The new DVDs from Network
Season One box set review
To be honest, over the years since the show ended, fans of Upstairs, Downstairs have been rather spoiled compared to the followers of other TV series. There hasn't really been more than a few years between re-appearances of the series on TV or on video or DVD for the home market.
Almost as soon as the final UpDown episode (Whither Shall I Wander?) finished, LWT began a series of 26 of the best from Seasons 1 to 3, starting in January 1976. Such was the popularity of these repeats, they were augmented (in some regions) in late 1977 by the whole of Season 4.
1978 was the first year since the programme was first transmitted that didn't see any episodes shown on TV1. However, January 1979 saw the variable spin-off series Thomas & Sarah hit the airwaves.
November 1982 thru December 1985 saw the infant Channel 4 start to rerun every episode except the 5 black and whites (this omission resulting in stern correspondence in the TV Times' letters page) at peak-time. Many episodes hit the number one spot in Channel 4's ratings! Simultaneously, the series hit home video for the first time, with the release of a somewhat mixed selection of 14 episodes at the bargain price of £40 per tape (2 episodes). That's nearly £90 per tape in modern terms! The same tapes were reissued in 1988 at a decidedly more reasonable price.
The show then went underground for a while before popping up once again in Summer 1996 to celebrate its 25th birthday. LWT planned to network the entire 1st season across the entire ITV network, complete with its very own celebratory documentary on the making of the show. Sadly, a change of management at LWT - not to mention a huge repeat fee - meant the reruns ultimately remained confined to LWT's own region. The black and whites reappeared for the first time since 1973. A year later, LWT started showing Season 2, but this fizzled out after 6 episodes.
Meanwhile, over on satellite, Granada Plus were beginning the first of many reruns of the colour episodes. Despite complaints from the original producer, John Hawkesworth, the editor's scissors were enthusiastically at work, and each episode had up to 5 minutes hacked from its original running time in order to incorporate extended advert breaks. Numerous subsequent satellite runs (always with similar cuts) followed across other channels, including Hallmark and the UKTV stable.
In October 1999, video label VCI began to issue the series on VHS home-video. What seemed like an eternity later, in April 2002, they completed their VHS releases with the black and white episodes from Season 1, which had initially been omitted. The picture quality of these releases was decidedly dodgy and exhibited the worst side-effects of cheap "Sprinter"2 duplication.
By this time, of course, DVD was on the scene and offered viewers the first time to watch TV classics in something like the picture quality they would have had on their original showings. From June 2001 through June 2004, VCI offered up each of their releases on DVD. The image was better, of course, but was still far from perfect. Grain in the picture was abundant, and the pictures weren't very sharp (this was not helped by VCI stretching the picture slightly vertically to try the nudge the "cue dots"3 off the top of the screen). The BBC were producing DVD releases of their own material far technically superior to these, despite the original productions having been made with almost exactly the same EMI cameras and Ampex video recorders as Upstairs, Downstairs.
So we arrive at September 2005. The rights to release a new range of UpDown DVD's now rests with Network. Network have a well-earned reputation for doing very nice boxed sets of DVD's complete with decent sets of "extras", such as soundtrack commentaries and even little documentaries. They also pay good attention to the picture quality of their material, and have undertaken significant restoration for a lot of their releases. So let's see if the good work has continued with their release of the entire first season of Upstairs, Downstairs...
Disks and presentation
The set consists of a clear, fat plastic case which holds the four disks4 on spindles.5 This is the same type of box that Network used for their recent release of ATV's Thriller series. The disks are held very tightly by the spindles, so there are unlikely to be any "rattlers" with this set! The first three disks each hold four episodes each, with the fourth holding the final episode (For Love of Love), the alternate On Trial, and Stephen La Rivière's documentary.
The cover (see above - click for a larger image of both the front and back) is OK, but personally I preferred VCI's old artwork/photographic/colour-coded idea. I've got a hunch that the main photo used on the box is also out of period. It seems to come from a later season (e.g. James' collar is wrong).
The inside of the cover, rather nicely, gives an episode guide for the first season, with brief plot details, cast, crew and transmission dates (which unfortunately is given wrongly for Magic Casements).
The discs themselves are rather nice. They are done in the standard "Upstairs, Downstairs green colour" with a different, original Punch illustration on each DVD, as per the original UpDown caption cards.
Meanwhile, on the disks themselves, the menus are all pretty standard. You've got options to play the episodes individually, or there's a "Play All" button for those people who really want to sit through 4 episodes at once. I've never quite seen the point myself, but there are also individually-titled chapter stops (10 per episode).
