The US DVDs from Acorn
Note: Since I wrote the below, Acorn have issued another box set, this time dubbed The Ultimate Collection. As I understand it, this is basically the material I review below with Thomas & Sarah added in.
Well, it's been a long time coming, but now it seems fans in the USA finally have access to a worthy set of DVD recordings of Upstairs, Downstairs. Previous DVD releases in the States had been issued by A&E and have resulted in many complaints regarding the poor picture quality of the contents. You can look elsewhere on this site for my own opinions on A&E's efforts, or simply look under the comments section on Amazon.com for any of the various A&E issues of the show.
Acorn Media have essentially started from scratch for their DVDs of UpDown and have obtained fresh copies of all the episodes from ITV in the UK. They have also licensed all of the extras on the definitive DVD set released in the UK by Network.
As some of you know, the US and UK have different TV systems, so technical jiggery-pokery is required before British material will play on US TV sets. This is known as "standards conversion" and is key to how good UK TV shows that were made on videotape (as UD was) will look when played across the pond. The poor quality of the standards conversion on those earlier A&E sets was one of the key reasons the picture was so bad.
Luckily, the standards conversion on the new set is fine and has been done with modern equipment capable of reconforming the video signal from the UK standard (PAL) to the US one (NTSC) as well as modern technology will allow. However, some compromises are inevitable and there remains some slight blurring on motion (compared to watching the native PAL version), but this is a small complaint and the overall result is a big leap forward from the A&E versions.
The episodes maintain the fluidity of the videotape/live look (videotaped shows actually contain double the amount of pictures per second compared to film!) and there is no major noise or grain.
One (small) downside is that Acorn used standard sales copies of the show from ITV and not Network's own copies which were sourced via a slightly different route. So, in common with most of the regular sales versions of the show, all the captions and musical stings which surrounded the original commercial breaks are missing, as are the opening animation and jingle of LWT (the original production company). But these small details are likely to matter less to US viewers than they do in the UK (where they have added nostalgia value!)
One of the few advantages that the old A&E releases did have was the inclusion of two short bits of dialogue (one each from Magic Casements and The Fruits of Love – see my Factfiles for details) that have been absent from master tapes of the show for many years. Also note that A&E's later DVD set also included the 1979 spin-off show Thomas & Sarah; this is not included on this new set (but is available as a stand-alone release, again from Acorn).
In the set, there are two attempts to present the episodes in a different order from the original broadcast. The first is valid: the swapping of A Cry for Help and Magic Casements. The original, as-broadcast order was merely to keep all the black-and-white episodes together to avoid confusing the viewer. The revised, "proper" order is clearly indicated both by the on-screen dating, as well as Edward's newer status in the household in Magic...
Acorn's second swap – Goodwill to All Men and What the Footman Saw – is not valid (and is, as far as I know, the first time such a swap has been suggested in any ordering of the episodes). Though the intention certainly was, long before the episodes were made, to have What the... first, the order was changed to move Goodwill... (a seasonal episode) closer to Christmas when broadcast, and later script amendments reflect this (What the... clearly states it is now after Christmas, as well as showing Daisy much more established in her job). Viewers may therefore want to watch these two episodes in the original order (Goodwill... then What the...) to avoid spotting non-existent bloopers!
Each season has its episodes (and extras) spread across four disks (Season Five, being longer, is across five disks). Each season is in a separate Amaray case, and all five seasons are in a (somewhat flimsy) card slip case. There is also a four-page insert with a brief history of the show from Jean Marsh (Rose).
What's really cool here is that all the episodes have English subtitles. Even the UK set from Network didn't manage that! As well as being of obvious use to the deaf and hard of hearing, I know that some US viewers like to watch English dramas with the subtitles turned on in order to penetrate the "English accents" and also catch all the slang expressions. The subtitles might also be of use to deaf viewers in the UK, but they should be aware that the disks are region 1 (and really are region 1, not region 0) before purchasing. I, personally, haven't viewed with the subtitles turned on, but I am informed the American subtitler has unfortunately misunderstood or mistranscribed a few British idioms here and there.
There's a huge pile of extras with this set. Sadly, though, a really nice extra would have been Alistair Cooke's original Masterpiece Theatre introductions for PBS. These ten-minute pieces were designed to fill in details of some of the historical events in Britain that were covered in the episodes for the benefit of American viewers, and enlarge on some of the British customs and etiquette of the time.
