Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: Upstairs, Downstairs - Series 1 (1971)

As many of you may know, I'm a fan of Downton Abbey. I have often heard it compared to Upstairs, Downstairs, and though I had never seen Upstairs, Downstairs before, I knew a little about what it was about and went with the analogy. I finally got to watch the original Upstairs, Downstairs recently (after finishing Downton Abbey: Series 2). Here is what I thought.

Complete Series Box
165 Eaton Place is home to not only the rich Bellamys who are involved in politics, but also to the servants who serve them. Upstairs, Richard Bellamy, a M.P., lives at 165 Eaton Place with his wife, Lady Marjorie, and when they are home, his son James and his daughter Elizabeth. Below stairs, there are many servants who keep the Bellamys' home running: the butler, Mr. Hudson, makes sure that the servants behave themselves, Mrs. Bridges cooks all the meals that are enjoyed both by the Bellamys and the servants, and Rose the head parlor maid that is also friend's with Elizabeth Bellamy.

There are a couple of the cast members that you may have seen in other period dramas. The maid Rose is played by Jean Marsh, who not only created this series and The House of Eliott with Eileen Atkins (who was also in Cranford), was also in the 2008 miniseries of Sense and Sensibility as Mrs. Ferrars. John Rapley, who played a tradesman in one episode, was in The Duchess of Duke Street as Mr. Leyton. Other than those two, I didn't recognize anyone else.

There are a mixed bag of characters in Upstairs, Downstairs. There is probably an even number of characters you like and characters you don't like: this applies to both the upstairs characters and the downstairs characters.

Lady Marjorie
Upstairs, there are characters that I personally liked. Richard Bellamy is a respectable, honorable character who I don't have much to say against. For the most part, I liked Lady Marjorie, though there was one episode she made a very bad mistake. As for James and Elizabeth Bellamy, I don't particularly care for either one of them. James is a scandalous character -- a scoundrel if you will. I find it hard to like scoundrels. Elizabeth is extremely political and radical to the point where it gets irritating. She wasn't nearly as bad towards the beginning of the series -- at that point in the beginning, she was young and didn't seem as extremely political--, but when she met some new friends, she changed for the worst. I don't foresee either James Bellamy or Elizabeth Bellamy going away or changing for the better for a long while.

Dowstairs, as it was for upstairs, there are characters that I liked and didn't like. The difference between upstairs and downstairs is that the staff downstairs changes a little throughout the series. The two characters that I found dislikable leave at some point in the series, though one comes back. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in the staff of 165 Eaton Place. Warning: I'm going to make a Downton Abbey comparison now. It seemed to me that a number of the things that went on with the staff would not have even been attempted at Downton Abbey, which seemed more orderly. In one episode, Mr. Hudson and the Bellamys leaves and the staff is running amok in the house and trying on their employers' clothes and indulging in their employers' wine! Could anyone even imagine that going on at Downton Abbey even if Mr. Carson (Downton Abbey butler) or Mrs. Hughes (Downton Abbey Housekeeper) were away? In short, it seems to me that Mr. Hudson, though he is a likable character and does maintain some control over the staff, could be maintaining more control over his staff.

An example of the Black and White episodes
For most 70s shows, the scenery isn't much to really speak of since most series at the time were done on sets. I will say that the setting of Upstairs, Downstairs was still very nice, though it was most likely filmed on a set. However, a number of the episodes in the first series were in black and white due to labor strikes. I think by the 7th episode in the series, the episodes are all in color, but before then there were only two episodes that were filmed in color (the pilot was filmed in color and another episode was also filmed in color, but then it went back to black and white for one episode).

Uggh! I hate that hat!
The costuming was also nice! Since the story takes place between 1903-1909, the ladies dresses were from the Edwardian era. A lot of the dresses and hats were very nice. The maids wear their usual uniforms with the exception of the scullery maids, who wore different uniforms than the other maids. I did take issue with Elizabeth's "new" wardrobe towards the end of the first series. There was one particular hat that I took a quick dislike to (it's pictured here). It was too masculine to be a lady's hat. I question if she just took one of her father's or brother's hats and decided to wear it for who knows why. But other than that, the costumes are very nice to look at.

Overall: 3/5
Upstairs, Downstairs is okay... I guess. Honestly, if you had to pick between seeing Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, definitely go for Downton Abbey. All of the characters in Downton Abbey seemed more dignified than the characters in Upstairs, Downstairs. Don't get me wrong, there are some likable characters in Upstairs, Downstairs, but there were times where there were some behaviors going on that no one would have gotten away at Downton (Really, could anyone see Anna trying on Lady Mary clothes?). I did like Upstairs, Downstairs enough to continue watching it. Who knows, I might grow to like it a little more.

Content-wise, there aren't any graphic scenes in Upstairs, Downstairs, but there are some scenes that contain some mature themes. There are also some implications and scandals that may be a little mature. Also, especially in later episodes, there are some discussions talked about that wouldn't have been mentioned in polite conversation. But again, there's nothing overtly graphic. I also saw that on Netflix, it has been rated TV-PG, which considering today's current TV shows, wouldn't be inaccurate. I would recommend watching it ahead of time if you plan on showing this to, let's say, a preteen audience, for the themes presented and decide for yourself if you want to show it.

Upstairs, Downstairs: Series 1 is available on DVD either by itself or apart of the complete collection. You can also watch it on Netflix Instant Streaming. There are 13 episodes in the first series which are about 50 minutes long.


  1. I've seen a couple of the old episodes and found them *dull* and the pace was just so slow.
    It would be interesting to see your thoughts on the 'classic' upstairs downstairs compared to the 'most recent revamp'. I think the pace has quickened but its still quite dull with the 'mature themes' nodded to....I've given up on it after 2 episodes. Prefer downton....I like my sunday evening costume dramas to be light and easygoing.

  2. I just started watching this after watching all of the Duchess of Duke Street episodes on DVD. I have a shop with vintage household items, and it is interesting to see what historical television pieces were available at the same time some items were made with the same theme.

  3. Titus AndronicusMarch 8, 2012 at 7:01 PM

    Ah, you've only seen the first series. It picks up nicely in the second and is an extremely well-oiled machine in the third. The 4th series, the one on the First World War, is the best of the bunch.

    The first series is inconsistent. Hudson seemingly not having control of his staff is an anomaly only to Board Wages.

    As for concerns about conversation, costuming, etc., it's a series that strove to be extremely accurate, as the folks in charge grew up in similar households.

    Please give the rest of it a try.

  4. You do yourself an unforgivable disservice if you stop watching UD now. The first season is the weakest, the show was definitely only finding its way. It is all uphill from there, and eventually comes to place head and shoulders above anything DA (of which I am also a fan) has produced thus far. The writing and acting are STELLAR, and even now, 40 years later, I don't think they have ever been equaled - only The Sopranos (to me) comes close to this quality. The series is BRILLIANT, and it all due to the writing and acting, as the budget was clearly too small for any sumptuous settings or special effects. Honestly, UD is like a fine wine - once you get to know it, you realize how truly incredible it is. And I speak only of the ORIGINAL series here; i have no comment on that tacky new one. So PLEASE - keep going. You will be converted, EVERYONE is, it is THAT good! :)


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