Downton Abbey: series 3 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 Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 16 September 2012, ITV.

As Mary and Matthew prepare for their wedding, Anna is still trying to prove her husband’s innocence. Also, Robert learns that the family finances are in dire straits, Sybil and Tom return to Downton, and Cora’s mother comes to visit…

When is it set? Spring 1920. Cora’s mother arrives in the country on the 15th of the month.

Where is it set? The village. The local church. The house. The dowager house. The prison. London, specifically Chancery Lane. Isabel’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Alfred (Matt Milne) gets a job at Downton thanks to his auntie, Miss O’Brien. Carson thinks he’s too tall to be a footman and doesn’t like that he used to be a waiter in a hotel. He’s essentially William’s replacement in the line-up, even though William left about five years ago.
* A childhood pal of Sybil’s called Larry Grey (Charlie Anson) comes to dinner. He’s a total twat who bullies Tom and spikes his drink.
* Larry’s father, Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), also attends the dinner and is aghast at his son’s behaviour.
* Bates has a new cellmate called Craig (Jason Furnival). He’s a cynic who rubs Bates up the wrong way.
* Cora’s caustic and confident mother, Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), arrives from America. She doesn’t actually show up until the 43-minute mark.
* Mrs Levenson’s maid is a fusspot called Reed (Lucinda Sharp).

Best bits:
* Sir Anthony Strallan pops up again. Not only is his guarded flirting with Edith very sweet, but actor Robert Bathurst lifts the character off the page.
* Also good to see Mr Molesley getting more screentime. He’s worried what will happen to his job after Matthew marries. Matthew doesn’t intend to take Molesley with him to the big house…
* Sybil and Branson return to the country for the first time since they left to get married – Cora nervously calls her new son-in-law ‘Tom’, while Carson is not happy having a former servant as a guest. Yay for Isobel, though, who defends him at the dinner table when the others are criticising him for not having the right clothes. In another nice touch, Matthew and Branson make a friendly connection: not only are they going to be brothers-in-law, but they both started as outsiders. Matthew even asks Tom to be his best man (bit unbelievable, this).
* On the morning of Mary’s wedding, Cora asks her daughter if there’s anything she needs to know – ie, about sex. Mary rightly points out that she knows more about it than Cora had on *her* wedding day.

Worst bits:
* We get some more of the perfunctory plotting that Downton Abbey enjoys so much. First we learn that the lion’s share of Cora’s fortune is lost after Robert made a bad investment. Then, in a separate scene, Matthew is stunned to find out that he might inherit a huge amount of money from his late fiancée’s father. Can you guess where this storyline is heading?

Real history:
* Anna makes passing reference to the king, George V (1865-1936).
* Mary says Mr Carson’s motto is “be prepared”. Violet tells her that Baden Powell has stolen it. Former army officer Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) formed the Boy Scouts Association and the Girl Guides.
* Isobel asks Tom Branson what he thinks of “new Act”. The Government of Ireland Act was then making its way through the British Parliament. It proposed to divide Ireland into two subdivisions: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The plan at this point was for both to remain within the UK, but the latter formed an independent country in 1922.

Upstairs, Downton: The daughter figures of the Upstairs, Downstairs household got grand weddings in the episodes For Love of Love (1972) and Whither Shall I Wander? (1975).

Maggie Smithism of the week: She asks new footman Alfred, “Are you really that tall?”

Mary’s men: She’s preparing to marry Matthew and is happy – until she finds out that a) Downton’s capital has been lost, and b) Matthew won’t rescue the estate by accepting the cash from his late fiancée’s father’s will. For a while it seems the wedding might be off, but then the couple have a late-chat night and make up with a kiss. The episode ends with the wedding ceremony. Mary looks scrumptious.

Review: Yes, they really did cast Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother: a sure-fire sign that Downton Abbey was, by this point, a global hit.

Next episode…

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