Saturday October 6, 2012

KEENE, N.H.

Thomas & Sarah -- Devotees of "Upstairs, Downstairs" are quite familiar with Thomas the chauffeur and Sarah the rebellious maid. Toward the end of the series, these two left service and took off on their unmarried own to find fame and fortune. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the BBC decided to create a spin-off miniseries called "Thomas and Sarah," and the entire 13 episodes are now available on a four-DVD boxed set from Acorn Media. I should say "again available," since it was in 2004 that I reviewed the first DVD appearance of this series.

The husband-wife team of John Alderton and Pauline Collins went on, after "Upstairs, Downstairs," to create other mini-series such as the marvelous first two seasons of "Wodehouse Playhouse" and the all-too-silly "No, Honestly," in both of which their richly comic talents made the Wodehouse episodes classics and could not quite save those of "Honestly." But in "Thomas & Sarah," their dramatic abilities are marvelous.

The basic theme of most of the episodes is their attempts to "make it" in society or in business, sometimes as con artists, sometimes being conned, sometimes on the up and up -- but always failing at the end. Veering between really funny incidents and heart-wrenching conflicts between the two lead characters or between them and the rest of the world, these 13 installments never quite let you know what to expect. In fact, the end of the very last episode is so unexpected that I refuse to disclose any of it and leave you to feel its impact full force.

The picture is quite good for a 1979 television production; and so is the sound. Collins’ little speech defect is charming, but Alderton’s lapsing into a very quiet delivery of his lines is not. But there are subtitles in this Acorn Media edition and that problem is solved.

Of all the guest stars, the incomparable Nigel Hawthorne is the best as a Malvolio-like butler in the penultimate episode and he simply upstages both leads with perfect ease.

And if you never saw "Upstairs, Downstairs," fear not. Knowledge of the earlier series will not lessen your enjoyment of this one at all.

The running time of each episode is 50 minutes, and I seem to recall a text bonus feature on the original set that I don’t find here.

Kidnap and Ransom -- Well, at least the makers of the new British crime series "Kidnap and Ransom" are trying for something different. Dominic King (Trevor Eve) is a Hostage Negotiator, working for a firm designed to pay the ransoms and get the kidnap victims back alive. His partner Angela (Helen Baxendale) has little to do up to the third episode of the second series but acts as a brake on Dominic’s unconventional tactics. Series 1 and 2 are both included in a two-DVD set from Acorn Media.

Part of the problem with the idea is that the three episodes in each of the two series are concerned with a single case. At the start, for the first time in his career the hostage he "frees" is dead; and Dominic vows that this will never again happen. The cliffhanger at the end of the first episode of Series 1 is almost ludicrous, however justified it might be in the next episode. But then the end of that episode is just a bit too much, obviously designed to fill out a season.

The second series concerns a busload of hostages in India, one of whom is a hostage that Dominic just freed in a previous case. Yet another of the hostages being the daughter of a prominent British politician is just an added complication to the already large pile of complications in this story.

Things are fairly predictable after a while, but Eve gives a sincere performance, so I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of simply enjoying the show as it stands.

Each episode is 45 minutes, the picture is in wide screen format, and there are necessary subtitles as amateur kidnappers do shout at the top of their voices in native accents.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays.