Downton Abbey: The London Season


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 Jon East. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2013, ITV.

The bulk of the family are staying in London for Rose’s coming-out ball, but there’s trouble when she’s caught up in a royal scandal. Meanwhile, Edith is struggling after giving away her daughter, Cora’s mother and brother come to visit, and Tom rekindles his flirtation with local teacher Sarah…

When is it set? About a year has passed since the last episode, so we’re in 1923. Mary visits the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, meaning we’re in June, July or August. 

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. The local village and its pub. A seaside town (filmed in West Wittering, West Sussex). There’s also plenty of action in London, where we visit the Embassy night club; the Royal Academy; Rosamund’s house; Buckingham Palace; Hyde Park; and Grantham House, a large townhouse in London owned by the Crawleys.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Since the last episode Edith has had her baby in secret and returned to her pre-pregnancy size. She gave birth to a girl, then gave her away to a couple called the Schroders in Switzerland. However, the guilt is now unbearable, so she arranges for local famers the Drewes to take the girl instead. She tells Mr Drewe that the child’s mother was a friend who’s died, but he clearly sees through her lie…
* Rose has a new pal called Madeline Allsopp (Poppy Drayton), who is smitten when she meets Cora’s brother. She’s hurt, though, when he thinks she’s only after his money.
* Madeline’s father, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox), attempts unsuccessfully to bag Cora’s rich mother. He frequents the same night club as his daughter and is also a friend of…
* The Prince of Wales (Oliver Dimsdale) is a socialite as well as being heir to the throne.
* Freda Dudley Ward (Janet Montgomery) is the Prince’s mistress. Having befriended Rose, she shows her a private and incriminating letter from the Prince, which is then stolen. Rose arranges for it be to retrieved, so a grateful Prince shows up at a party and dances with her.
* Cora’s mother, Mrs Levinson, appears again and this time brings her son. Harold (Paul Giamatti) hasn’t been to the UK since Cora’s wedding, so Mary and Edith have never met their uncle before. At a party, Madeline takes a shine to him and then later at a nightclub he’s embarrassed into dancing with her. After he accidentally offends her, he arranges a conciliatory picnic near the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. To preserve decorum, Cora and her mother come along too. The relationship doesn’t bloom into romance but rather a sweet understanding.
* Ethan Slade (Michael Benz) is Harold’s upbeat, smiley, American valet. He fancies Daisy and tries to get her a job with Mr Levinson, but she turns him down…
* …so Ivy jumps in, grabs the job instead and leaves for America.
* Terence Sampson, the card sharp who once fleeced Robert, shows up again when he gets invited to a Crawley party. He steals Freda’s love letter from the Prince of Wales, hoping to sell it to the newspapers.

Best bits:
* It’s suggested that Mary will have to share a bedroom with her sister while staying at Grantham House. “I’d rather sleep on the roof than share with Edith,” she says.
* Paul Giamatti is terrific as Harold. His nervy friendship with Madeline is very sweet indeed and there’s also a funny moment when he tries talking to the Prince of Wales like a normal person. When the Prince flounces off, Harold just laughs.
* “Are you excited?” Ethan asks Daisy. “I’m never excited,” she deadpans.
* Frustrated with English stiff-upper-lippedness, Edith says she envies “all those Latins screaming and shouting and hurling themselves into graves.”
* The sequence of Rose being presented to the king and queen is a run of excellent location work on the Mall, beautiful costumes and production design, and the kind of pre-war grandeur that great period dramas can achieve. (There’s also a fun in-joke: the show’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, cameos as the equerry reading out names at the ceremony.)
* Robert says he feels guilty for leaving Isobel behind while they all went off to the Palace. “Why?” asks his mother. “She brought a book with her.”
* When Robert learns that Sampson has stolen a sensitive letter that could embarrass the monarchy, he sets into motion a plan to steal it back. The episode then becomes a caper movie with numerous characters colluding in distracting Sampson with a card game while the letter is retrieved from his flat. (When it becomes clear that someone will have to lie to him, Mary says, “I’ll do it. I don’t mind lying.”) However, the letter can’t be found – Sampson must have taken it with him to the card game. So Mr Bates pickpockets it from his coat.
* The servants’ day by the seaside is lovely. The episode ends with Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson standing in the sea and holding hands. Aww.

Worst bits:
* “Why wasn’t Grantham House sold when Downton was in [financial] trouble?” asks Tom Branson, aware of bloggers who like being snide about plot holes.
* Poor Tom also has another dreary storyline. His sort-of romance with the rude Sarah Bunting – who does nothing but turn her nose up at things – is a slog to sit through.
* Mrs Hughes is gathering unwanted clothes for a local charity and Anna donates an old coat of Mr Bates’s. Mrs H finds a railway ticket in the pocket, which proves that Bates was in London (not York, as he claimed) when Mr Green was killed. Downton Abbey doesn’t do murder mysteries very well at all. The pacing is all wrong, huge details are thrown away, and key events aren’t dramatised. Also, as in this case, the plotting swings on silly coincidences. If you’d bought a train ticket that was crucial for your alibi for a murder, would you leave it in an old coat pocket? At least it leads to some entertaining scenes: Mrs Hughes knowingly questions Mr Bates, who says he hasn’t been in London since the war, then Mary and Bates share some meaningful looks when they discuss the capital.

