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HTF DVD REVIEW: Upstairs Downstairs Complete Series 40th Anniversary Edition

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#1 of 8 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted March 20 2011 - 06:17 AM

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Upstairs Downstairs: Complete Series
40th Anniversary Edition

Studio: Acorn Media
Years: 1971-1975
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 57 hours (approximate)
Aspect Ratio: 4:3 full screen
Languages: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
The Program

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2006, viewers of the long-running PBS show "Masterpiece Theatre" chose the British drama Upstairs Downstairs as their favorite series, beating out such notable programs as The Forsyte Saga, Prime Suspect, and I, Claudius. Set in Edwardian England during the period 1903-1930, Upstairs Downstairs depicts life in the household of the Bellamys of 165 Eaton Court, London. Upstairs are the Bellamys - Richard (David Langton), a member of Parliament; his aristocratic wife, Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney); and their often difficult children James (Simon Williams) and Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett). In the third year of the show Georgina Worsley (Lesley-Anne Down), the step-daughter of Lady Marjorie's brother, comes to live at 165 Eaton Court. Downstairs we find the Bellamy family servants, who are led by the butler, Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson). Others servants who figure prominently throughout the series are Rose (Jean Marsh), the head parlor maid; Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), the cook; Thomas (John Alderton), the chauffeur; Alfred (George Innes), the footman; Sarah (Pauline Collins), Ruby (Jenny Tomasin), Emily (Evin Crowley), and Daisy (Jacqueline Tong).

Upstairs Downstairs was conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, and it proved to be a difficult project to sell before the British network ITV agreed to air it on Sunday evenings in the fall of 1971. Indeed, for a time it appeared that the first season might also be the last. However, the show developed a loyal following and by the second season it was a hit. It debuted in the United States on "Masterpiece Theatre" in 1974 and went on to win multiple Emmy awards and Golden Globe awards. Viewers on both sides of the Atlantic were fascinated by the dichotomy between those who were born to (or married into) wealth and those who spent most of their lives "in service." The rich and educated and the poor and barely literate live under the same roof, but their stations in life are miles apart.

Upstairs Downstairs was released in individual series sets by A&E Home Video in 2001 and 2002, and the entire series was released as a "Collector's Edition Megaset" in 2005. Now Acorn Media is releasing the 40th Anniversary Edition, which includes all 68 episodes of Upstairs Downstairs well as multiple commentary tracks and some excellent extras. The episodes are as follows (in the U.K. each season is referred to as a series, so "series one" is synonymous with "season one").

Series One

Disc One

Due to a strike by technicians, four episodes in Series One were filmed and aired in black & white.

1. On Trial (commentary track with Jean Marsh, writer Fay Weldon, and Evin Crowley)
2. The Mistress and the Maids (in black & white)
3. Board Wages (in black & white) (commentary track with Evin Crowley and writers Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham)

Also on Disc One is an alternate version of "On Trial" with a different ending. The purpose of the alternate pilot was to bridge it to episode 5, because some markets did not want to air the black & white episodes.

Disc Two

4. The Path of Duty (in black & white)
5. A Suitable Marriage (in black & white) (commentary track with George Innes)
6. Magic Casements
7. A Cry for Help

Disc Three

8. I Dies From Love (commentary track with Evin Crowley and writers Terence Brady and Charlotte Bingham)
9. Why is Her Door Locked?
10. A Voice From the Past (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, and writer Jeremy Paul)

Disc Four

11. The Swedish Tiger
12. The Key of the Door
13. For Love of Love (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, and writer Rosemary Ann Sisson)

Series Two

Disc One

14. The New Man (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, actor Ian Ogilvy, and writer Rosemary Ann Sisson)
15. A Pair of Exiles (commentary track with Simon Williams and writer Alfred Shaughnessy)
16. Married Love
17. Whom God Hath Joined... (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, actor Ian Ogilvy, and writer Jeremy Paul)

Disc Two

18. Guest of Honour
19. The Property of a Lady
20. You Obedient Servant

Disc Three

21. Out of the Everywhere
22. An Object of Value
23. A Special Mischief

Disc Four

24. The Fruits of Love
25. The Wages of Sin
26. A Family Gathering (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Nicola Pagett, and Simon Williams)

Series Three

Disc One

27. Miss Forrest (commentary track with Simon Williams and actress Meg Wynn Owen)
28. A House Divided (commentary track with Jean Marsh, writer Rosemary Ann Sisson, and director Christopher Hodson)
29. A Change of Scene
30. A Family Secret

Disc Two

31. Rose's Pigeon (commentary track with Jean Marsh, writer Rosemary Ann Sisson, and writer Jeremy Paul)
32. Desirous of Change
33. Word of Honour

Disc Three

34. The Bolter
35. What the Footman Saw
36. Goodwill to All Men (commentary track with Jacqueline Tong, Jean Marsh, and director Christopher Hodson)

