Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 8

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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 Edward Hall. Originally broadcast: 10 November 2013, ITV.

As plans are made for a local bazaar, Isobel urges Tom to go into politics, Anna gets a shock, and Rose continues her taboo relationship with Jack Ross. Also, Edith wants to go abroad to have her baby in secret…

When is it set? Summer 1922. We begin within a day of the previous episode and events take place over a long-ish period. Robert only left for a trip to America in the preceding episode and returns during the church bazaar that closes the season, yet people act like he’s been gone for ages.

Where is it set? The Drewes’ farm. Violet’s house. Downton Abbey and its grounds. Thirsk. The local village. The Lotus Club, Rosamund’s house and a swanky restaurant in London. Mr Mason’s farm.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) returns to the show. We first saw him in at the start of series three when he was embarrassed at a dinner by his boorish son. Now Violet is matchmaking him with a lonely Isobel.

Best bits:
* Anna’s torment is so moving. This week, she has to contend with her attacker, the vile Mr Green, visiting the house again. She tells Mary that it was he who raped her but swears her to secrecy because if Mr Bates finds out he’ll resort to murder. Mary then uses her influence to get Green sacked.
* While in Thirsk, Tom Branson spots Rose having tea with Jack Ross. He tells Mary, who warns Rose off him. Rose, though, then announces that she and Jack are engaged. So Mary travels to London to plead with Jack directly. He sadly accepts that an interracial marriage would cause too many problems…
* Mr Molesley makes an effort at being friendly with Miss Baxter. “I do know what it’s like to feel fragile,” he tells her touchingly.
* Edith comes up with a plan: have her baby in secret and donate it to a local farming family, the Drewes. But Aunt Rosamund suggests they go abroad and give the child to a foreign family. Edith’s plan has much more story potential, so which one will they go with?
* Violet sees through Edith and Rosamund’s plan, calls them to tea and confronts them. The way she’s put the clues together is worthy of Columbo.
* In a lovely piece of subtle direction, Lord Merton asks Isobel about her son while they walk past the churchyard where he’s buried.
* Tony Gillingham shows up at the church bazaar with the shock news that Mr Green is dead. He apparently stumbled into the traffic on Piccadilly… (Wonder if former Downton footman Alfred witnessed it? He now works at the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly.)

Worst bits:
* Edith accompanies Mary and Tom to inspect some pigs solely so she can be in place to hear Mr Drewe the farmer say that he owes the Crawley family a favour.
* The woman Tom Branson met last episode, schoolteacher Sarah Bunting, shows up again. She’s being introduced as both a love interest for Tom and – because she’s a lefty – a way of making him feel guilty about joining the aristocracy. Sadly the character is quite unlikable, so neither plot really works. All she does is make snide comments.

Real history:
* Violet is recuperating after her illness. She says she feels like Dr Manette, a character from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) who was imprisoned in the Bastille.
* Violet and Isobel discuss the Teapot Dome Scandal currently going on in America. Violet spells it out for viewers: “Bribery and corruption. Taking money to allow private companies to drill for oil on government land.” Cora’s brother, Harold, owns one of the companies.
* Robert says that, now he’s returned from America, it’s a relief to be able to drink in public without a policeman pouncing. Prohibition wouldn’t be lifted until 1933.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet says her daughter, Rosamund, has no interest in learning French. “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.”

Mary’s men: She’s more favourable towards Charles Blake now that he’s proved his worth. And she’s impressed when he takes hold of baby George and calms him. He later tells her he won’t let her go without a fight… However, her other suitor, Tony Gillingham, comes to visit and tells Mary he’s planning on dumping his fiancée. She tells him not to on her account: she’s not free.

Doggie! Isis is wandering about at the church bazaar.

Review: There’s an awful lot going on in this longer-than-usual season finale. One of the most interest things is Mr Green’s death. On the day he falls under a bus on Piccadilly, both Anna and Mary are in London and Mr Bates says he was in York, though we don’t see him and he doesn’t tell anyone what he was up to. A murder-mystery is being kick-started, though of course it’s typical Downton Abbey that we don’t see the murder itself.

 

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 7

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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 Edward Hall. Originally broadcast: 3 November 2013, ITV.

A Western Union telegram arrives, calling Robert to America to help his brother-in-law. Also, Mr Bates fears leaving Anna alone, Charles Blake and Mary grow closer, Rose sneaks off to see Jack Ross, and Edith considers an abortion.

