The new DVDs from Network
Seasons 4 & 5 and Thomas & Sarah box set reviews
This set maintains the high quality of the Network releases, and there is really very little extra to add to the reviews of earlier sets. Picture quality is fine and is consistent across the episodes1 (in fact, the Season 1 box set - with its nasty cross-colour noise - is now looking rather the poor relation in regards to the picture quality).
The penultimate part of Stephen La Rivière's documentary project is again at the centre of the extras. With the ever-youthful Lesley-Anne Down joining the usual interviewees, we hear about the trials and tribulations of the making of the emotional Great War season of UpDown. There's some great detail about the massive location sequence done at Marylebone station for Woman shall not Weep, and we learn that the entire shoot was completed in only one day - modern directors please take note!
The commentaries this time around are:
A Patriotic Offering with Rosemary Anne Sisson (writer), Jean Marsh (Rose/co-creator) and Jacqueline Tong (Daisy).
Women shall not Weep with Christopher Beeny (Edward), Christopher Hodson (director), Jean Marsh and Jacqueline Tong.
The Glorious Dead with Jean Marsh, Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel) and Simon Williams (James).
Peace out of Pain with Jean Marsh, Meg Wynn Owen and Simon Williams.
All are listenable, though there is a bit of a tendency - especially in the latter two commentaries - towards "luvvie" style remarks (I lost track of how many uses of the word "wonderful" there were). I'm afraid that's one of the problems with putting multiple actors together without any production staff (or a moderator) to bring things back down to planet Earth. Nevertheless, some good banter here, despite the obvious failing memories. One exchange had me rolling in the aisles - says Jackie Tong to Chris Beeny re: his moustache: "How long did it take you to grow, Chris?" / Beeny: "Nearly the whole period we had between the series." / Jean: "Really? It doesn't take me that long." Other anecdotes include director Chris Hodson making the sound of marching feet by simply shaking pebbles about in a shoe-box, and Simon William's facial battle scar, made with dyed Scots Porridge Oats!
Two interviews from Russell Harty's chat show wrap things up.2 The first is with a somewhat, er, "loosened" Jean Marsh ("I feel rather strange," she says, as she wanders onto the set with a glass of wine in hand), who promises us a massed Upstairs, Downstairs nude streak around LWT (which I am reliably informed never took place). Then we're onto the second interview, this time with Angela Baddeley, who is joined at the end (in a rarely-seen adjunct to the main interview) by the ever-loopy expert on servants and service, Margaret Powell.
And so we assemble for the final Waltz...
The picture quality on the set for Season 5 is much the same as the previous three seasons, and there's nothing much to add on that front3. The standard Network have reached with these releases (barring Season 1, on which the picture is not as good), seems to be about as good as we'll get with Upstairs, Downstairs4, and is certainly better than previous releases of the series for the home market.
The final part of The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs project is also here, of course. This time we also hear from Gareth Hunt (Frederick), Anthony Andrews (Robert, Marquis of Stockbridge) and Simon Langton (son of David, and director of two episodes this season). Also here (and on the commentaries) is Karen Dotrice (Lily), who comes over especially well - refreshingly self-effacing and amusing. The documentary includes the usual interesting anecdotes, as we listen to Simon Williams telling us how he got soaked to the skin due to a completely unplanned cloud-burst during the filming for A Place in the World, and also learn that he had a hand in composing James' suicide note for the sublime All the King's Horses episode. After dealing specifically with Season 5, the documentary moves on to a nice montage of closing comments where all the contributors sum up their feelings on the series they made 30 years ago. Included here - for no particular reason - are some amusing attempts to "do" a Mrs Bridges' voice.
The director and editor, Stephen La Rivière and Thomas Cock respectively, were asked to complete this documentary in a very short space of time. It is to their credit that the haste only shows through a couple of times (with incorrect episode captions used in two places). All in all, it's a very nice end to Stephen's massive documentary project (amounting to over 5 hours of viewing in all, which will surely never be exceeded!) It is remarkable that, with just three exceptions (Pauline Collins, John Alderton and Hannah Gordon), he managed to bag all the surviving stars of the original series.
Meanwhile, the other extras on the set include commentaries as follows:
Disillusion with Karen Dotrice (Lily).
Such A Lovely Man with Rosemary Anne Sisson (writer), Jenny Tomasin (Ruby), Simon Williams (James) and Jean Marsh (Rose/co-creator).
All the King's Horses with Simon Williams, Jeremy Paul (writer), Jean Marsh and Simon Langton (director).
Whither Shall I Wander? with Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, Rosemary Anne Sisson and Jeremy Paul.
