SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.
Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 26 September 2010, ITV.
In the series premiere, the aristocratic Crawley family are rocked by the deaths of their estate’s heirs… What will happen to the house and its resources? Meanwhile, a valet called John Bates struggles in his new job, and a duke comes to visit…
When is it set? A caption tells us that it’s April 1912. As the episode begins, the sinking of the Titanic has hit the newspapers, which would mean it’s probably Tuesday 16 April (the ship struck an iceberg in the early hours of the 15th). The episode takes place over several days or maybe weeks – enough time for memorial services to be arranged and attended, and for Mary to go through a period of mourning.
Where is it set? Downton Abbey, a stately home in Yorkshire (in real life it’s Highclere Castle in Hampshire). The dowager cottage where Violet lives. The post office and churchyard in the local village of Downton (in real life: Bampton in Oxfordshire). We start with Mr Bates on a train thundering through Yorkshire. We end in Matthew and Isabel’s house in Manchester.
Debuts, deaths and guest stars: Being the first episode, there are loads of regular and recurring characters being introduced. In order of first appearance:
* John Bates (Brendan Coyle), who arrives at Downton to start his new job as valet. He has a limp from his time fighting in Africa.
* Daisy (Sophie McShera), the dopey kitchen maid.
* Gwen (Rose Leslie), a housemaid.
* Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid who’s kind towards Mr Bates.
* Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the cook.
* Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the head footman who resents Bates getting the valet’s job so plots to undermine him. He’s secretly gay.
* William Mason (Thomas Howes), a footman.
* Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper.
* Mr Carson (Jim Carter), the butler.
* Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), the family’s eldest daughter. As the Crawleys have no son, it’s up to her to marry well in order to secure the estate’s future.
* Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), a lady’s maid with a spiteful streak.
* Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Boneville), the man of the house.
* Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), the family’s middle sister.
* Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay), the youngest sister.
* Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Robert’s Amercican wife who he married 24 years earlier for her money – but they soon fell in love.
* Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), Robert’s acerbic mother.
* George Murray (Jonathan Coy), the family solicitor.
* Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Robert’s cousin and a lawyer in Manchester. The Titanic deaths mean he’s now the heir to Downton and its wealth, despite not knowing his relations.
* Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother.
* Early Steadicam shots give us a sense of the geography of Downton Abbey’s ground floor. They also show how well-drilled the servants are at opening up the house.
* Thomas sarcastically refers to Mr Bates, who has a limp, as Long John Silver.
* The expositionary dialogue! Watch actors try to make information about a complex legal mechanism seem like naturalistic conversation!
* We also get the cliché of characters saying they thought the Titanic was unsinkable, which is presumably true to life but still sounds written.
* Robert and Cora mention knowing some of the real-life Titanic passengers: businessman John Jacob Astor (1864-1912), his second wife Madeleine (1893-1940), and Noël Leslie, Countess of Rothes (1878-1956).
* Robert knows Bates because the latter was his batman during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).
* Violet mentions that her home was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).
Upstairs, Downton: Given the similar settings and situations, it was inevitable that this show would cover similar ground as period drama Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75, ITV). ‘Updown’ had also used the sinking of the Titanic for a storyline, for example, while both shows have a fussy butler, a cook frustrated by her simple kitchen maid, a gay footman, and a family with a moral father figure and bickering siblings… Thomas’s subplot with the visiting Duke of Crowborough vaguely echoes the 1971 Updown episode A Suitable Marriage. Meanwhile, electricity has just been installed at Downton; the 1972 Updown episode Your Obediant Servant, which is set in 1909, had the same thing happen at 165 Eaton Place. A very noticeable *difference* is that, while the shows’ families are roughly the same size, the staff at Downton is considerably bigger.
Maggie Smithism of the week: When Cora asks if she and natural enemy Violet are to be friends, Violet replies coolly, “We are to be allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”
Mary’s men: Robert’s eldest daughter was engaged to Patrick Crawley, her cousin and one of the victims of the Titanic disaster. But it seems it was just to be a marriage of convenience in order to keep Downton and its wealth in the family. She’s certainly not that upset at his passing (her sister Edith, who was in love with Patrick, is much more cut up). Mary later gets all a-flutter when the dashing Duke of Crowborough comes to visit and flirts with her. But he then privately tells Robert that he’s not interested in her. In a later scene with footman Thomas we understand why…
Doggie! Robert’s faithful Labrador is seen a few times, including when we first spy Robert, though he or she has not been named yet.
Review: This 65-minute opener introduces a large cast – eight family members, 10 servants – but almost all of them make an impression and have moments to shine. (William the footman, maid Gwen and youngest daughter Sybil are perhaps the only ones to miss out.) Downton Abbey is a soap opera, really, so needs a large and dynamic group of characters, and the relationships and subplots being established here are more about questions than answers. We get unrequited romances, sibling rivalries, antagonisms, secrets and lies, and a series of shit-stirring characters: Thomas, O’Brien, even Mary. Of course, it’s also a soap with astonishing production values. There’s a real polish to the filmmaking. Rumours have the show’s budget as being £1 million per episode, and the locations, sets, period costumes, props, set dressings and lighting schemes are all wonderful. They more than make up for the occasionally creaky dialogue. A good start.