However, all of the extras from the UK set from Network are retained, as follows...
Extras – Season One
The centrepiece of the extras is the first part of Stephen La Rivière's The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs, concerning the making of this season. 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 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 (included elsewhere). 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 and they are presented as secondary
soundtracks on the main episodes:
On Trial with Jean Marsh (Rose), Fay Weldon (writer) and Evin Crowley (Emily).
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 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 and, although there are a few vacant "luvvie" style comments here, they are generally kept to a minimum.
Disk 1 of the set also features the alternate version of the opening episode, On Trial (annoyingly continually referred to on the disks' blurb as a "pilot", which it wasn't), with its different ending. (For the whys and wherefores of this, see my Factfile for that episode.)
Extras – Season Two
New contributors for the second part of The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs include Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Jenny Tomasin (Ruby), Christopher Beeny (Edward), and Ian Ogilvy (Lawrence) – again, all very nicely lit and shot. Some time is devoted, too, to the proposed UpDown feature film that never got made. Additionally, a nice little section at the beginning has composer Alexander Faris telling us about how he wrote the theme tune, and Terry Griffiths explaining the unique opening title graphics. The theme music is revisited again at the end of the documentary in a very nice little surprise item.
An extra little featurette included on the set has Alfred Shaughnessy's (UpDown's script editor and, to all intents and purposes, co-creator's) last interview before his sad death, as he remembers the series in his garden in Cornwall in conversation with Simon Williams. Clearly ill, he still has moments of sharp memory, and it's really nice to see him that one last time.
The audio commentaries this time are as follows:
The New Man with Nicola Pagett, Rosemary Anne Sisson (writer), Jean Marsh (Rose/co-creator) and Ian Ogilvy.
A Pair of Exiles with Simon Williams (James) and Alfred Shaughnessy (script editor/co-creator).
Whom God hath Joined... with Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, Jeremy Paul (writer) and Ian Ogilvy.
A Family Gathering with Simon Williams, Jean Marsh and Nicola Pagett.
All very listenable, as before, with no mind-numbing longueurs. Plenty of gossip here, including Ian Ogilvy's affair with Nicola Pagett (though I must say I despair of Jean Marsh's comments sometimes – she says to Ian O, re: Angela Baddeley: "You didn't give her one too?" That's not something I really want to think about!) Some other moments involve the commentators spectacularly missing obvious points about various issues, which will probably have keen fans shouting their own responses at their TV sets, but that's all part and parcel of the fun of 35-year-old reminiscences.
The obvious absences on both the documentaries and commentaries are John Alderton and Pauline Collins. Given the importance of their characters to the first two seasons, it is distressing to learn that they are simply not interested in revisiting the series, if nothing else for the benefit of the fans who continue to buy the DVDs and watch the repeats. After all, I doubt Pauline Collins would have the large set of acting awards on her mantelpiece if it wasn't for becoming well known through UpDown.
Extras – Season Three
The contributors from the previous instalments of the documentary are joined this time by Jacqueline Tong (Daisy), Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel) and John Quayle (Bunny Newbury). Celia Bannerman (Diana Newbury) was due to join the line-up but sadly family commitments prevented her. Likewise, Lesley-Anne Down proved impossible to nab in the short production time the documentary was allowed.
We look in particular at the stories: Miss Forrest, A House Divided, A Change of Scene, Rose's Pigeon and A Family Secret. Included are brief archive contributions from Angela Baddeley (from a 1974 Russell Harty interview included in full elsewhere) and Rachel Gurney (from the American TV 1977 last-episode party). Personally, I could have done with more from Jackie Tong and less of Rose's Pigeon, but these choices were partly dictated by the availability of contributors.
Meanwhile on the commentary front we have:
Miss Forrest with Meg Wynn Owen and Simon Williams (James).
A House Divided with Jean Marsh (Rose/co-creator), Rosemary Anne Sisson (writer) and Christopher Hodson (director).
Rose's Pigeon with Jean Marsh, Jeremy Paul (writer) and George Innes (Alfred).
Goodwill to All Men with Jean Marsh, Christopher Hodson and Jacqueline Tong.