Finally, wrapping up the extras is Russell Harty's documentary special from Boxing Day 1975 where he interviewed the cast on the Upstairs, Downstairs set as the series came to a close (please see my Documentaries page for further information on this).
Hopefully, now they have finished all five seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs, Network will consider the spin-off Thomas & Sarah for the same treatment. Could one even begin to hope for an interview with the ever-elusive John Alderton for this?
Thomas & Sarah
After their release of the complete Upstairs, Downstairs, the spin-off series Thomas & Sarah was a fairly obvious choice for Network. Though, sadly, they have chosen to abandon the design scheme used for the boxes and disks of the UpDown releases and introduce a new look for this set. This means that the T&S release looks completely out of place when next to the UpDown releases on your shelf. VCI's earlier release of this series had kept to the same design, which was a better idea.
The box holding the four disks is still of the "Four/One" overlap type, but it slimmer than its UD counterparts. Once again, the inside cover gives you a handy episode guide for the series (although Alfred Shaughnessy didn't write the original story for Putting On The Ritz - his contribution went completely unused with Brady and Bingham inventing a fresh storyline).
The fairly pointless named chapters from the UpDown sets are done away with (although chapters are still marked on the disks, just not given as selectable menu items). The menu graphics themselves seem to suggest a 16:9 presentation, but on my DVD players, at least, the menus remained resolutely in 4:3 throughout and didn't auto-switch to 16:9 when displayed.
The picture quality of the episodes is much the same as the Upstairs, Downstairs releases.5 Nothing too shockingly bad, but I have seen better presentation of recordings from 1970's 2" tapes. In a few episodes (for example The Poor Young Widow Of Peckham) grain is a bit irksome, especially on the darker portions of the picture.
On VCI's earlier DVD release of this series, I noticed (at least) two changes had been made to episodes6, presumably as a result of difficult or expensive music clearances. I am pleased to say that Network's release is not compromised in this manner and all the episodes seem to be as originally transmitted.
The extras is really where things start to go astray here. Though Stephen La Rivière had his own original ideas for extras for this release, sadly his talents were not used here and Network decided to go it alone. The sole extras are two 8 minute interviews - one with Pauline Collins7 and one with John Alderton8 - taken from Gloria Hunniford's talk show Sunday, Sunday.
The Pauline Collins interview is almost all about her film Shirley Valentine and fails to mention Upstairs, Downstairs (let alone Thomas & Sarah) even once. The Alderton offering is more interesting as he is a far less familiar face in the world of talk shows. UpDown gets a brief mention, as do some of his other series like Please Sir!, Father's Day and Emergency - Ward 10. Alderton relates a very funny anecdote about the latter series when he remembers that his first words as his doctor character were: "Mrs Brown, you've got auto-immune haemolytic anaemia, with congenital polycystic kidneys and bilateral hydromorphosis". That's not a line I'd like to have to remember for a live TV show!
Admittedly, there is very little relevant ancillary material to Thomas & Sarah in the vaults, but a little digging would have yielded a couple of Alderton/Collins items with a bit more relevance to Thomas & Sarah (or, at least, Upstairs, Downstairs). For example, Dennis Norden's It'll Be Alright On The Night used (at least one, but probably more) outtakes from T&S. Also, there was a brief item which featured Alderton and Collins (with a lot of their UD colleagues) shown as part of LWT's 21st birthday celebrations from 1989. This is certainly not an Earth-shattering piece of television, but it does represent the only on-screen UpDown reunion the pair have been involved with since the original series ended.
1 All episodes in the Season 4 set have original slates, LWT jingles and endcaps.
2 From, respectively, LWT's Russell Harty Plus (tx 5/4/74) and Russell Harty (tx 18/10/74).
3 Some of the late John Hawkesworth's comments included here are in poor quality. Sadly, the VHS tape used is the best surviving copy of the last part of his 1996 interview.
4 Note that, for some reason, all the VT slates have gone AWOL for this release. LWT jingles and endcaps are on all episodes, though.
5 The LWT jingle and endcap is present on all Thomas & Sarah episodes. VT slates are present before parts 1, 2 & 3 of Love Into Three Won't Go only.
6 From The New Rich: a cut of about 30
seconds' duration as Thomas and Sarah creep down to the servants' hall at about
35 minutes into the episode. The lost portion contains a vocal recording of Only
A Bird In A Gilded Cage on the soundtrack.
From Love Into Three Won't Go: a change of music at about 25 minutes into the episode. The scene where the trio go for a walk originally had a classical piano piece as the soundtrack - this has been replaced by the Thomas & Sarah theme tune. The sequence also has a few seconds trimmed from the end of it.
7 From 15/10/89.
8 From 31/8/86.