There are no subtitles on anything included here. The best option for the hard-of-hearing is probably the US DVDs from Acorn (not the older A&E ones) which have switchable English subtitles (these releases are Region 1, note, so you will need multi-region/standard kit to play them).
The episodes themselves
What certainly interests me the most is how the raw episodes are presented. As I said in the preamble, we have yet to have satisfactory presentation of these on home video or DVD.
Basically, it's a mixture. The best of the episodes, and looking very nice indeed, is A Suitable Marrage [sic!]. This episode is almost completely devoid of noise and is graded absolutely wonderfully. It's maybe still a tad soft, though, but very watchable.
At the other end of the scale is Why is Her Door Locked? This is absolutely full of grain (the lowlights are "alive" with movement). The colours are dull and soupy. The "black level" seems to be far too high, leading the episode to look washed out. On Trial isn't great either - the grading is better, but that grain...
Was the best possible job done here? And is the boast on the back cover (that UpDown has been "digitally remastered to a very high level of quality") justified? Possibly not, because the pictures on the Spanish release by Circulo Digital are still better. In fact, a question to be asked would be, "What clean-up specifically was done on the episodes?" because some unrestored copies I have seen are very close to what is presented here.
Click on the picture of Rose on the left, below (from Magic Casements, not actually the worst episode I could have picked for "noise") and you will get a full-size grab from the Spanish DVD. Roll your mouse back and forth over the image and it will flip from the Spanish image to the Network image and back again. Ignoring the slight brightness jump, notice how the Network image has a lot more coloured noise/grain in the background of the scene, and how the detail of the lattice behind Rose gets lost in all this noise. The actual sharpness of the image is roughly the same between both grabs.
Clicking on the image on the right, shows the difference between the old VCI releases and the new Network releases in the same sort of way. Here the Network version is sharper, mainly because it hasn't been blown-up slightly.6
More positively, all the adcaps7 are intact. These have always been edited out of other releases (e.g. VCI, A&E etc), leading to rather abrupt jumps in many cases. Also, every episode has the original LWT ribbons animation and jingle before it. You can have a good chuckle at the quality of these - not Network's fault, of course.
Purists won't be happy that the LWT endcaps8 in almost all cases are not the correct period ones, having been replaced by ones dating from the mid-Nineties9. This is no doubt how LWT's sales copies now have the episodes - one would presumably need to go back to the original 2" tapes to find the episodes with the correct endcaps.
Also, people who have bought some of Network's other releases will know it has become a de-facto standard for them to include the original countdown clocks/slates10 at the start of each episode (you have to actually start the episode and then rewind it to see them). Only 5 of the 14 episodes here have them included. Once again, I imagine this is because LWT's current copies have more modern replacements in a lot of cases.
When this project was first announced I did contact Network and advise them that two sequences from Magic Casements (both conversations between the servants downstairs) were now apparently missing from all UK copies (this includes TV transmissions and videos/DVDs). The first missing segment is actually quite important as it describes how 165 Eaton Place was bought courtesy of Lady Marjorie's side of the family, and not Richard's, and how Lord Southwold had found Richard his safe seat in parliament. I had some hope that these sequences could be replaced as there are older US versions of the episodes around which have the material intact. Sadly, this hasn't happened and the version of the Magic Casements here remains incomplete - and picture-quality issues aside, this is my biggest gripe with this release. It'll be interesting to note what happens with Set 2 when it is released, as that has missing sequences from at least two episodes.
Advance publicity for this release included mention of both a stills gallery and a set of Adobe PDF files of the scripts (to be read on a PC). Neither of these are present on this set - both have been held over till the second set, due to time constraints. I think the philosophy was, "Better to hold them over and do them properly, rather than rush them," and I can't argue with that.
The centrepiece of the extras is the first part of Stephen La Rivière's The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs, concerning the making of Season 1. The documentary starts off by describing the inception of the series, and follows on by concentrating on some of the individual segments. Quite wisely, Stephen has realised that it's impossible to feature all 13 episodes in his documentary, so he's picked key episodes for the cast, writers and production team to comment on. It's great to finally see what Evin Crowley (Emily) and George Innes (Alfred) look like after all these years.
All the new material is very nicely lit and shot, and, as always, the comments from the participants are extremely watchable. A few of the interview segments (notably with the late John Hawkesworth, the producer) are lifted from 1996 out-take material shot by Richard Marson for his own Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered documentary. The quality on these shots is noticeably poorer.
