DVD: 1970s British TV Classics Ain't What They Used to Be
The timing certainly couldn't be better for the new Upstairs Downstairs: Complete Series box (now available from Acorn Media). The landmark British series about an aristocratic family and the servants who feed and clean them celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, there's a new reboot of the show premiering this Sunday on PBS, and the success of last year's Downton Abbey, of which Upstairs is a direct predecessor, whetted viewers' appetite to revisit the show. Whether or not Upstairs Downstairs actually lives up to its reputation, however, is another matter entirely.
British television of the era has given us plenty of great shows -- Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers leap to mind -- that remain as fresh now as they were when first broadcast in the 1970s. But neither Upstairs Downstairs nor another landmark British TV project, The Norman Conquests (also recently released on DVD by Acorn) feel like they've aged particularly well.
I remember watching Upstairs Downstairs and The Norman Conquests -- a trilogy of Alan Aykbourn comedies about multiple couples spending a weekend at a country house -- on PBS during my childhood in the 1970s, and at the time, they struck me as great TV. I've always remembered both programs with great fondness and was very excited to find out that both were coming to DVD.
But watching them in 2011, both shows feel stilted and look ugly. Not that American programs shot on videotape in the '70s are necessarily gorgeous, but these series have that sallow, washed-out look that we associate with old soap operas. Outdoor scenes look particularly miserable, and the middle episode of Conquests, "Round and Round the Garden," is shot entirely outside the house. The performances were also surprisingly off-putting -- there's lots of overly presentational acting going on in both, with pauses you could drive a lorry through. The writing on both remains strong (if you ever get a chance to see The Norman Conquests live on stage or even to read the play, you'll laugh a lot) but between the overacting and the horrible lighting, the shows are tough to sit through.
For me, anyway -- people who were older when these shows first aired, or who have perhaps never seen them at all, may come away with a completely different experience. What I can say objectively is that Acorn has definitely done right by Upstairs Downstairs, including a five-part making-of doc, 24 commentaries, lots of interviews, an essay by actress and series co-creator (with Eileen Atkins) Jean Marsh, and lots more.
I'm sure there are fervent fans of both Upstairs Downstairs and The Norman Conquests who can look past these issues and will thoroughly enjoy getting the chance to revisit these acclaimed series on DVD. And I hardly begrudge them the opportunity.