When Downton Abbey first popped up on British and Irish television screens on September 2010, little did I know that I would become hooked on a show that didn’t feature psychotic cybernetic pepper-pots, badly-behaved teenagers with an array of superpowers, or mankind’s ancestors finding God amongst the stars. This was a show that caught me purely because of its simplicity.
Downton Abbey is the brainchild of Oscar-winning screenwriter, Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, 2001). It arrived with little fanfare. To most viewers, including myself, it was just another period drama. The schedules were full of them, and they were something I only watched at Christmas time, mainly because there was bugger-all else on. I enjoy the odd Dickens adaptation, but would I follow an entire series where emotions were suppressed by authority, where class is everything, and everyone knew their place? No, I cried, give me Daleks – and lots of them.
It was only when my brother mentioned it to me the day the show premiered that I decided to put the show on my DVR. I’ll give it a look, I said, not expecting much. So when I had the chance, I sat down, coffee mug in hand, and stuck it on.
Wait. What’s this? Maggie Smith is in it? Professor McGonagall herself? Hold on, there’s something going on here. And that music! As lush a theme tune as any you’d hear nowadays, with its tinkling piano and soaring strings. With a cast list that went on forever, and a production value I hadn’t seen in a contemporary television show of this kind since the seventies, I couldn’t help but be drawn in.
So what is Downton Abbey about? The show is set on the fictional country estate called Downton Abbey, somewhere in Yorkshire. It is the home of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American wife Cora, (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters, Mary (Michelle Dockery), Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), and Edith (Laura Carmichael – my favourite). Downton is also the place of employment for their many servants: butlers, under-butlers, valets, kitchen hands, housemaids, and ladies’ maids. When the show begins, the next in line for the earldom is lost with the sinking of the Titanic. With no obvious successor to the title, we are introduced to Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a third-cousin to Robert, Earl of Grantham. What follows from there is a cornucopia of storylines that feature each character in the series. And what characters they are! Each has their own history, and Fellowes takes his time with them, developing their stories over the seasons. (Two have aired in the States, with the third starting January 6.) It helps when you have actors of the quality on offer, too. Nothing more need be said about Dame Maggie. Whenever she’s on screen, she is a joy to behold, and she gives her lines the ironic but sympathetic gusto they deserve. Every family should have their own Dowager Countess.
The rest of the ensemble is magnificent, with a special mention from me for Brendan Coyle, who plays John Bates, the earl’s loyal valet, invalided from the Crimean War. His blossoming love affair with head housemaid, Anna Smith (a delightful Joanne Froggatt), coupled with Mary’s “will-they-won’t-they” relationship with Matthew Crawley, form the emotional heart of Downton Abbey’s first two seasons. If you have watched the show so far, you will know how much these characters have been put through the wringer. And what’s more, in season three, their stories reach new heights – as well as more than their fair share of lows.
So why is Downton Abbey good? Why is it worth watching? If your thing is costume dramas, you will not be disappointed. If good stories well told, with actors well suited to their parts, then you’ll be well pleased with the results. There is a tenderness to this show. Yes, each character is aware of their place in society, and while they may grumble from time to time (who doesn’t?), they accept their lives and make the best of what chance throws their way. They have to deal with the outbreak of the First World War, an epidemic of Spanish ‘Flu, births, deaths and marriages. Most come through it, some don’t. A bit like life, really, when you think about it.
I’ve seen season three and all I can say about it, without spoiling any of it for you, is that you’re in for a ride. There will be changes; there will be laughter; and there will be tears. But faithful followers already know that, don’t they?
Polish up your silver, because His Lordship is coming for a visit.