Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 20 September 2015, ITV.

Violet is apoplectic when a nearby hospital wants to take over running Downton’s cottage hospital. Meanwhile, a woman tries to blackmail Mary, Edith has problems running her magazine, and Robert considers downsizing the staff.  

When is it set? An opening caption tells us it’s 1925. It’s the hunt season. Robert refers to the “spring/summer ahead.”

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, its estate and the local village. Violet’s house. Dr Clarkson’s office. Michael Gregson’s old flat in London. Mallerton, a nearby country house that’s selling off its contents.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* A young Liverpudlian woman (Nichola Burley) shows up at the house on the day of the hunt and acts coyly when Carson asks why she’s there. She then watches Mary ride along and the two swap looks. Eventually Mary asks who she is and she introduces herself as Rita Bevan. She worked as a chambermaid at the hotel where Mary and Lord Gillingham had a week of secret nookie, and wants a £1,000 for her silence. Mary basically tells her to get lost, so the following morning Rita blags her way into Mary’s bedroom to threaten her; then the next day she tries her luck with Robert. He knew nothing about the dirty weekend, of course, and pays her to bugger off. But he only gives her £50 and gets her to sign a confession, which he’ll hand to the police if she comes back.
* Both Tom Branson and Lady Rose have, separately, moved to America since the previous episode. We’re told that Tom’s in Boston and Rose is in New York with her husband, Atticus.
* A local aristocrat, Sir John Darnley (Adrian Lukis), has fallen on hard times so is selling his large estate and auctioning off his possessions. Robert, Edith, Mary and Cora attend the auction and (for some reason) take Daisy with them – but Daisy can’t resist shouting at the estate’s new owner, who is threatening to evict her father-in-law.

Best bits:
* Having accepted Mr Carson’s marriage proposal, Mrs Hughes – a lifelong spinster, despite her title – is nervous about being intimate with him. Aww, bless. “Perhaps you can keep the lights off,” says Mrs Patmore, trying to help.
* A distraught Anna admits to her husband that she thought she was pregnant but now knows she isn’t; and this isn’t the first time. It’s another very moving performance from the amazing Joanne Froggatt.
* Violet’s bewilderment when Mary announces that she’s going to work as Downton’s agent.
* Mrs Patmore tries talking to Mr Carson about his wife’s fears. It’s comically awkward at first, then becomes very sweet.
* Violet’s maid, Denker, learns that her job is safe but that Downton’s staff is to be reduced. Being a shit-stirrer she gleefully swans over to Downton to tell the servants. When Violet finds out about the indiscretion, she allows Denker to believe that her job is at risk too. “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear,” she confides in Isobel.

Worst bits:
* The argument over the local hospital – Violet and Dr Clarkson wanting it to remain independent, Isobel and Cora advocating an arrangement with a larger institution – is the start of a very dull storyline.
* Rita has waited 12 months before attempting to blackmail Mary.
* Mr Green’s murder investigation drones on into a *fourth* calendar year. The Metropolitan Police are putting a huge amount of time and effort into the maybe-accidental death of a footman. Now, a woman has confessed to killing him but the police think she might be making it up. So while free, Anna and Mr Bates are still on tenterhooks… Then Sgt Willis shows up a few days later to tell them that the confession has been proved genuine. Downton Abbey’s worst long-running storyline is finally over.
* Violet says that Robert seems troubled. “Maybe I am,” he admits. “To be honest, I’m starting to ask myself how much longer we can go on with it all… The household, the servants.” He knows there are only nine episodes left, doesn’t he?!

Real history:
* Rita plans to sell her story to the News of the World, a newspaper published between 1843 and 2011.
* Edith says that she once met the writers Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and Lytton Strachley (1880-1932).
* Mary compares her father to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Italian diplomat who revolutionised political science by codifying amoral behaviour.
* She also refers to The Fall of The House of Usher, an 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
* Spratt mentions The Lady, a women’s weekly magazine since 1885.
* After Daisy has caused a scene at the auction, Carson wants her punished. “I’m sure she regrets it,” says Cora. Carson: “I daresay Guy Fawkes regretted trying to blow up parliament, m’lady, but he still had to pay the price.” Fawkes (1570-1606) was the most famous of the conspirators behind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
* Mrs Hughes quotes Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1650s, who instructed painter Sir Peter Lely to paint him ‘warts and all’.

Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes’s relationship is very reminiscent of Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges in Upstairs, Downstairs – two middle-aged servants who have been friends for decades but romance blossoms.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”

Doggie! The first shot of the episode is of loads of hounds bustling to get free from a pen: Downton is getting ready for a hunt.

Review: The final season begins – and change is afoot. Not only is Robert thinking about reducing the staff at Downton but blackmailer Rita tells Mary that her kind is finished and the working classes are on the way up. Daisy’s father-in-law is also going to be homeless because his farm is being sold by its aristocratic owners.

Next episode…

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