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Moving Picture Novels 3: Upstairs Downstairs

March 8, 2013

I refer here to the original “Upstairs Downstairs” dating from the 1970s, a masterpiece of popular television, in my opinion, which is really my first serious nomination for the concept I am trying to promote – The Moving Picture Novel.

The basic information can be accessed through this wikipedia link Upstairs Downstairs and it’s enough to quote from that text here:

Upstairs, Downstairs is a British drama television series originally produced by London Weekend Television and revived by the BBC. It ran on ITV in 68 episodes divided into five series from 1971 to 1975.

“Set in a large townhouse in Edwardian, First World War and interwar Belgravia in London, the series depicts the lives of the servants “downstairs” and their masters—the family “upstairs”. Great events feature prominently in the episodes but minor or gradual changes are also noted. The series stands as a document of the social and technological changes that occurred between 1903 and 1930.”

I intend to ignore the BBC revival, though no doubt it has its virtues, and will swiftly move on to assess how this massive piece of work measures up to my original criteria.

1. It’s Personal.

There is no single writer – the wikipedia entry above gives pretty extensive details of the show’s devisers and scriptwriters – but I’d like to denote its “author” as a composite being consisting of it’s makers and performers, of the period when it was made (it gives a fascinating picture of how the 1970s viewed an earlier section of the Twentieth Century) and even of its audience, who undoubtedly influenced the way certain characters were “ran with”, just as the popularity of Sam Weller influenced the composition and success of “The Pickwick Papers”.

It might be fun to share what amounts to almost sixty hours of viewing but you’ll probably be better off taking this “journey” alone!

2. It’s Fictitious.

A great deal appeals to our desire to understand past times and the makers do appear to have done their research, but this is substantially a work of fiction and, as with any tale we’re told in whatever medium, it’s up to us to make it work by believing what we’re told.

3. It’s Prose.

Of course the actors add a great deal here, and the language can seem a bit lumpy at times, but a great deal of this drama is delivered through the medium of spoken language. Who can forget Hudson’s homilies on correct behaviour or the odd slip into “impolite” speech? By the way, it appears that subtitles are not yet available for available editions, so good luck finding an app for that!

4. It’s Of Book Length.

It certainly meets this criterion. With only the occasional lapse into incidental sub plots, this really does form one continuous story, and if the human race is to continue evolving, we really better had stop distracting ourselves with the sort of “concepts” or “news” designed to grab our attention for barely a day and make the effort to follow a moving picture that lasts longer than a couple of hours.

5. It’s a Physical Object.

Yes. Packaging is a problem. The most feasible version I’ve seen: Upstairs Downstairs DVD set consists of 21 discs, costs £95 and Amazon is about to sell out of it! Maybe you can download it onto your favourite device?

6. You get Notes and Addenda.

The customer reviews given with the Amazon link include a few touching responses from people with actual memories of the times depicted, and Wikipedia gives some details on the show’s origins. That should be enough to give serious scholars and students a start.


So there it is, a cultural artefact that should remain of interest for some time, that can be accessed almost(!) as easily as a book, that offers individuals a means to exert their intelligent attention and hours of harmless pleasure. As ever, I invite readers to offer their own nominations for what may prove to be the key art form of the twenty-first century, the Moving Picture Novel!


From → Critic

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