When is it set? No earlier than late April 1922. The weather is warm.

Where is it set? The house and its grounds. Violet’s house. The village, including the local post office and the Grantham Arms pub. London, including Rosamund’s house, a stretch of a river and a backstreet abortion clinic. A town hall in Rippon.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* At a political talk, Tom Branson meets a woman (Daisy Lewis) who takes a shine to him. She’s not named in the episode but listed as Sarah Bunting in the credits.
* The talk is given by John Ward MP (Stephen Critchlow).

Best bits:
* Mrs Hughes tries to arrange for Mr Bates to stay in England while Robert goes abroad – she doesn’t want him away from Anna while she’s still delicate. So Mrs H enlists Mary’s help by telling her about the rape. Later, Anna is happy that Mary knows the truth but can’t talk about the attack.
* Edith continues to suffer in silence. She hasn’t heard from Michael Gregson for weeks, though has discovered that he walked out of a hotel in Munich and never came back. She also now knows she’s pregnant with his child but can’t bring herself to tell anyone. She eventually breaks down and confides in her aunt, Rosamund, and adds that she’s planning to have an abortion. Rosamund insists on accompanying her, but in the clinic Edith changes her mind. Her plight is very affecting. It’s a really good performance by Laura Carmichael.
* Mary hears that Charles Blake finds her aloof. “I’m not aloof, am I?” she asks Anna. Anna: “Do you want me to answer truthfully or like a lady’s maid?”
* Rose visits Rosamund in London, but soon sneaks off to meet her secret boyfriend: the black American singer Jack Ross. They have a ride in a rowing boat.
* Mary and Charles Blake go to inspect some of Downton’s pigs and are shocked to discover that the water trough has been knocked over. The pigs are dehydrated and in danger. Charles snaps into action and tends to them with Mary helping. Both get their evening clothes, faces and hands covered in mud. Mary also slips and falls in the mud. When Charles goes to help her up, she says, “I’m fine.” “Suit yourself,” he says, moving away. Once the pigs have been given water, the pair sit down and chat. Charles playfully chucks more mud at her so she smears a handful on his face and they laugh. The sequence is a very fun way to bring the bickering characters closer. It also gets a closing gag: Mary tells Charles that he’s “saved their bacon, literally.”
* Mary and Charles take so long dealing with the pigs that it’s nearly dawn. So Mary takes him to the kitchen and cooks them some eggs. Being a lowly kitchen maid, Ivy is the first servant up each morning and walks in on them. “I’m ever so sorry, m’lady,” she says sheepishly. Mary replies, “Please don’t apologise…” then realises she doesn’t know the girl’s name.
* Rapist Mr Green waltzes into the servants hall, as his master Lord Gillingham is visiting Downton. What a twat. Mrs Hughes later corners him: “I know who you are and I know what you’ve done. And while you’re here, if you value your life, I should stop playing the joker and keep to the shadows.”

Worst bits:
* Violet is feeling under the weather, asks for a glass of water, and puts on a brave face when saying goodbye to Robert because she doesn’t want him to worry about her. Later, Isobel visits her and finds her sweating in bed. Dr Clarkson is fetched and he says pneumonia is a risk. Is the Dowager about to drop dead?! (Nah. She’s okay.)
* Alfred, who left last episode to start a new job in London, pops back for a visit. Mrs Patmore is not happy because his presence stirs up the emotions of kitchen maids Daisy and Ivy. “I grudge him the tears and the heartache that’ll flavour my puddings for weeks to come,” she says, naturalistically.

Real history:
* Cora’s brother, Harold, is currently involved in the US Senate’s investigation into the Teapot Dome Scandal. Leases to drill for oil on government land had been given out in exchange for bribes.
* Isobel tells Tom Branson that the MP John Ward is coming to speak in Rippon. Ward (1866-1934) was a Liberal and a trade unionist. Tom replies that he’s not a fan of the current coalition government, which had been in power since 1918. He adds that Ward is campaigning because David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), the Prime Minister, thinks an election is coming. (It was: in November 1922.) At the talk, Ward discusses the split between Lloyd-George and former Prime Minister HH Asquith (1852-1928) and what it will mean for the Liberal Party.
* Edith tells her mother that Michael Gregson was in Munich to see the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886).
* Edith mentions The Second Mrs Tanqueray, a play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero that was first performed in 1893.
* Rosamund points out that abortion was illegal in the UK in 1922. It was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967.
* Charles mentions Country Life magazine (founded 1897).
* Charles Blake and Tony Gillingham took part in the Battle of Jutland (31 May and 1 June 1916), the first big naval engagement of the First World War. Charles mentions they served on board the Iron Duke with Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1859-1935).

Upstairs, Downton: A member of the Bellamy family headed off on a transatlantic journey in the Upstairs, Downstairs episode Miss Forrest (1973).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Deliriously ill and being tended to by Isobel, Violet says, “I want another nurse. I insist! This one talks too much. She’s like a drunken vicar.”

Mary’s men: She continues to bicker with government surveyor Charles Blake. He’s not backwards in coming forward in telling Mary some home truths about the management of the estate, which irritates her. His pal Evelyn is also sniffing about, but Mary is clearly not interested. Later, with most of the household away, Mary and Charles are forced to spend some time together. She takes him to see the farm’s new batch of pigs (see Best Bits above) and the frost thaws between the two. Then there’s a complication: Tony Gillingham, who recently asked Mary to marry him, comes to visit.

Doggie! After Robert says goodbye to his wife, daughters, ward and mother before leaving for America, he turns to Tom Branson: “Look after all my lady folk. Including Isis.” Then he adds under his breath, “Especially Isis.” 

Review: A very entertaining episode.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 6

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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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 27 October 2013, ITV.

Alfred hears that he’s got a job at the Ritz, Mr Bates has a lot on his mind, Rose arranges a surprise for Robert’s birthday, and Violet sacks a gardener for theft so Isobel fights his corner…

When is it set? Spring 1922. Michael Gregson went to Munich “a few weeks ago”.

Where is it set? The house. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. The Netherby Hotel. A country lane.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* There’s mention of Cora’s brother, Harold (who has yet to appear in the show). He lives in America and has got himself into financial troubles over oil leases.
* Simon Lowe plays a snooty maître d’ at a local hotel.
* Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) is a friend and colleague of Mary’s mate Evelyn. He comes to stay at Downton and is initially a bit brusk. He works for the government, looking into Britain’s farming estates, and rubs Mary up the wrong way by suggesting that national food production is more important than saving the aristrocracy.  

Best bits:
* Poor Edith. At breakfast she asks if there’s any post for her, clearly hoping for word from Michael Gregson. There isn’t. She later makes some phone calls and discovers that he’s vanished into thin air: no one has heard from him since he moved to Germany.
* Young gardener John Pegg calls Isobel ‘your ladyship’. She starts to explain that she’s not a lady, then just says, “Oh, never mind.” Great comic timing from Penelope Wilton.
* Thomas Barrow sees Rose coming out of Mrs Hughes’s pantry. “I wonder why Lady Rose was down here,” he says. Mrs H: “And I’m afraid you will continue to wonder.” She clearly thinks he’s a twat.
* When grumpy Jimmy says he doesn’t know why Alfred is nervous about his new job, Mr Carson swats him down by saying it’s because he’s intelligent. “Only stupid people are foolhardy.”
* Kevin Doyle continues to make every scene featuring Mr Molesley a delight. Having heard that Alfred is quitting, he goes – literally cap in hand – to Mr Carson to say he’s willing to take his place. Sadly for Molesley, Mr Carson is holding a grudge because Mr M once turned the job down.
* Edith gets a letter from her doctor: her symptoms, it says, ‘are consistent with those of the first trimester of pregnancy.’
* Charles Blake makes a good first impression. His relationship with Mary is cliché city – he annoys her, then they get on – but it’s a good performance and he feels like her intellectual equal.
* Rose’s surprise for Robert’s birthday? She’s arranged for a band from a London night club to play at the house. Of course, it’s the band she heard at the Lotus Club two episodes ago… including their African-American singer, Jack Ross. This causes a fuss amongst the lazily racist world of Downton Abbey. “Have you never thought of visiting Africa?” asks Mr Carson. Jack points out that his ancestors left there in the 1790s. As slaves. Embarrassed Carson then switches tacks pointing out that he’s proud of how Britain abolished the slave trade.
* Mary catches Rose snogging Jack Ross.