Real history:
* Mary calls Rose a flapper. Rose denies it. The flappers were socially liberal women in the 1920s who went in for daringly short skirts, bob-cut hair styles, and a love of jazz and parties.
* This episode dramatises a number of real-life people. Edward, Prince of Wales (1894-1972) later became King Edward VIII, but was on the throne for less than a year in 1936. Freda Dudley Ward (1894-1983) was a socialite and Edward’s mistress from 1918 until 1934, when he dumped her for Wallis Simpson. And as part of her ‘coming out’ – an aristocratic ritual for young women – Rose is presented to Edward’s parents, King George V (1865-1936) and Queen Mary (1867-1953).
* Charles Blake tells Mary that he’s not as much as a Robespierre as she assumes. Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) was one of the key leaders of the French Revolution.
* When Cora suggests a servants outing as a thank you for their hard work, Mr Carson wants to take everyone to either the Science Museum in South Kensington “even though it’s not finished” or the Crystal Palace on “its new site at Sydenham Hill.” He’s right about the Science Museum: although first opened in 1857, during the time period of this episode it was moving into new premises and opening section-by-section. But his knowledge of the Crystal Palace – an enormous glass building first constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851 – is more shaky. Yes, it originally stood in Hyde Park. Yes, it was then moved to a new site in south-east London. But that move happened in 1854 – *69 years* before this episode. Carson later also suggests the Royal Institution, the Natural History Museum or Westminster Abbey as places they can visit, none of which is received with any enthusiasm. So they go for a day at the seaside instead.
* Isobel says Violet sounds like the sister of Marie Antoinette. “The Queen of Naples was a stalwart figure,” says Violet, taking it as a compliment. They’re referring to Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples and Sicily (1752-1814).
* Robert makes a reference to the womanising habits of the late king Edward VII (1841-1910). He hopes the current Prince of Wales doesn’t “revive the ways of his grandpapa, winking at every beauty in an opera box.”
* When Jimmy makes a sarcastic comment about his lowly position, Carson says, “Thank you, Wat Tyler.” Tyler (died 1381) led a Peasants’ Revolt against a proposed poll tax, but was killed two days later during negotiations with King Richard II.
* Edith gets word that the missing Michael Gregson got into a fight with a gang on his first night in Munich. “They wear brown shirts and go around preaching the most horrible things,” she says. The Sturmabteilung was the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.
* Violet sarcastically says that the family’s itinerary – an open-air picnic followed by an after-dinner poker game – makes her feel like she’s fallen through a looking glass into Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, an 1862/63 painting by Édouard Manet (1832-1883).

Upstairs, Downton: In this episode of Downton Abbey we meet George V. His father, Edward VII, appeared in a famous episode of the original Upstairs Downstairs (Guest of Honour, 1972), while his son Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-1942) was a semi-regular character in the show’s 2010 revival. Also, this episode’s trip to the seaside for the servants recalls a similar sequence in the 1974 Updown episode The Sudden Storm.

Maggie Smithism of the week: During a tiff with Isobel, Violet asks, “Can’t you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?”

Mary’s men: While she’s in London, Mary gets a visit from Charles Blake. He takes her to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, but is rather miffed that they bump into his rival/friend Tony Gillingham. Both men then attend a party at Mary’s house and continue to woo her. Later, when the Crawleys arrange a card game to distract Sampson, Violet asks why “Mary’s men” are coming. Mary: “Don’t call them ‘Mary’s men’!” On the night itself, Charles Blake accompanies Mary as they search Sampson’s flat; he’s happy to have been asked to help. But she’s still undecided between him and Tony. Her main issue with Charles is that he’s an outsider; not a part of aristocracy. When she tells Tony this, honourable Tony has to admit that Charles is secretly heir to a baronetcy and a large fortune. Mary goes to find Charles at the ball and they dance…

Doggie! In London, Robert says he wishes Tom would travel down from Yorkshire… because he’s going to bring Isis with him and Robert misses her. We later see the dog with Tom while he shows Sarah the inside of Downton Abbey, then getting into a car with Tom as they head for London. Once they arrive, Robert is happy to see the pooch.

Review: This feature-length Christmas special is mostly set in London with the roaring twenties in full swing. Light on its feet and packed full of both frothy escapism and character substance, this is probably Downton Abbey’s finest episode.

Next episode…

One thought on “Downton Abbey: The London Season

  1. You write, “Light on its feet and packed full of both frothy escapism and character substance, this is probably Downton Abbey’s finest episode.”. I have to agree. I have been binge-watching the series, and I was starting to tire of the predictable story lines and one-dimensional characters. THIS, though, was fun to watch. It has revived my anticipation for the rest of the story.


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