Downton Abbey: Series 1

Released: 2010 (UK)
Created by: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith


The best new TV programme in years

If there’s anything that us Brits can do well it’s the costume drama.  No matter what we try to say about being edgy and modern we love a bit of corset.  Throw in a bit of upper class snobbery and lower class bitterness and we’re in heaven (ignore the middle classes though, they are no fun at all).  Last year ITV1 struck period drama gold with Downton Abbey , the best new TV programme in years.  I’m really excited that series 2 is starting this Sunday (18th September).

Created and written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey follows the trials and tribulations of the Crawley family whose plans for a secure succession are thrown into chaos with the sinking of the Titanic and the death of the heir to the family’s home, money and title.  The current Earl has fathered only daughters who are ineligible to inherit the estate.  Enter handsome, pleasant but middle class, cousin Matthew Crawley – the new heir and the cause of a great deal of consternation.

The first series charts the lives of the Crawleys and their servants from the sinking of the Titanic to the outbreak of World War I and sees a number of periods of high drama including the death of a Turkish diplomat in Lady Mary’s bed and much more gentle and humourous events such as the Rose competition in the village hall.

The large ensemble cast is impressive.  I can’t think of a single weak link.  Hugh Bonneville is masterful as the Earl of Grantham, the kind of aristocrat that we think should exist.  Benevolent, decent and caring, the welfare of his family, staff and estate is his main concern.  A true ambassador for the hereditary principle.  Brendan Coyle is moving in his portrayal of Mr Bates, the butler coping with a disability and the enmity of some of the other servants.  His tentative romance with head housemaid Anna is tear-jerking at times with Coyle and Joanne Froggatt pitching their performances beautifully.  Pantomime baddies O’Brien and Thomas are great fun to boo and hiss at.  I do actually hiss as their schemes to get rid of Mr Bates are played out.

Without a shadow of a doubt though, the star of the programme is Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Her acerbic tongue is a sheer joy and she had many, many memorable lines in the first series including:

“Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”
“One can normally find an Italian who isn’t too picky”
“No one wants to kiss a girl in black”

and perhaps the greatest line of the entire first series:

“What is a week-end?”

Each is delivered perfectly by Smith and I have been known to clap like a performing seal with each put-down and aside.

Some of the characters are slightly cliched – you’ll recognise the maid trying to better herself, the strong-willed aristocratic young woman yearning for equality and the slightly hapless middle class lawyer.  I simply don’t care about the cliches though.  The acting is so good and the script so brilliant that I’m happy to ignore minor issues.

Filming for Downton Abbey is carried out at Highclere Castle in Berkshire, home of The Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and the setting just adds that extra something special to the programme.  I doubt that such high standards could have been achieved in a studio setting.

If you missed series one, don’t let that put you off watching the second series.  I’m sure all will be explained but all you really need to know is that third cousin Matthew Crawley is heir and not eldest daughter Lady Mary.  Matthew and Mary love each other but can’t seem to get together.  Mr Bates and Anna are soulmates but constantly in upheaval due to the actions of Thomas and O’Brien.  And the Dowager Countess is one of the greatest television characters ever created.  You’ll catch up with the rest easily enough.

If you did watch series one I know for a fact you’ll be joining me in watching series two.  No-one’s going to want to miss even a minute of this new series.

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