Upstairs, Downstairs
The US DVDs from A&E

Note: This review refers to the older DVD releases by A&E. These have since been "trumped" by the much better releases from Acorn.

Though Upstairs, Downstairs fans are lucky to have their favourite series available on DVD in both major video-format camps of the world (PAL and NTSC), howls of derision have greeted the American region 1 DVD releases. A quick trawl through some of the DVD sites on the net yields some pretty damning comments:

... one episode was so bad I could only listen to the sound. Trying to watch the screen gave me a headache. The last episode I watched had large yellow bands across the screen.

... the DVDs did not appear to me to be much better than the video I viewed.

... do not contribute anything in terms of visual quality to the VHS version.

Not at any price should such poor quality merchandise be sold...

It is a shame however that the quality of the prints used by A&E are (in places) quite bad. It seems that A&E have used old video masters for these DVDs, probably some that were sourced in the 1980s for a video release or a rebroadcast on PBS.

These are priceless and should have been handled in a better way. ... four stars for story, minus one for horrible, tacky, poorly executed video transfer to DVD.

I am usually very happy with A&E's DVDs, but I am not sure what went wrong with Upstairs, Downstairs. Season Four had some very long periods where the picture was so blurred that it bothered my eyes to watch it.

The episodes are surely watchable (some marginally) despite the quality, but certainly don't have the look we have grown accustomed to for a DVD presentation.

... there is every manner of defect, from major dropouts and stutters, to weaving or banding in the image. Colors are undersaturated and the hue tends to green throughout. The appearance is murky most of the time, and several episodes are overly dark.

I read reviews that the first two series were bad in the DVD transfer. OK. I tried the third series. If this is deemed acceptable, then the first two series must be absolutely horrible. The picture is unwatchable. Do not buy this under any circumstances. Imagine watching a third or fourth generation videotape copy when lightning is going on messing up your electricals. Well, this is how your screen is going to look like. I have seen better with bootlegged pirated Malaysian vcds.

Speaking as a fan who has both the US and UK sets of DVDs, I decided to take a closer look at the US releases to see if the complaints are justified. The result is a resounding YES.

It should be pointed out that there is inevitably going to be some degradation in an American release of a British videotaped series. A UK video signal conforms to a specification know as "PAL"1, which consists of 50 pictures (or "fields") per second, each made up of 288 horizontal lines. A US video signal (called "NTSC") has 60 fields per second, each made up of 240 lines. UpDown was (obviously) made in the UK PAL format, so converting it to the US NTSC format is going to result in some compromises. Using the simplest method of conversion, certain fields must be repeated to make the 60 fields per second required by the American system from the original 50, and about 17% lines of the picture must be removed. The former is going to lead to motion having a slight jerkiness to it; the latter means a slightly softer picture.

Standards conversion has come a long way since the scenario above – consisting of repeating fields and dropping lines – was used. Modern conversion uses complicated interpolation techniques, and can analyse the motion in the picture to accurately make the fill-in fields required. Hence, material converted from PAL to NTSC in recent times is likely to be markedly better than that converted, for example, in the early 1970s. In fact, modern conversion techniques yield very few artefacts and it's increasingly harder to tell the original PAL version, and the converted NTSC version, apart.

So, in an ideal world, the picture from the American DVDs should look very similar to that on the UK DVDs, with A&E having obtained a brand new PAL master of each episode from Granada Media (the owner of the series) and having had it converted on the latest equipment to NTSC2. But, with the exception of just a couple of episodes, this is far from what A&E has delivered.

Most episodes included on the A&E DVDs seem to come from copies which have been hanging around since at least the late 1970s. The quality of PAL to NTSC conversion is poor – pictures are generally blurred and the motion jerky, and there are horrible aliasing effects (particularly noticeable on the caption cards at the start and finish of each episode). Most of the episodes from the last season also have an annoying flicker effect, a bit like the result you get if you try to film a TV picture. In general, the pictures tend to err on the dark side, but at least this is rectifiable via your TV's brightness control, unlike most of the other faults. There is also a noticeable tendency towards a greenish hue in some episodes (at its worst in Out of the Everywhere). Below, I have included a side-by-side comparison below of the same frame from the US DVDs versus the UK version from Network3. I don't think the results need further comment apart from saying that most of the episodes are much poorer quality than you can obtain from bog-standard VHS tape!

On the left, the UK copies; on the right, the US:

There are only a couple of episodes where the quality can be deemed acceptable (e.g. On Trial and The New Man) – these seem to come from newly acquired copies, and are noticeably better than their counterparts.

What reduces these releases to a farcical level are the more sporadic problems which plague certain episodes. Married Love, A House Divided, Will Ye No Come Back Again and All the King's Horses seem to have interlace problems and vibrate vertically throughout – these cannot be considered even vaguely watchable4. Around 20 episodes across the five seasons have their initial Upstairs, Downstairs caption cards missing, presumably because the beginnings of some of A&E's tapes are chewed or scratched. Yet other random episodes have extra "Next Episode" captions forcibly inserted before the final credits, interrupting the outgoing theme music. None of these problems are consistent across all the episodes, which reinforces the idea that A&E have simply used any old tapes that come to hand to compile these DVDs. They even have the gall to state boldly on the cover: "Much care and effort was taken in tracking down the best possible original source material..." I think not.

