Upstairs Downstairs

Series One (2010)

 

Upstairs Downstairs: Series One

• Created, Produced & Written by Heidi Thomas

• Produced & Kate Harwood, Piers Wenger and

Nikki Wilson

• Music by Daniel Pemberton

• Photography by Adam Suschitsky

• Production Design by Eve Stewart

• Art Direction by David Hindle

• Directed by Euros Lyn & Saul Metzstein

2010

 

Cast:

Upstairs

Eileen Atkins as Lady Maud Holland

Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes

Ed Stoppard as Sir Hallem

Claire Foy as Lady Persie


Art Malik as Mr. Amanji


Downstairs

Jean Marsh as Rose Buck

Anne Reid as Mrs Thackeray

Adrian Scarborough as Mr. Pritchard

Ellie Kendrick as Ivy Morris

Neil Jackson as Harry Spargo


Studio:

Television: BBC One

Video: BBC America

 

Video:

Format: DVD

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Anamorphic

Codec: MPEG-2

Avg. Bit Rate: 8.1 Mbps

Runtime: 180 minutes

Episodes: 3 (60 min. each)

Chapters: 6 per episode

Region: 1

 

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo

 

Subtitles

English SDH

 

Extras:

• Behind Closed Doors (35 min.)

 

Presentation:

Expanded Custom DVD case: DVD x 2

Release Date: April 26, 2011



Introduction:

Hard on the heels of Acorn’s 40th Anniversary remastering of the complete original series (and Universal’s Blu-ray edition of the first season of Julian Fellowes‘ plusher Downton Abbey) comes this sequel to the little drama that started it all.  Set once again at 165 Eaton Place this 3-part opener picks up the thread in 1936. The new Upstairs Downstairs from BBC One features both original series’ co-creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins in front of the camera. Miss Marsh reprises Rose and, through the magic of television, aided by the actress’s marvelous genes, while she herself is 35 years older her character seems only to have aged ten years.  The series opened to mixed reviews, though no one I could find actually didn’t enjoy it.  Audience reaction was more positive, as was mine.  In fact, I felt that the new series stands quite well on its own even if you’re one of the three people who haven’t seen the original.


     

 

The Movie: 7<8

Comparisons with the original series are inevitable. They are also convenient as a way to introduce the sequel. The premises of 165 Eaton Place had been shut up for the previous six years when the new tenants arrive to let in a not inconsiderable amount of light and redecorate the place, along with a fresh coat of paint.  These changes alone are of huge import and, in themselves, constitute perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most obvious, difference from the original series. The new tenants are perhaps 10-15 years younger than the Bellamys when we first joined them, childless and, evidently, have more money at their disposal.


The master of the house, Sir Hallem Holland (Ed Stoppard), is a diplomat by training and temperament and works at the Foreign Office, which places him at an important nerve center regarding world events to come.  It is the new mistress of house, Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) who has married into aristocracy, rather than the other way around as it was with Mr. Bellamy.  Since she and especially her younger unmarried sister, Persephone (Claire Foy), are relatively new to their roles, it is their education and resistance to it that generates a good deal of the drama.  The Bellamys already had two children, the younger one similar in temperament to Lady Persie. Whereas Elizabeth would embrace women’s suffrage and communism, Persie, who has even less of an idea of how the world works than her predecessor, falls under the spell of fascism.


     


Like Richard Bellamy when he first married, having to learn the rules of the game as he went along well before we first met him, so here it is Agnes and Persie who must learn their place, not without some difficulty.  Their teacher is Lady Maud Holland (Eileen Atkins), Sir Hallem’s mother who, up until now has been entirely absent in their lives, and from his to a great extent.  Now widowed, Lady Maud assumes her position as Mistress of the House Emeritus with determined relish, much to the consternation of Lady Agnes.  The triangle generates my favorite exchange of the series: Agnes, speaking to her husband of her mother-in-law: “Why didn’t you stand up to her?” Hallem: “I was brought up to be polite to strangers.”


Eileen Atkins is to the new Upstairs Downstairs as Maggie Smith is to Downton Abbey: She and her character bring to the show the required authority, whereas the function of Jean Marsh, who returns as Rose, is to make the required nostalgic connection for the audience. We first meet Rose Buck as the owner and operator of a business that places “domestic staff for discerning households.”  When Lady Agnes comes to her to furnish her new home with suitable servants, Rose can scarcely conceal her excitement as she learns of the address.  That she gets to choose the new staff is fitting and not without its special humour; how she falls into the role of Housekeeper is as inevitable as it is contrived.


     


Because we begin the new series in 1936 we, the audience feels the disintegration of Europe and the coming war is much more acutely than the events of 20-30 years earlier.  The mention of Hitler, along with his sycophants and especially Fascism (with echoes of how the nazi threat played out in Foyle’s War), bring with them a familiarity that the “Kaiser” did not in 1971.  Oswald Moseley’s black shirt march and the subsequent East End riots are prominent in the second episode. And as if coordinated with the release of the Oscar winning “The King’s Speech” the death of George V, and the misadventure of his successor and Mrs. Simpson, are introduced in the very first episode (although the real reason for beginning here is that it bookends with the beginning of the original series which began with the earlier king’s coronation.)  As if to whet our appetite for possibilities to come, we learn early on that Sir Hallem is a personal friend of the Duke of Kent, younger brother to the newly crowned Edward VIII.


