Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 7


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: 7 November 2010, ITV.

The family return to Downton after the season in London… Mary considers whether to marry Matthew or not, Bates’s job hangs in the balance, Mrs Patmore’s eyesight needs drastic action, and Cora discovers she’s four months pregnant.

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us the episode starts in July 1914. It ends with a garden party on Tuesday 4 August, at which Robert announces that Britain is at war with Germany.

Where is it set? The house. The dowager’s cottage. Crawley House. For the first time, the show visits London: there are scenes set in St James Park, Rosamund’s house in Belgrave Square, Moorfield Eye Hospital, and an army barracks.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) appears for the first time, having been mentioned in previous episodes. She’s Robert’s sister and lives in London.
* Mrs Bird (Christine Lohr) is Isobel’s cook. She’s seconded to the big house when Mrs Patmore has to go away for an eye operation. She’s an unlikeable battleaxe, but there’s a nice twist when Mrs P returns from London and the two women bond over the perils of being a cook.
* Mr Bromidge (Sean McKenzie) comes to the house to install the telephones. He moans that he can’t find a secretary, so Sybil persuades him to interview Gwen for the job.
* When the household learn that Mr Bates was imprisoned for theft, he won’t explain what happened. So Anna sets off to investigate. She visits Bates’s former army barracks and talks to an unnamed NCO (Richard Hawley), then goes to see Mr Bates’s mother (Jane Wenham), who tells her that her son was covering for his wife, Vera.
* Cora’s mother is mentioned for the first time – she lives in America, and Cora dreads the idea of her coming to visit.

Best bits:
* Cora praises Sybil on her success during the ‘season’ in London. Edith is jealous: “You never say that to me.” “Don’t I?” her mum patronises. “You were very helpful.”
* Robert’s stunned reaction to Cora being up the duff. “I don’t understand what we’ve done differently.” She suggests he go and offer the doctor a whisky.
* The lighthearted subplot about Sybil getting Gwen a secretarial job. Composer John Lunn gamely trots out his plinky-plonky comedy music.
* Carson practicing using a telephone. He accidentally calls the operator.
* Cora loses her unborn baby. “It was a boy,” says Robert, his voice cracking.

Worst bits:
* Upon returning home from weeks in London, Robert asks if there’s any local gossip. Mrs Hughes, aware of the need to shoehorn historical references into the dialogue, replies that everyone’s concerned with the murder of the Austrian archduke. “I’m afraid we haven’t heard the last of that,” says Robert.

Real history:
* The episode is set around the start of the First World War. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) was assassinated in Sarajevo on Sunday 28 June. Thomas reads in the Daily Mirror that the killer, Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), has been arrested. The end-of-series cliffhanger is Britain declaring war after Germany failed to recognise the neutrality of Belgium.
* Violet mentions writer and political activist HG Wells (1866-1946), a pioneer of science fiction amongst much else.

Upstairs, Downton: The First World War broke out in season three of Upstairs, Downstairs. In The Sudden Storm (1974), the servants are on a day out by the seaside there they hear of the declaration.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is not happy with the idea of progress. “First electricity, now telephones,” she says. “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an HG Wells novel.”

Mary’s men: Mary is staying with her aunt in London as the episode begins. She’s not getting many romantic offers because, as Rosamund points out, she’s now seen as a survivor rather than a society debutant. Old pal Evelyn Napier pops round and assures her that he’s not responsible for the gossip about Pamuk’s seedy death. He reckons the leak came from Edith, so Mary later scuttles her sister’s romance with Sir Anthony. At the end of the episode – which is also the end of the first series, of course – Matthew breaks her heart by deciding to leave Downton. She left it too long to answer his proposal.

Doggie! Spotted sat by Robert’s feet when Mrs Patmore is called up to the library to discuss her eyesight.

Review: The outbreak of the First World War hangs over the whole thing, and a number of pointers to how series two will play out are apparent. But domestically the biggest thing that happens here is Cora’s short-lived pregnancy. It’s slightly odd that this subplot is confined to just one episode – she reveals she’s expecting and then loses the child in just 42 minutes of screen time. But it gives the entail storyline a kick up the arse: if she has a boy, Matthew will no longer inherit Downton and Mary therefore might not be so keen to marry him. Then the way Cora suffers her tragedy is also rather shocking. Lady’s maid O’Brien thinks (incorrectly) that she’s about to lose her job, so cruelly engineers an ‘accident’… Downton Abbey is largely a safe, cosy, Sunday-night drama but it’s often very effective when it steps outside that framework and does something genuinely nasty. Elsewhere, lots of other plots are bubbling away – Mrs Patmore gets her eyes fixed, Anna digs into Bates’s secret past, Thomas tries to secure a cushy job for the coming war, and Mary wrecks Edith’s hopes for romance. The cliffhanger – “We are now at war with Germany…” – points to changes coming in the second series.

Next episode…

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