Additionally, it seems some episodes have material missing. It is hard to be definitive about this without comparing every single episode to a master copy in real time, but some obvious timing inconsistencies led me to investigate the completeness of the A&E copies of certain segments. We Ye No Come Back Again is missing about 37 seconds of the servants' drive to Scotland, and the deletion of a later location shot (of a boat) loses a further 14 seconds.5 Meanwhile, in Wanted – a Good Home, two sequences lose a total of 35 seconds.6 A third example I have found is Property of a Lady, which loses 38 seconds total from two sequences.7 Whereas the UK releases leave the "End of Part..." captions in place, the US DVDs edit around them, often clumsily. Often the losses are trivial, but sometimes a good moment or two is deleted in the process.8

In light of all the above issues, it seems almost churlish to mention the other problems of these releases. For example, cover photographs are chosen without regard to the actual episodes included on a particular DVD, or even whether the period of the programme is vaguely correct (so we have, for example, Pauline Collins as Sarah on a DVD for the Season Four). The credits/text on the covers is also frequently inaccurate (Rachel Gurney – Lady Marjorie – is credited long after she went down on the Titanic; Hannah Gordon is credited for Season One; Richard becomes a Lord back in Season One; and it isn't till Season Four that they manage to spell Rosemary Anne Sisson's name correctly).

Meanwhile, on the chaptering front, we wonder who is "Mrs. Roberts" (on A House Divided), who is "Sir Arthur Forrest" (A Family Secret), and what exactly is a "Card Shark" (The Swedish Tiger)? Hilariously, the bloody nose that Edward is given by the strikers in The Nine Day [sic] Wonder becomes "The Bloody Noise" on the chapter titles!

It's sad that our favourite series can be treated in this way, with A&E slapping it out in the most casual manner to make a fast buck. (See the newer DVDs from Acorn for improved releases of UD in the USA.)

Postscript, June 2004 – The US release of Thomas & Sarah on DVD by A&E

One thing A&E definitely seems to have learned in the wake of the backlash over the Upstairs, Downstairs DVDs it to, at least, get the picture quality vaguely acceptable. The pictures on this new set are actually quite reasonable. As before, below is a grab of the same frame from both the UK and US DVDs.3 You can see that the two are now much more consistent (left, UK; right, US):


The other kinds of mistakes continue aplenty. The biggest cock-up here (and it's a big one!) is that the opening titles have been completely missed off six of the 13 episodes. Unlike with the UpDown releases, this is not just the first few seconds of the titles missing – these episodes fade up from black at the beginning of the first scene (often with the theme music still playing out). This is completely bewildering, and I can think of no sane explanation for this.

Meanwhile, the covers show the same sort of mistakes as the UpDown sets. All the boxes attribute the directorship of the whole series to John Davies (he only did three of them), and the authorship of the whole series to Alfred Shaughnessy (he only wrote one of them). The fourth box features a photo of Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth) who wasn't even in Thomas & Sarah.

There's a token attempt at featuring an "extra" – a simple, static tree diagram of the hierarchy of servants in a household. Pretty worthless, to be honest.

All in all, a move in the right direction from A&E, but there is still more than a whiff of: "Oh, that'll do," about this release.

Postscript (September 2005). Since the above season-by-season sets were released, A&E have also released two further boxed sets.

The first – the so-called "The Complete Series Megaset" – repackages the original UpDown series into a 10-box set – each box now holding two DVDs.

The second ("The Collector's Edition Megaset") is, basically, "The Complete Series Megaset" with Thomas & Sarah added (in two boxes, each of two DVDs).

As I understand it, the actual disks within these two "Megasets" are exactly the same as the original season-by-season releases, so the picture quality of the individual episodes is the same. Thus, the extras (the 1996 Upstairs, Downstairs Remembered documentary on the first DVD, and the household hierarchy diagram on the second Thomas & Sarah DVD) are also the same.


1 In fact, strictly, the term "PAL" refers only to the method of colour encoding. The format is more completely described as "50 fields per second, 625 lines per frame, PAL colour encoding with a colour subcarrier of 4.43MHz" but the term "PAL" is used here for convenience. Similarly "NTSC" means "60 fields per second, 525 lines per frame, NTSC colour encoding with a colour subcarrier of 3.58MHz".

2 See, for example, the DVDs of The Grand put out by Goldhil DVD, or Are You Being Served? by the BBC.

3 These grabs were treated in exactly the same way for both the US and UK versions.

4 This problem will not be so obvious if you are watching your DVDs on a computer screen because these displays are not interlaced (i.e. they are "progressive"). But, if you look closely, you will see diagonal lines where there is movement in the picture appear very jagged – this is due to the two fields being collapsed down to a single frame but with field one being interleaved with field two wrongly.

5 The two cuts are three minutes and 43 minutes into the episode, respectively.

6 The first cut is 34 minutes in – we lose 16 seconds of the servants' reactions and Miss Treadwell waiting in the hall. The second cut is 39 minutes in – we lose 19 seconds of Daisy and Miss Treadwell coming into the schoolroom, up to the point just before Alice notices her parents from the window.

7 The first cut is 18 minutes in – we lose 25 seconds of Lady Marjorie getting into her Rolls Royce and Thomas starting it up. The second cut is 34 minutes in – we lose 13 seconds of Dooley waiting in the garage.

8 For example, in Alberto we lose a nice moment (actually 19 seconds) at the end of Part One, where the camera crosses to Lady Dolly Hale's sideboard and pans across photographs of her collection of lovers, to which Frederick is the latest addition!