Disc Four

37. A Perfect Stranger
38. Distant Thunder (commentary track with Simon Williams and Meg Wynn Owen)
39. The Sudden Storm (commentary track with Jacqueline Tong and Jean Marsh)

Series Four

Disc One

40. A Patriotic Offering (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Jacqueline Tong, and writer Rosemary Ann Sisson)
41. News From the Front
42. The Beastly Hun
43. Women Shall Not Weep (commentary track with actor Christopher Beeny, Jean Marsh, Jacqueline Tong, and director Christopher Hodson)

Disc Two

44. Tug of War
45. Home Fires
46. If You Were the Only Girl in the World
47. The Glorious Dead  (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Meg Wynn Owen, and Simon Williams)

Disc Three

48. Another Year
49. The Hero's Farewell
50. Missing Believed Killed

Disc Four

51. Facing Fearful Odds
52. Peace Out of Pain (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Meg Wynn Owen, and Simon Williams)

Series Five

Disc One

53. One With the Dance
54. A Place in the World
55. Laugh a Little Louder Please
56. The Joy Ride

Disc Two

57. Wanted - A Good Home
58. An Old Flame
59. Disillusion (commentary track with actress Karen Dotrice)
60. Such a Lovely Man (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, Jenny Tomasin, and writer Rosemary Ann Sisson)

Disc Three

61. The Nine Days Wonder
62. The Understudy
63. Alberto
64. Will Ye No' Come Back Again?

Disc Four

65. Joke Over
66. Noblesse Oblige
67. All the King's Horses (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, writer Jeremy Paul, and director Simon Langton)
68. Whither Shall I Wander? (commentary track with Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, writer Jeremy Paul, and writer Rosemary Ann Sisson)

Upstairs Downstairs covers such monumental events as the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, and the beginning of the Great Depression. It provides a very involving and realistic look into the lives of privileged Britons and the lower class workers who tended to their needs. The creators originally intended to call the show Below Stairs and were going to focus on the lives of the servants. Wisely, that plan was scuttled in favor of scripts which emphasize both the masters and the servants.

The Video
I was not able to compare every episode, but the transfers here seem to be identical to those on the A&E releases. Overall, the video quality is very good. The pilot episode is soft in spots and the colors are a bit washed out. The four black and white episodes look fine, with good detail and contrast. The video quality of the color episodes is much improved with episode #5, and all of the subsequent episodes look as good as one could expect from the 1970s television series. There is an occasional blip here and there, but nothing that is distracting. All of the episodes are properly framed at 4:3. [EDIT: Member Erik H. asked me to take another look at the video, and I must concede that there are some episodes in which the Acorn release shows some subtle but noticeable improvement over the A&E set. I have asked Acorn for some clarification about what was done but have yet to receive a response. I will update this review again if I learn anything more.]

The Audio
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is adequate. Dialogue is clear and understandable, although American viewers may occasionally want to activate the subtitles to help to clarify some of the British accents. Some of the supplemental materials are in stereo. The only subtitles are English SDH.
The Supplements

In addition to the commentary tracks, there are several hours of worthwhile extras on this set.

Foremost among them is the five-part documentary "The Story of Upstairs Downstairs" (the packaging and menus identify it as "The Making of Upstairs Downstairs" but the actual title is "The Story of Upstairs Downstairs"). The sections of the documentary vary in length from 50 minutes to 56 minutes. It was made in 2006 and features appearances by most of the cast members, writers, directors and producers who were still alive. It covers the development of the show in chronological order, hence there are five parts, one for each season. This documentary is presented at 16:9.

The second season set includes a 23-minute conversation between Simon Williams and writer Alfred Shaughnessy, which also is presented at 16:9.

Also included are interviews of Jean Marsh, Gordon Jackson and Angela Baddeley which were conducted by Russell Harty while Upstairs Downstairs was still in production. Harty also hosts an interesting 60-minute production called "A Family Gathering," in which several of the members of the cast got together, in character, to discuss the show a week after the final episode of Upstairs Downstairs was aired in the United Kingdom. The Harty segments are presented in 4:3.

"Upstairs Downstairs Remembered" is a 51-minute featurette which was made in 1996 and which has been ported over from the previous A&E release.

Finally, there is a 13-minute interview with composer Alexander "Sandy" Faris which is entitled "Sandy's Last Stand." Faris talks about how he was hired to compose the music for the series and also conducts an orchestra as it plays the show's theme music. This featurette is shown in 16:9.

The Packaging

The packaging of this set is admirably compact. The material is spread out over 21 discs, but each season is securely held in a single keep case which is the approximate size of a standard DVD keep case. The result is that the entire series takes up only an inch more shelf space than just one season of the A&E releases. The five keep cases and held in a slip case.
The Final Analysis

If you are a fan of Upstairs Downstairs and already own the entire series, is this set worth an upgrade? Although the audio and video quality is essentially unchanged, the multiple commentary tracks, the five-part documentary, and the various interviews have a great deal of appeal and are very informative and entertaining. An added bonus is that this set takes up 75% less shelf space than the A&E releases.