     


In the three hour-long episodes that comprise the whole of the first season, we find echoes of plot lines from the original (the aforementioned embrace of an upstairs family member of a political cause abhorrent to most others at Eaton Place, a romantic entanglement between up and downstairs personnel, a missing tiara, an early death).  The inclination to cover their bets that the show might not be renewed by ending the series with more than a touch of sentimentality should have been resisted - the only black mark on a fine start.


Not surprisingly, considering the current state of television budgets and expectations for the production values such budgets can bring, the new series opens up the drama to a much greater extent than the original, though most of the action still takes place at Eaton Place, whose interiors, by the way, are filmed in Cardiff, Wales, while Leamingtom Spa near Birmingham stands in for Belgravia exteriors.  A great deal of effort is spent on the redesign of the house, upstairs and down, especially in the ability of the characters to move from space to space.  It’s hard to say if the Hollands had a hand in this or if it is entirely the work of the production designer.


     


The casting is superb.  I noted some reservations about two of the leads in the original series in my review, but no such qualms arise here.  Only Adrian Scarborough as Mr. Pritchard, the butler, is something of a cipher, but that, I am inclined to think, is largely because he is relatively underdeveloped. I give Ms. Thomas high marks for having the good sense to not make him in the same mold as Hudson. I particularly like Eileen Atkins as Lady Maud, whose every subtle glance and turn of her mouth reads sly, sarcastic innuendo - except when she means to be taken seriously, at which times pay close attention - everyone else does.  In fact everyone upstairs is dead-on. Claire Foy as Lady Persie couldn’t be more petulant or more careless and reckless; and Ed Stoppard lends his natural physicality to Sir Hallem in a way that puts me on sympathetic guard as he juggles forces froth with dangers he has only an inkling of.


     


Downstairs there is no equivalent of a Daisy, a Ruby or even an Edward from the original series. The chauffeur, Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson), is a character whose like we have met before: he tries to keep his distance but is motivated by forces all too compelling for the young. Mrs Thackeray, the cook (Anne Reid), is no blustering, put-upon Mrs Bridges either.  Mrs Thackeray knows her place and the place of others; hers is to lean against an available wall enjoying a fag. There is one advantage to being largely unfamiliar with the actors in that, at least in these opening series, when a new character is introduced we don’t “know” if he or she is long for this show based on the reputation of the actor.  This idiosyncrasy allows the drama to unfold spontaneously in ways that otherwise might not be the case.


     

 

Image: 9/7

This new DVD from BBC America derives from source material made with the Arri ALEXA digital camera, which in my view wipes the proverbial floor with such transitional cameras as the Red One and Sony CineAlta - unless of course your aim is to be artsy instead of representationally accurate.  The image is polished, yet detailed, pristine and noiseless, a trifle pastel, with nary a trace of edge enhancement or other disturbing transfer artifacts, rendered in one of the highest bit rates I’ve come across for a television show on DVD.  Contrast is wonderfully handled, lending a filmlike look to the image regardless of lighting.  Color is gorgeous, permitting both luscious skin tones and deep blues and greens of Eaton Place’s newly painted walls.  Resolution is tight enough to tolerate enlargement to a 104-inch screen.  Funnily enough, there were times when I found myself critical of the image because it lacked that last squeeze of resolution.  My only reservation is that the picture cries out for a high-def video presentation which, I gather, can be obtained from iTunes.  How weird is that!


     

 

Audio & Music: 7/7

Dialogue is clear, effects are properly balanced, though I had the impression that the sync was less than perfect at times.  I was surprised by how well the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix allows for subtly nuanced atmospherics (traffic outside the house, for example).  Unlike the original series, the new show is tastefully overscored, making use of whiffs of Alexander Faris’ familiar signature tune.


Before leaving the subject of dialogue, I’d like to thank Heidi Thomas high marks for her lucid, wry screenplay that convincingly folds the historical context into her drama.  While the show has its share of bits that Brits will get and most yanks won’t, it plays cross-culturally quite well. Subtitles are hideously bitmapped, as they tend be at this resolution (my how we do get accustomed to high definition!)


     

 

Extras: 6

The single bonus feature is found on disc two, along with the third and final episode of the season.  “Behind Closed Doors” sports an anamorphic image of very good quality, if non-progressive.  During its tightly packed and smoothly edited 35 minutes, the cast and filmmakers discuss the sequeling process with considerable weight to casting.  Each actor (excepting Eileen for some reason) discusses their character and how they - the actor and the role - came to be.  Set decoration, 1930s costuming and haut cuisine, as well as comment on historical context are also given their due.


     


Recommendation: 8

If all goes well in the back rooms of the power elites, both Downton Abbey and the new Upstairs Downstairs will see second seasons.  I feel that the blog-motivated competition between them has little merit since both have their virtues and are sufficiently different from one another.  In any case, it is practical and sensible to enjoy both, provided they don’t air at the same time. 


As I said up front, the sequel stands on its own even if you are unfamiliar with the original.  BBC America's 2-disc DVD set is a joy, save only its pedestrian menu design.  Image is demonstration quality for this format; the audio is very good, the bonus feature is conservative in content but does the job engagingly.  The only thing arguing against this DVD, really, is the possibility that it may come out on Blu-ray, by itself or along with the second season.  But for now this DVD set is welcome and warmly recommended.


     


 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 20, 2011



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