniversary release, thanks to some magnificent bonus features including twenty-four complete cast and crew commentary tracks and a new five part behind-the-scenes in-depth analytical documentary series that’s filled with surprising revelations.

Although the set is missing the ‘70s spinoff Thomas and Sarah in addition to The Forsyte Saga to get you into the right Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins “Where are the servants?” mindset, it’s perfectly timed to coincide with the DVD release of BBC and PBS Masterpiece Theater’s continuation of Upstairs, Downstairs that picks up the story in 1936.

Still inspiring great television forty years later, Acorn’s celebration of the landmark award-winning phenomenon is sure to attract viewers that were drawn to the Upstairs influenced miniseries Downtown Abbey.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.