Shiny Shelf

Upstairs Downstairs Series One DVD

By Lance Parkin on 08 June 2011

‘Upstairs Downstairs’ is one of the best known British TV series of the seventies, on both sides of the Atlantic (and has recently been revived). It quickly became a centerpiece of ITV’s schedule, but the new DVD set of the first season shows it most certainly didn’t start out that way.

The most visible sign of this, looking at the finished result, is that the first few episodes were all recorded in black and white. In one of the features, Jean Marsh tells us that cameramen had been given a pay rise when they switched to colour, because setting up a colour camera took more work.

The sound recordists, using the same equipment they always had, demanded a similar pay rise and threatened to go on strike. So, the first few episodes (1-5, then 7) were recorded using the old black and white cameras. It was well understood that starting in black and white would cripple the shows afterlife in repeats and foreign sales, so the first episode was later remade in colour. A scene was tagged on the end so that repeat runs could jump from the first episode to the eighth.

The original black and white first episode is now lost, but everything else (including both endings of the first episode) is included on the boxset.

Twelve of the thirteen episodes are very strong indeed (more on the odd man out in a moment), but I think the earliest ones, the black and white ones, are the strongest of all.

The first episode does a good job of sketching in the set-up of how a town house at the turn of the century operated. The first episode mostly concentrates on the servants ‘downstairs’, starting on the first day at work of a new underhouse parlourmaid to ask all the questions we have like ‘what’s an underhouse parlourmaid?’. The family they serve are barely-seen, distant figures in the first episode. Subsequent episodes often swap the telescope around, so the family is the focus and the servants hover in the background.

The show occupies a weird borderland between being a soapy running drama and being a series of one-off plays. In the first series, the next episode often starts six months or a year after the last one. Only the cast who are needed for this episode’s drama are involved, no one shows up just because they’re in the regular cast. It allows for tight fifty minutes of drama, and to resist attempts to get too cosy. The episodes often have nasty twists, and the show is at pains to show how servants don’t get second chances.

The politics of the show are fascinating. Even by 1970, the world of large townhouses, a rigid class system and middle class families with half a dozen people waiting on them had long gone, but it was within living memory.

The show resists the urge to see the fall of the system in hindsight. A couple of characters sneer that the class system is outdated and oppressive, but a life of service is better than being expelled from that career, as we’re shown. But isn’t that an indictment of the system, not its justification? Of course it is. The show is happy to let the characters explain what the people of the first decade of the twentieth century thought, to let us be the judge.

It’s a system that depends on everyone knowing their place, but it’s not the servants who are agitated by that. The butler Hudson is given a stirring speech that his master is one of the best men in the world, and that it is an honour to work in his household, but we see that the ruling classes are fallible, gullible and, if anything, seem more frustrated by the role society demands of them. It’s the people who have the most who are the ones trying to buck the system. It’s a series tinged with a certain nostalgic appeal, it certainly tries to present the advantages of a world of certainties and duty, but also shows just how brutal and arbitrary that world can be.

The only duffer is the episode ‘The Swedish Tiger’, an admirable attempt to break the format a little by showing someone scheming to steal valuable items from the Bellamys’ house from under the noses of the family and servants. It draws attention to the fact that the servants, earning pennies a week, are surrounded by extremely valuable antiques. These can be moved around, rearranged or put away without the family ever really registering the fact. An item that wouldn’t be missed could be sold on and set someone up for life.

So, it’s an interesting premise. The problem is that the plan involves a nested series of double crosses and people knowing more than they initially let on. It’s very clear that no one involved, from the writer, director and actors down has any sense of what’s happening. It’s not helped that the episode starts with a long dialogue-free sequence.

The cast gleefully admit on the commentaries that they still haven’t worked out the plot, even after forty years. Oh, and there’s a visiting Swede and his servant. The result is like watching a period costume episode of ‘Hustle’, with dialogue by Yoda, performed by the Swedish Chef. It is, at least, another example of the show surprising the viewer.

I’ve never watched the show from beginning to end before. I don’t think I’d seen any of the black and white episodes. I’d liked what I’d seen, but I think most of that was the later, more settled seasons, and I remembered the show as being good, but a little staid. I remembered everyone sitting around tables knowing their place, and servants being told off for pouring the tea wrong.

It’s not like that at all. Even by the end of the first season, the show’s calmed down a little and become just a little more formulaic. The first half of the season (the black and white episodes) are often rather bold – there’s sex, not all of it heterosexual, there’s systematic undercutting of how television drama is meant to reset itself.

While Gordon Jackson is effortlessly Hudson from his first scene, a lot of the other actors struggle a little to find where to pitch their performance, all of them ending up in interesting places that are often far less sympathetic than TV is usually happy with.

At every stage, the easy answers are thwarted. A lot of the time watching it, I thought what every dramatist wants a member of his audience to think: ‘well, if I was in that situation, I’d …’, only to see my solution tried and crushed. This is a show that dangles easy solutions and happy endings, then whips them away from its characters and audience.

The DVD release has great picture quality and far more features and commentaries than this sort of TV tends to get. Mark Twain said a classic novel was one that everyone wanted to have read but no one wanted to read. I always felt that about ‘Upstairs Downstairs’. I knew it was good, I only ever dipped in.

The first season works on its own, it’s got a great cast, some really great writing. It’s a masterclass on how to make serial television in all its spiky, compromised, glory and is highly recommended.

Line Break

By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

Comments are closed.