Starring: David Langton, Gordon Jackson, Jean Marsh, Angela Baddeley, Christopher Beeny
- All sixty-eight episodes
- “Upstairs Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special”
Released by: A&E Home Video.
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.
My Advice: Rent it.
[ad#amazon_lg_rt_300x600]Welcome to 165 Eaton Place. From 1903 to 1930, the tale of the Bellamy family, who lives in that home, is told–along with the tale of the hired help as well. Leading the family is Richard (Langton), a Tory member of Parliament. He, his wife, son and daughter all deal with the pitfalls and prestige of being at the right level of the British caste system. Downstairs, though, the activities are presided over by the head butler, Mr. Hudson (Jackson), who knows how a house is supposed to be run and what place people belong in.
This is one of the most beloved shows in the history of British television. It won nine Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Peabody Award, and many other accolades. Now, if you’re the Fear Factor type who needs lots of noise and action in your television shows, this one probably isn’t for you. However, if you enjoy good writing and multi-dimensional characters presented in the spirit of A Little Night Music, Gosford Park, and A Little Princess, then this is right up your alley.
One of the things that made me respect the series is the balance of focus on the Bellamy family versus the time spent on their servants, who operate as their own sort of family as well. The storyline gives a good insight into the class divisions at the turn of the century. The father of the Bellamy family, for example, chastises his son for involving a financially naive maid in the stock market. Hudson, the butler, refuses to give his opinion of a visiting suitor, saying that it is ‘not [his] place’ to make such a judgment. There also exists a gentler side to the class division, such as the way the servants (especially Hudson) take pride in caring for the family, and how protective the Bellamys are of their servants.
Although there is a clear division between the two groups, there are also similarities in a more universal way. Because neither is flattened into a mere stereotype, their juxtaposition reveals how very alike the characters themselves are in spite of class differences. Both groups experience love, death, scandal, money problems, and close friendships. The line between the two worlds is also occasionally crossed by certain characters, which adds richness and depth to the storyline. While there are a few problems with the actual production of the show (such as technical difficulties picking up the actors’ voices or dressing them in turn-of-the-century costumes made with 1970s fabrics), the creators made up for them by the excellent writing and casting, which gives rise to characters who are unique and wonderfully human. Their similar joys and sorrows make them relate not only to each other, but to the audience as well.
“Upstairs Downstairs Remembered: The 25th Anniversary Special” includes interviews from the actors, writers, and creators of the show as they discuss the good (and bad) memories of working on it, such as how one of the characters was written-in the day of taping to cover up another’s absence because the actor had been in a terrible car accident and was not guaranteed to live through lunch (don’t worry–he did). They also reveal little-known facts about what went on behind the scenes, such as how the fancy “upstairs” food actually tasted much worse than the servants (bread and cheese) and how the show brought in experts from Buckingham Palace to instruct the actors on how to behave when one is “in service.”
We have a great deal of the cast still with us, so it would have been nice to have a commentary or two, especially on the first episode. Apparently, Richard Marson–the director of the aforementioned docu–has a book coming out on the series. I’m sure he would have been happy to sit in front of a mic and get himself some free publicity, but ah well.
Basically, if you’re already a big fan of the show and you’re willing to spend a few extra bucks, this set is a good buy. If you haven’t seen it yet and you can do without watching people eat live bugs for an evening, go rent it or check it out at the library. It’s worth the trip.