Belying Upstairs, Downstairs’ reputation as typically stodgy PBS Masterpiece Theatre material, the new 40th-anniversary complete-series collection reveals the show as an important missing link between the anthology dramas of the earliest days of television and the serialized dramas that became popular in the years after it left the airwaves. Now it’s easy to draw a direct line between the kinds of cumulative stories Upstairs, Downstairs told and the similar storylines on modern-day classics like The Sopranos and Mad Men. Produced by British broadcasters, Upstairs, Downstairs found success on PBS in the States, winning the Emmy for drama series or limited series every year it was on the air.
Set in the English home of the well-to-do Bellamy family, the series devotes five seasons and 68 episodes to the exploits of both the high-society types upstairs and those who serve them living downstairs, from the hope-filled, golden days of 1903 to the utter ruin the Great Depression brings to the events of 1930. Along the way, royalty visits, wars break out, and soap-opera-ish complications ensue.
Though the series was, in many ways, a typical soap about life among the manor-born, Upstairs, Downstairs broke new ground in a handful of intriguing ways. While other stories set in these sorts of homes often made characters of both the rich and their servants, no one did it to the degree that creators Jean Marsh (who also starred in the series as young maid Rose) and Eileen Atkins did. (Past the conceptual stages, Alfred Shaughnessy and John Hawkesworth did most of the actual work on the series.) The show’s sympathies defiantly begin with the servants, then expand to encompass seemingly everyone who’s ever set foot inside the Bellamy house. The series rarely leaves the house’s confines, but it eventually feels as though that home contains an entire world.
Upstairs, Downstairs also broke new ground on a storytelling level. The idea that relationships continued over time and that characters hopped between beds wasn’t new—it was commonplace on most popular soap operas on both sides of the Atlantic—but Upstairs, Downstairs wedded this to clear-eyed, small-scale storytelling where events accumulated, until something that happened a handful of episodes ago would come back in devastating fashion a few episodes later. Every episode told its own story, creating something between a one-act play and a short story by someone like Evelyn Waugh, but those stories gradually added up to a greater portrayal, until the show gave in to almost complete serialization in its fourth season, which takes place during World War I.
The series also indulged in surprisingly compelling—and surprisingly relevant to the modern day—political commentary about how little the rich could understand their servants’ plight, and how working-class people were trapped by the lives into which they were born. In a time when statistics about income disparity are increasingly discussed, the stratified social-caste system of Upstairs, Downstairs (a system the show’s richest inhabitants refuse to admit exists) feels more contemporary than any other 40-year-old drama series.
At times, the show’s staginess becomes a detriment, with characters over-emoting in a way that feels false compared to some of the purer moments of despair and joy the show is capable of. The earlier seasons suffer from limited budgets, including a shift to black-and-white episodes (brought on by a technician’s strike) in the first season. In addition, some of the show’s politics are strongly of their time; episodes dealing with abortion and homosexuality have a ’70s feel, in spite of the period setting.
But these quibbles aside, Upstairs, Downstairs remains a wonderful example of how creative people can use the inherent limitations of television—from budget to the awkwardness of the episodic format—to tell stories with an almost novelistic sweep. By the time the series is over, plot twists have piled upon plot twists, the show has written out many former protagonists, and the writers have thoughtfully, thoroughly defined a few dozen people within the show’s universe. It’s tempting to write off older shows as “good for their time,” but Upstairs, Downstairs isn’t just good TV for the 1970s. It’s good TV, period.
Key features: A compelling five-part (one for each season) documentary on the making of the show, a special retrospective from the series’ 25th anniversary, many episode commentaries, an alternate pilot, and more.