Worst bits:
* Tom Branson’s long goodbye is still dragging on. He’s going to move to America, he says. Yeah, right.
* Thomas Barrow, meanwhile, is blackmailing Miss Baxter for information. Yawn.
* There’s a rather predictable subplot about things going missing from Violet’s house.
* Anna and Bates go for a meal at local hotel The Netherby, but the maître d’ won’t give them a table simply because they’re not upper class. However, Cora is *coincidentally* eating there, sees the couple, comes over and embarrasses the maître d’ into giving them a table.

Real history:
* Jimmy mentions a new film: The Sheik (1921), which was directed by George Melford. Mrs Patmore says she likes its star Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926). (“He makes me shiver all over,” she says. “What a very disturbing thought,” says Mr Carson under his breath.) However, after Ivy has seen the movie, she reckons Valentino is slithery. She also mentions his co-star Agnes Ayres (1898-1940).
* Mr Carson compares Mr Molesley to ‘Kaiser Bill’ – aka Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – who abdicated reluctantly.
* Mrs Patmore mentions the Norman Conquest of 1066.
* Charles Blake works for David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), the Prime Minister.
* Carson quotes Robert Henley, the 1st Earl of Northington, who in 1763 said: “If a man sets foot on English soil then he is free.”
* Jack Ross and his band perform I’m Just Wild About Harry. The song was written in 1921 by Noble Sissle (lyrics) and Eubie Blake (music) for Shuffle Along, the first successful Broadway show written by and starring African-Americans.
* Cora asks Robert if they’ve ever met “this Senator Fall” that her brother is involved with. Albert B Fall (1861-1944) was a US Senator from New Mexico. In April 1922, it was revealed that he’d granted lucrative oil-drilling rights to his friends in return for $385,000. The furore was known as the Teapot Dome Scandal, named for one of the government-owned oil fields.

Upstairs, Downton: Mrs Hughes mentions the green baize door, the stereotypical threshold in an aristocratic household that divides the servants’ area from the rest of the building. When initially cooked up by actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, Upstairs Downstairs was planned as a comedy called Behind the Green Baize Door. 

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet watches the live jazz band performing in Downton Abbey’s hall: “Do you think any of them know what the others are playing?”

Mary’s men: Two admirers come to stay at the house, Mary’s old friend Evelyn Napier and his pal Charles Blake. She doesn’t get on with the latter and makes some barbs towards him; then they sit next to each other at dinner and he calls her out for being a hypocrite. “You seem to have brought a traitor into our midst,” she later says to Evelyn. Charles, meanwhile, tells Evelyn that he’s not keen on Mary because she wants everything on a plate. “She feels much the same about you,” observes Evelyn.

Doggie! Isis sits with the family as they have an evening drink.

Review: A disposable episode in some ways, though the introduction of Charles Blake shows promise.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 5

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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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 20 October 2013, ITV.

Anna is still refusing to tell her husband why she’s being so distant, Alfred trains for a cookery test at the Ritz Hotel, and Edith makes a secret trip to the doctors…

When is it set? We’ve seriously slowed down now. Early seasons of Downton Abbey took place over a few years each; now, every episode is set just days after the last. So we’re still in mid 1922. It’s been long enough since episode three of this season for Anna to know that her rape hasn’t resulted in a pregnancy.

Where is it set? Outside the Bateses’ cottage. Downton Abbey. Isobel’s house. The churchyard. Violet’s house. The office of Dr Goldman in London. The Ritz Hotel.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) is Cora’s new lady’s maid, hired to replace the short-term Edna Braithwaite (who herself was Miss O’Brien’s replacement). She makes an effort with Cora – bringing her orange juice for breakfast, which reminds Cora of her American youth – and uses a thrillingly modern electric sewing machine. Thomas thinks he can get her to be his mole like O’Brien was, but Miss Baxter has other ideas.
* John Pegg (Joncie Elmore) is a local lad whose family are struggling, so Isobel gets him a job working as a gardener for Violet. There’s a bump in the road when the Dowager suspects he’s stolen a knife, but it turns out she simply misplaced it. (John and his mother actually appeared in the version of the preceding episode that was shown in the US. Their scenes were missing from the UK broadcast.)
* Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is a local farmer at Yew Tree Farm. His father has died owing back rent to Downton, so Robert and the others want to evict the family. But Mr Drewe wants to stay and argues his case. He wins the day – thanks to Robert secretly subsidising him.
* Alfred has a job interview at the Ritz. The sous chef who conducts it is called Arsène Avigno (Yves Aubert).

