In the 1970’s the critically acclaimed Upstairs Downstairs was a television mainstay in England. American audiences were soon introduced to the series through PBS broadcasts in the late 1970’s and beyond. It was a unique kind of drama that served both as a period piece and an examination of the class lifestyles. The series began at the turn of the century and led up to the events of World War I and the period that soon followed. We were witness to the wealthy Bellamy family who occupied the estate at 165 Eaton Place. The family lived in the upstairs rooms, while the servants who kept the place in order occupied the rooms downstairs. Each episode would bring the dramatic events of the world to the doorstep of the home and we would see how they affected the two classes. We got to know members of both classes, and as the series progressed, observed the stark differences while also seeing the common humanity the two worlds shared. It was a huge hit and has lived on in syndication in all of the years since. The original series ran from 1971 until 1975 and covered the years of 1903 until the market crash of 1929 and the death of the patron of the estate. The whole thing had to be sold and the characters dispersed to their own lives from there.
Enter Heidi Thomas, who was eleven when the original series ended. The show stuck with her, and she made it a sort of life mission to bring the series back. In 2010 that’s exactly what she did. The result is the three episode run that we have in this release.
It’s now 1936 and the estate has been boarded for some years since the Bellamy family left in 1929. The new owners are Sir Hallam Holland (Stoppard) and his new wife Agnes (Hawes). When they first set foot in 165 Eaton Place, it is a mess. Cobwebs and dust dominate and the place appears more ruin than home. But they are determined to put it back in order. Their first step is to contact Rose Buck (Marsh) who was in service to the original owners, the Bellamys, for 30 years. She is charged with hiring a new staff and overseeing the renovation of the old house. For Rose, she is flooded with memories when she first enters the rooms both upstairs and downstairs. She quickly assembles a team that includes: Mrs. Thackeray (Reid) the chain-smoking cook who’s always quick with the sarcastic remark, Ivy Morris (Kendrick) the rather rebellious young maid, Harry Spargo (Jackson) the fascist-supporter chauffeur, and finally Mr. Pritchard (Scarborough).
Upstairs the couple are joined by Maude (Atkins) Hallam’s interfering mother, and Lady Persie (Foy), the younger sister of Agnes. The Hollands are also involved with the rather touchy political situation that surrounds England. They give parties that include the Duke Of Kent (Ritson). He is consulted when the King’s affair with an American leads to abdication and scandal. Lady Persie gets sucked into Harry’s fascist movement, and they are both in attendance at the famous Cable Street Riots. All of these events play out within the family dynamics and the contrasts of the folks who live both upstairs and downstairs.
I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the original series, not enough to remember it much. So, I really have to judge this sequel on its own merits. I’m happy to report that you need not know anything about the earlier show. Everything here is self-contained and tells its own story. The only cast member and character from that series is Jean Marsh as Rose Buck. I have a feeling it captures enough of the original spirit to satisfy the fans of the original. It also is fresh and clever enough to stand completely on its own merits. The shows contain an amazing authenticity of the time period. The cast fit their parts perfectly. The stories are less soap opera than the setup might imply. I absolutely think it’s worth checking out.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Everything from the lighting to the muted colors adds an air of authenticity to the image presentation. I suspect you’re getting an image quite comparable to the BBC broadcasts. Of course, it’s not high definition, but it is a solid presentation in standard definition. Black levels are excellent, and the discs are not overloaded, so compression is not a serious problem here.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is not going to blow away your system. This is really a dialog piece, and that is serviced quite well.
Behind Closed Doors: (35:03) This is a rather nice look behind the scenes for the show. The writers talk about their love for the original and their intentions for this series. There’s a great deal of character exploration here, and it’s a good way to get acquainted with the new cast.
Remakes are not just an American phenomenon. Even the Brits have gotten caught up in a nostalgia craze over the years. Quite a few of the BBC’s classic characters and series have been resurrected. The most obvious and successful has been Doctor Who. But, Upstairs Downstairs was just as big in its time. As of this writing there is no word if the new series will continue. I rather hope that it does. The characters are quite interesting and entertaining. The historical background dovetails nicely into an area of English history recently explored in The King’s Speech. The production values are quite high and faithful to both the original show and the standards a 2011 audience expects. To all of the fans of the original, this series says, “Welcome home”.