What is disappointing, though, is the quality of the clips used from the actual UpDown episodes themselves. Some mediocre copies seem to have been used here, and things are just made worse by the clips being cropped, top and bottom, to fit 16:9 widescreen (it may have been better to pillar-box them at full picture height, instead?) I've never quite seen the point of making documentaries about old 4:3 TV programmes in widescreen, but since the documentary is on a boxed set of all the episodes in their original form anyway, this hardly matters too much.
Having seen all the previous documentaries about the series, I found this new one held my attention completely. The less formal approach (Terence Brady launching into Emily's song from I Dies from Love being one instance) works well, and a good level of technical accomplishment is evident here - this actually looks like a programme which could go out on mainstream TV rather than the home-video-esque efforts which sometimes crop up on other DVD releases.
The set also features the following commentaries. There are six of them, which is far more than anybody could have expected. These are all presented as secondary soundtracks on the main episodes:
On Trial with Jean Marsh (Rose), Fay Weldon (writer) and Evin Crowley
Board Wages with Terence Brady, Charlotte Bingham (writers) and Evin Crowley
A Suitable Marriage with by George Innes (Alfred)
I Dies from Love with Brady/Bingham and Evin Crowley
A Voice from the Past with Simon Williams (James), Jean Marsh and Jeremy Paul (writer)
For Love of Love with Simon Williams, Jean Marsh and Rosemary Anne Sisson (writer)
The obvious absence here - given the importance of her character to Season 1 - is Pauline Collins. Apart from her, the participants are generally well chosen, and there is a good sense of camaraderie during the proceedings. Terence Brady is particularly outspoken in the commentary on Board Wages and obviously hates the way it was directed by Derek Bennett. Evin Crowley, bless her, doesn't seem to remember much more about her time on the series than having to cry, and she ends up fulfilling a sort of moderator role on some of her commentaries, and asks some intelligent questions of her co-stars.
These commentaries are refreshing free from the huge silent gaps that plague those on some other releases (for example Blake's 7, where there is a gap on one commentary which runs to almost 15 minutes!) and, although there are a few vacant "luvvie" style comments here, they are generally kept to a minimum. There's a bit of a technical problem on the last part of the commentary for A Voice from the Past as it slips out of sync with the on-screen episode for a long while.
All in all, a great effort from Stephen La Rivière - one of the best packages of extras (and here I include the bits and bobs held over till the second set) I've seen for an archive television DVD release to date.
In general though, prospective buyers should decide for themselves whether the limited picture improvements detailed here - plus the commentaries and documentary - make it worthwhile for them to upgrade from their VCI DVD releases. It's probably certainly worth upgrading if you currently only have VHS copies. At the end of the day, I feel the ultimate DVD restoration of Upstairs, Downstairs hasn't yet been accomplished...
1 Other than by a couple of regions who were finishing off the above-mentioned repeat runs.
2 A Sprinter is a cheap and cheerful way of duplicating VHS tapes very speedily, originally developed by Sony. It uses a highly-magnetised special master tape (the "mother" tape) which runs round and round continuously in contact with a large reel of blank tape, and thus transfers its magnetic pattern across. It's analogous to a photographic contact print. Unfortunately, any slight registration errors during the process lead to tracking errors on the finished copy. Sprinter copies also tend to have a quite horrible signal-to-noise ratio (i.e. they are often very grainy).
3 Cue-dots are the little squares that appear in one of the top corners of the TV picture just before the end of a programme or a commercial break. They are designed to alert TV technicians to be ready to play in the next piece of tape (e.g. the adverts, or a trailer).
4 The first 3 disks are DVD9 (single sided, dual layer); the fourth is DVD5 (single sided, single layer). There is no Macrovision on the disks. The disks are PAL and marked as Region 2. Buyers outside Europe beware!
5 This is a Pozzoli Four/One overlap case, for those who wanted to know!
6 The mouse-over effects may not work in all browsers, so here are
the direct links to the images:
7 "Adcaps" are the "End of Part One"/"Part Two" (etc) captions that come up before and after the commercial breaks.
8 An "endcap" is the very final caption that appears at the end of a programme, and contains the logo and name of the TV company concerned.
9 In fact one episode (Board Wages) has a newer LWT logo, followed by the original afterwards!
10 These are blackboards with clocks bolted to them. The blackboard indicates the programme title and recording date, and the clock gives a countdown for the start of the programme for use in cueing in the material to start accurately. One of these slates would appear at the start of each of the UpDown videotapes and also before each Act/Part.