Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 1

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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 Ashley Pearce. Originally broadcast: 18 September 2011, ITV.

In the midst of the First World War, Matthew is away at the Front but returns to Downton on leave… with a new fiancée. Also, Sybil decides to train to be a nurse, William wants to join up, and Mr Bates proposes to Anna… But then his estranged wife arrives to blackmail him.

When is it set? The Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916) is underway. So around two years have passed since the end of series one. Mr Carson says it’s getting dark earlier each evening, so presumably it’s the autumn.

Where is it set? The British trenches at the Somme. Downton Abbey. The village. Isobel’s house. A hospital in York. We also see, for the first time, Downton’s local railway station. The filming location for the latter was Horsted Keynes, a preserved station in Sussex that closed in 1963. It’s also been used in episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, as well as films such as Wind in the Willows (1997), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) and The Woman in Black (2012).

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is the new housemaid. She’s been hired to replace Gwen, who left at the end of series one. Having been a head housemaid in her previous job – “You were the senior maid out of two!” chides Mrs Hughes – she resents being told what to do and is quite grumpy. So the other servants take against her.
* Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) is Matthew’s new fiancée, who he brings to Downton to meet everyone. “Well,” says the Dowager when she first sees her, “I suppose looks aren’t everything.”
* Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) shows up at Downton unannounced – not long after her estranged husband, Mr Bates, has proposed to Anna. She used to work for Robert’s cousin, and while there heard the gossip about Mary and Mr Pamuk. She uses this information to blackmail her husband into quitting his job and returning to London with her.
* William’s father is mentioned for the first time; we learn than Mr Bates’s mother has recently died; and newspaper owner Sir Richard Carlisle is also discussed.

Best bits:
* A distraught Sybil, stuck at Downton while her friends go off to war, has a line that quietly sums up her character’s inner turmoil: “Sometimes it feels like every man I’ve danced with is dead.”
* When offered a white feather by some protesters, Branson simply smirks and says, “I am in uniform,” meaning his chauffeur’s outfit.
* Just to wind her up, Mrs O’Brien cons Ethel into bursting into the drawing room and embarrassing herself. She also tricks her into checking the electric plug sockets for vapours.
* Knowing the only way to get sent home from the war is via an injury, Thomas sticks his hand up above the trench and a German shoots at it.

Worst bits:
* After four years of flirting and actual declarations of love, Mr Bates asks Anna to marry him. (He’ll soon be a free man, he thinks, because his wife will grant him a divorce.) It’s all very sweet, but the dialogue draws attention to the fact that Anna hasn’t started calling her beloved by his first name yet!

Real history:
* The opening sequence sees Matthew at the Battle of the Somme.
* Robert has been recommended for a colonelcy with the North Riding Volunteers by General Douglas Haig (1861-1928), commander of the British Expeditionary Forces from late 1915 until the end of the war. When Cora says Robert can’t go back into active service, he says, “Churchill went back to the Front after the Galliopi business. If he can do it why shouldn’t I?” Winston Churchill (1874-1965) had been First Lord of the Admiralty until losing his job after the Gallipoli Campaign, which was a disaster for the British and their allies. He then became the commander of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers before returning to the Government.
* During a fundraising concert at Downton, gatecrashing women hand out white feathers to the men, calling them cowards – a practice common in the era. Robert reacts angrily and kicks them out.
* Ethel reads an issue of Photoplay, an American film magazine founded in 1911, specifically an article about movie star Mabel Normand (1892-1930).
* Violet says “great aunt Roberta… loaded the guns at Lucknow” – ie, the siege of the city of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Upstairs, Downton: The fourth – and best – series of Upstairs, Downstairs was set during the First World War. A number of its stories are being echoed here: the heir going off to the Front (and refusing to talk about it when he comes home for a visit), a young female family member mourning the deaths of her friends (and then choosing to become a nurse), an older man frustrated that he can’t serve abroad, a footman who thinks he should join up…

Maggie Smithism of the week: The Dowager is happy to hear she’ll be present when Mary and Matthew see each other for the first time in ages. “That’s a relief. I hate Greek drama. You know, when everything happens off-stage.”

Mary’s men: When Lady Mary returns from some time in London, her sister Edith takes great delight in telling her that Matthew has a new fiancée. Mary affects not to be bothered and says she’s met her own new man: a media baron called Richard Carlisle. (Once out of sight of her family, however, she bursts into tears.) She later puts a brave face on when Matthew introduces her to Lavinia.

Doggie! Robert’s Labrador is seen in the kitchen at one point – Mrs Patmore gives it some leftover pancakes, moments after telling Edith that there were none left.

Review: A big pre-titles action scene kicks off series two: we’re deep in the mire of the Somme, surrounded by death and hardship and Saving Private Ryan-style camerawork. It’s very different from the domesticity of the first series and is a great attention-grabbing jolt. In fact, this episode is all about change and new directions. A couple of years have passed since we last saw the characters and many of them are in new situations. Matthew and Thomas are at war, of course, while Edith is learning to drive, Sybil wants to be a nurse, and Anna and Bates are planning marriage.

Next episode…

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