Acorn also is releasing Upstairs Downstairs in individual season sets. The first season will be released on the same day as the complete series set and the others will follow. There is no difference in content, so those who are unfamiliar with the show or are reluctant to invest in the entire series at one time may want to opt for the first season set.
The megaset which A&E released in 2005 (and is now out of print) includes all 13 episodes of the spin-off show Thomas and Sarah. Those episodes are not included in this set, but Amazon is currently selling the A&E set of Thomas and Sarah for less than $10.00.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA-2 DVD player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display (calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen)
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: March 29, 2011

Rich Gallagher

#2 of 8 OFFLINE   Michael Reuben

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Posted March 20 2011 - 09:08 AM

Phenomenal job sorting through the versions, Rich! Thanks for undertaking the task.
COMPLETE list of my disc reviews.       HTF Rules / 200920102011 Film Lists

#3 of 8 OFFLINE   PattyFraser


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Posted March 21 2011 - 04:34 PM

Thanks for an awesome presentation, Rich.  Unfortunately, I purchased Up,Down ages ago, with, blast it,  no commentaries, et al.  It's too costly to repurchase, given as how there is no picture quality upgrade.  But thanks for mentioning that Thomas and Sarah has had such a drastic price reduction, --I  purchased this at last because of your info, even though it technically has no ending due to the writer's strike during that time.

#4 of 8 OFFLINE   Erik_H


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Posted March 22 2011 - 12:45 AM

Thanks for the comprehensive review, although I should note that there is a difference of opinion as to whether the new Acorn set represents an improvement in picture quality over the old A&E set (I have a copy of the latter and was very disappointed in the picture quality, which is significantly worse than the picture quality of the set available in the UK). 

I haven't received my copy of the Acorn set yet, but other advance reviewers have advised that the Acorn set represents an improvement in picture quality over the A&E version, including a review of the Acorn set on a comprehensive website devoted to "Upstairs Downstairs" at www.updown.org.uk.    Here's an excerpt from that review:

"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."

#5 of 8 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted March 22 2011 - 09:22 AM

Thanks for your comments. I did my comparison by spot-checking episodes from the original A&E DVDs and comparing them to the Acorn set. There wasn't time to compare every episode and it is possible that I missed some differences in the transfers. If someone can point to a specific episode in which they feel there is a noticeable improvement, I'll be happy to compare same and see if it changes my opinion. It's worth pointing out that Acorn's press release makes no mention of new transfers, and there is no mention of fresh transfers on the packaging, either. I would expect Acorn to tout the fact that new transfers were used if that were the case. In the meantime, I'll check with our contact at Acorn and see if he can shed some light on this. Regardless, the transfers on the new set are very satisfactory and look better than many 70s TV shows which are now on DVD.
Rich Gallagher

#6 of 8 OFFLINE   Erik_H


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Posted March 28 2011 - 11:57 AM

I received the Acorn set today and did some spot checking between the new Acorn discs and the old A&E discs.   In some cases, the picture quality was similar.  However, in cases where the A&E picture quality was especially problematic, the Acorn version was decisively superior.  For example, take a look at the title cards at the beginning of episode 10 of the first season (the episode is entitled "A Voice From the Past"):  there is a clear difference between the A&E disc and the Acorn disc.   Of course, no one should expect the picture quality of a Pixar Blu-Ray given the age of the source material, and based on my spot checks I can't say that the Acorn picture quality is exponentially better than the A&E version.  But there is, in my opinion, an improvement.

#7 of 8 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted March 29 2011 - 06:16 PM

Thanks for your input. I'll do a comparison of episode which you mentioned. I should add that I have had no response from Acorn about the technical aspects of the transfer. As I said before, if it really is a fresh transfer I would expect Acorn to emphasize it, but as you can see there is nothing on the packaging to suggest that the set was made from a new transfer.
Rich Gallagher

#8 of 8 OFFLINE   Richard Gallagher

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Posted March 30 2011 - 05:33 PM

I took a look at Episode 10 this evening. You are correct that the opening credits on the A&E DVD show noticeable jiggle which is absent on the Acorn set. The A&E disc also appears to be a bit darker. I also compared Episode 9, in which the sharpness of the images appears to be equal, but the A&E presentation is slightly darker. This of course indicates that Acorn did something different, but what that something was is unclear to me. There may have been some technological adjustments which were made without a complete remastering. I will modify my previous assessment and will acknowledge that in terms of video quality, the Acorn set is a subtle step up. When you add in the plentiful extras, overall the Acorn set is a substantial improvement.
Rich Gallagher

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