Upstairs, Downstairs: Series One (DVD Review)

One of the most popular and successful British drama series in television history, Upstairs, Downstairs: Series One tells the story of the aristocratic Bellamy’s and the servants that support them.  Upstairs, Downstairs is the winner of seven Emmy Awards, two BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody Award. 


Set between 1903 and 1909, Upstairs, Downstairs offers a look at Edwardian England’s class struggles where the nobility lived on the upper floors and we waited upon by their servants who either lived downstairs in the basement or in the attic.  Life is good for the masters, Ralph Bellamy (David Langton) and his wife Lady Marjorie.  Living upstairs, they are doted upon and their every whim is realized mainly from their butler Angus Hudson (Gordon Jackson), who passes the order to the rest of the servants.

Life for the servants downstairs, isn’t as wonderful as they live in far different living conditions.  The shift between the two worlds is exemplified by the decor, the dishes, or even whether or not it’s heated well.  These servants even sleep in the same bed because of the lack of space and also to keep warm.  For new employee Sarah (Pauline Collins) this is a bitter pill to swallow.  Through her, we see all of the indignities Sarah must endure including having Lady Marjorie changing her name to Sarah because it sounded better.

The head cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Braddeley) is a no nonsense second in command to Mr. Hudson.  She is quick to yell any staff person who crosses her and frequently insults the kitchen maid Emily (Evin Crowley).  The head parlour-maid Rose (Jean Marsh) is pragmatic and a sharp contrast to her bedroom companion Sarah and the two of them argue often about the inequality between the masters and the servants.  While Sarah resents being treated like a second class citizen, Rose accepts her lot in life and has made peace with it, never daring to dream for anything more.

The show has an extremely slow pace and is not a comedy series which I mistakenly believed it was.  Instead, it’s more of an old-fashioned soap opera set in Edwardian times.  While that holds no appeal for me, I am still able to appreciate some clever lines and how the show addressed the inequality between the classes which was so pervasive in England at the time.

There’s some excellent attention to detail such as the upstairs crowd uses china while the servants make do with old worn out dishes.  In one of the early episodes, both Lady Marjorie and Sarah (in an imagined nude) pose for an artist who later displays both paintings at the Royal Academy which causes major embarrassment to the Bellamys as it shows the class differences between them.  Many other sensitive subjects were covered by the show including homosexuality, infidelity, impotence, rape, and more.  The show ran for five seasons and was recently revived by the BBC with an all new cast with the one exception of Jean Marsh reprising her role as Rose from the previous show.


This series’ picture quality is very hard to quantify.  The first episode (which was re-filmed) is in color but looks terrible.  I’m talking about VHS quality here.  In a weird quirk of timing, the technician unions boycotted color so the next five episodes are in black and white which actually looks a lot sharper than the first episode that was later re-filmed once they resumed shooting in color.  The episodes are random in quality where in some the picture quality is decent and others that are filled with noise and have a greenish tint to them.  There’s a lot of heavy grain in the picture for many of the episodes. Black levels are frequently washed out in some while solid in others.  The randomness in quality may be attributable to the show’s age.


The audio for these episodes is serviceable but it’s Dolby Digital Stereo mix isn’t ideal.  This is an entirely dialogue driven show and there’s many occurrences where the lines are unintelligible or muddled.  Understanding some of the thick accents is difficult enough for those who do not live in the UK, but the equipment used makes it even harder.  Usually that’s only a problem when there’s a lot of people talking at once which also generally means at a high volume which combined is tough to understand.  The music for the show is extremely loud so I have a feeling that that was how it was intended but I can’t say for certain.

Special Features 

There is a documentary that accompanies each season set that combines into a five part story.  I thought this first part was sufficient to suffice for the entire show so I’m not sure what else is on the other sets except perhaps more information devoted to that particular season.  It’s just too bad that that’s all that’s offered.

  • The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs Part 1 – A talk with the cast and crew of the show including:  the actors Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, Simon Williams, and the writers Fay Weldon, Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham.  It’s evident that there was a lot of behind the scenes tension between the writers and the directors and producers.  Everyone give an candid account of the difficulties they faced making the show.

Final Thoughts 

While this show doesn’t appeal to me, I can see why it was (and still is for some) popular in it’s time.  The show wasn’t afraid to cover sensitive subjects and showed the differences between the classes in sharp detail.  I bet this was a ground-breaking show when it came out and offered something new to audiences that was so potent that it was revived again in 2010 for a new audience.

Order your copy today!


2 Responses to “Upstairs, Downstairs: Series One (DVD Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Wow! You are a brave man! I think I fell asleep just looking at those stills.

  2. Sean Ferguson

    I thought it was a comedy series and I usually enjoy English humor so I wanted to check it out. Boy was I surprised!