Distant Thunder with Meg Wynn Owen and Simon Williams.
The Sudden Storm with Jean Marsh and Jacqueline Tong.
The commentaries move along at a fair clip. In fact sometimes, as with A House Divided, the commentators seem to have so much to say they end up chopping each other off mid-comment and the listener never quite gets the full gist of what they are trying to say. In Rose's Pigeon though, for example, the contributors seem more at ease, and this leads to some thoughtful comments on the murder-and-capital-punishment theme of the episode.
The final extra for this season's set is a 1974 interview with Gordon Jackson from Russell Harty's talk show, in which Jackson talks about the return of UpDown to cover the Great War.
Extras – Season Four
With the ever-youthful Lesley-Anne Down joining the usual interviewees for the penultimate part of the documentary, we hear about the trials and tribulations of the making of the emotional WWI 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!
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 shoebox, and Simon William's facial battle scar, made with dyed oats!
Two interviews from Russell Harty's chat show wrap things up. 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 the LWT studios (which I am reliably informed never took place). Then we're onto the second interview, this time with Angela Baddeley. (However, note that the second part of this item, which includes an interview with the expert on servants and service, Margaret Powell, although on the UK DVDs, is not included here.)
Extras – Season Five
The final part of The Story of Upstairs, Downstairs project is here, of course. This time we also hear from the late 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 Five, 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.
As a adjunct to the main documentary, there is also a 15-minute featurette in which Alexander Faris talks in detail about his UpDown theme tune and conducts recordings of the various arrangements which opened and closed the episodes. Everybody has their own names for the different versions, but this includes the "stern march" (i.e. 4:4) and "mellow waltz" (i.e. 3:4) takes of the With Every Passing Day theme, and, of course, the jaunty What Are We Going To Do With Uncle Arthur? melody.
Also included as an extra is an earlier (1996) documentary feature, Upstairs Downstairs Remembered by director (and writer of the book Inside UpDown) Richard Marson. This includes interview material with producer John Hawkesworth who had sadly died before Stephen La Rivière's later five-part project was made. With the inclusion of this Remembered documentary, the Acorn set actually "beats" the Network UK version as this programme was not included on that.
Meanwhile, commentaries are 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 entire series came to a close.
Well, with the original show and all the documentaries, features and commentaries here, plus the new version of Upstairs, Downstairs due on PBS in April, US fans certainly have many many hours of viewing in front of them!
Addendum (2nd April 2011). I've read a few comments from people who seem to be confused as to the potential picture quality available from a show like Upstairs, Downstairs for DVD release.
Most British TV of the 1970s was made on videotape (basically a fatter version of the VHS we used to all use, with better pictures). This is different from the general practice in the States at the time, which was to shoot on film. Film holds a much, much better picture than videotape, and shows shot on that medium (film) were actually done to a much higher picture quality than was required for TV use at the time: as much quality as a cinema movie, in fact.
Hence, for example, an American show like Star Trek TOS (made on film) will look superb on DVD and, indeed, will even benefit from release on high-definition formats like Blu-ray, as all that extra quality on the film can now be usefully utilised.
UpDown is stuck on tape – stuck at its 1970's resolution – and nothing is ever going to change that. There is no extra "hidden" quality on the tape to be unlocked. It is never going to look as good as material shot on film: it is impossible.
I can confirm, having watched both, that the picture quality on the new Acorn release mentioned above is comparable to that on the British release from Network and is as good as you are going to get. (The only very slight improvement that we might see over the next few years/decades will be an improvement in upscaling techniques using new computer algorithms.)
Addendum II (18th July 2013 and 3rd May 2014). Arne Andersen has spotted a cut in the copy of Another Year used for the Acorn DVDs. As Daisy and Edward embrace in the kitchen at 27'36", there is a jump in the picture and Daisy is suddenly sitting on Edward's lap. There is about three seconds of material missing at this point, but no dialogue is lost. Other DVDs (e.g. the older, Acorn ones, and the British ones) do not have this jump. Lois A Graham has also spotted a jump in the bedroom scene with Mrs Bridges and Hudson in The Understudy. This seems to be an attempt to disguise a glitch on the master tape of this episode (the British DVDs leave the glitch untouched; the older A&E DVDs used a cutaway shot of the bedroom door). No dialogue is lost at this point.