Downton Abbey: Christmas at Downton Abbey


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: 25 December 2011, ITV.

As the household celebrates Christmas, Downton plays host to various guests for a shooting party. Also, Robert learns a huge family secret, Mary reaches a crossroads, while Mr Bates stands trial for murder.

When is it set? The episode begins on Thursday 25 December 1919 and progresses into the early weeks of 1920.

Where is it set? The house. Violet’s house. The prison where Mr Bates is being held. The estate. Sir Anthony’s house. A courtroom in York. Downton’s churchyard. Mr Mason’s farm.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund comes to stay for Christmas and brings her maid, Shore (Sharon Small), who is sniffy and haughty.
* Mr Swire, the unseen father of Matthew’s late fiancée, is ill and not expected to live long. So Matthew has to leave the festive celebrations to visit him before he dies.
* Sir Anthony Strallan pops up again. He’s lost the use of his right arm in the war, but is still sweet on Edith. She makes a move, visiting him and asking him out for a drive, but he nobly turns her down. He says he’s too old and a cripple. “If you think I’m going to give up on someone who calls me lovely….” she says. “You must,” he replies.
* We’re told that, since the last episode, Sybil and Tom Branson have got married and are now living in Ireland. Of the family, only Mary and Edith went to the service. Now Sybil writes to her mother to reveal that she’s pregnant.
* Lord Hepworth (Nigel Havers) is the son of an old friend of Violet’s. He also comes to visit the house and is soon flirting with Lady Rosamund. Everyone assumes he’s a gold-digger… then Anna catches him doing the dirty with Lady R’s maid.

Best bits:
* It’s Christmas!
* Mrs Hughes is dismissive of the other servants playing with a Ouija board. Daisy asks, “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?” Mrs H replies: “I don’t believe they play board games!”
* Robert laments that he’s going to have a Fenian grandchild. “Cheer up,” jokes Cora. “Come the revolution it may be useful to have a contact on the other side.”
* Cora finally tells Robert what really happened the night Mr Pamuk died (a death that took place seven years previously). A little while later, Robert reveals that he knows to Mary. The resulting conversation – Mary admitting that she’s marrying Sir Richard because otherwise he’ll ruin her, Robert telling her to break it off anyway – is one of the show’s best tear-jerking scenes.
* The social awkwardness of the annual servants’ ball: Matthew dancing with Miss O’Brien, Thomas with the dowager, etc.
* At night, as the snow falls, Matthew and Mary take in some fresh air… and Matthew pops the questions. Hurrah!

Worst bits:
* It’s been eight months since the previous episode. And not one of the plots has moved on. Then Mr Bates’s entire murder trial is dramatised in around six minutes.
* Sir Richard asks, not unreasonably, how the family solicitor has managed to arrange for the trial to be held in York. After all, the murder took place in London. “I don’t know,” says Robert. “But thank God he has.”

Real history:
* After Bates is sentenced to death, Anna is told to write a letter to the Home Secretary. “He’s a Liberal, isn’t he?” says Robert. “Pity.” Edward Shortt (1862-1935) had been in the post since January 1919. (The letter works, by the way. The sentence is reduced to life imprisonment.)

Upstairs, Downton: Christmas was celebrated in Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1973 episode Goodwill to All Men. Updown characters dabble with a séance in A Voice From the Past (1972).

Maggie Smithism of the week: After Sir Richard is dumped by Mary and revealed to be a twat, he says goodbye to Violet. “I doubt we’ll meet again,” he says. She replies, “Do you promise?”

Mary’s men: As the episode begins, she’s still with Sir Richard but getting increasingly bored of his boorish attitudes. Her father and Matthew urge Mary to dump him and both men also find out about Mr Pamuk, but neither cares: scandal is better than a lifetime of unhappiness, they say. When Mary does tell Sir Richard the wedding’s off, he doesn’t respond well and gets into a brawl with Matthew. “I presume you’ll be leaving in the morning,” deadpans Robert.

Doggie! Isis barks her enjoyment as the family play ‘the game’ (not charades, as the Dowager points out). Later, Robert is worried when his pooch goes missing – she’s actually been dognapped by Thomas, who plans to ‘find’ her and claim the credit. He locks her in a shed overnight while Robert offers a £10 reward for her safe return (that’s something like £400 in today’s money). But the dog has vanished when Thomas goes to collect her. It turns out a child found her, returned her, and claimed the cash.

Review: Downton Abbey’s first Christmas episode is a feature-length special with no title sequence. A couple of the ongoing storylines have been parked – Sybil and Branson don’t appear, for example – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The big headline plot is Mary and Matthew’s on/off romance, which now reaches a new height. Mr Bates also gets a huge storyline, but he’s mostly off-screen with wife Anna carrying the emotional weight. Elsewhere, Nigel Havers is a fun if underused guest star.

Next episode…

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