Best bits:
* Edith is optimistic when the post arrives, but she’s disappointed that there’s no letter from Michael Gregson. Poor Edith.
* Unseen by anyone, Mary’s eyes well up as she writes to Tony Gillingham to congratulate him on getting engaged.
* Edith says she thought Tony was keen on Mary. Mary replies caustically: “Not for the first time you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”
* The charming scene of Tom Branson playing with daughter Sybie.
* Edith visits London, telling people she needs to go to Michael’s office. But then we see her head for a doctor’s office…
* When Bates says he’ll leave because Anna clearly doesn’t love him any more, Mrs Hughes has no choice but to tell him about the rape… Of course, he doesn’t believe the detail that the man was a stranger and assumes it was Mr Green. He then tells Anna he knows what happened and pretends that the matter is at an end. But he later tells Mrs Hughes that nothing is over and nothing is done with…

Worst bits:
* How the Downton estate is run – which tenants to evict, which land to farm – has become a boringly recurring topic of conversation. At least it stops people debating who’ll inherit the house when Robert dies.
* Also dragging now is Tom’s feeling that he’s out of place at Downton. This week he moots moving to America.
* Alfred applying for a new job as a cook at the Ritz? Where’s the fast-forward button?
* Mrs Patmore is sniffy and dismissive about Miss Baxter’s new-fangled sewing machine. Then – guess what? – snags her apron and needs it fixing pronto.

Real history:
* Robert makes a passing reference to George III (1738-1820), who was on the throne from 1760 until his death (with his son as regent for the final decade due to George’s dementia). Violet does the same with the poet Lord Bryon (1788-1824).
* Robert tells Mr Drewe, “It’s no good painting me as Simon Legree,” when the latter is upset at being evicted. Legree is a slave owner in the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harrier Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). His name became a synonym for cruelty.
* Alfred wants to work at The Ritz Hotel. On Piccadilly in London, it opened in 1906. If he gets the job he will be working under the famous chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) while his interview is with Arsène Avignon, a sous chef who really did work at the Ritz. 

Upstairs, Downton: “Mrs Patmore,” asks Cora at one point, “is there any aspect of the present day you can accept without resistance?” It’s because Mrs P is unhappy about an electric sewing machine and a refrigerator now being part of her life. It’s reminiscent of Upstairs, Downstairs cook Mrs Bridges, who also had a distrust of modern gizmos.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Isobel says that Violet cares about the unemployed as much as she does, Violet replies, “Nobody cares about *anything* as much as you do…”

Mary’s men: She reads in the newspaper that her friend Tony Gillingham, who’s been flirting with her over recent episodes, has got engaged and it upsets her. Later, her pal Evelyn Napier turns up on official business: he works for the government and is assessing rural estates’ chances of survival. (He adds that Downton is not under threat.) He says he has a colleague called Charles Blake, who will be staying at Downton soon.

Doggie! Isis bounds into the library at one point.

Review: An episode with a lot going on. Too much, probably. The show’s format has hit peak soap-opera-ness now: scenes are short and terse, and some plots feel short-changed.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 4

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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 Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 6 October 2013, ITV.

Anna is traumatised after her brutal attack, though is refusing to tell her husband about it. Elsewhere, Tom Branson feels out of place, Mary faces an uncertain future, Alfred wants to be a chef, and Michael Gregson prepares to leave for Munich…

When is it set? The episode begins the day after the previous episode ended: a Monday in spring 1922. We then progress over a few days.

Where is it set? The house. The local churchyard. Lady Rosamund’s house, the Lotus Club and Michael Gregson’s flat in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* When a group of characters go to The Lotus, a London night club, there’s an American singer performing there called Jack Ross (Gary Carr). Lady Rose dances with him, which shocks her family… because he’s black.
* After sleeping with Tom Branson, Edna gets a big stalkery. She asks if he’ll marry her if she’s pregnant. But it’s just a rouse to wheedle some money from him, which Mrs Hughes rumbles. Edna loses her job and leaves.
* Michael Gregson leaves for Germany. He intends to write a novel while he waits for citizenship and the ability to divorce his sectioned wife.
* Thomas Barrow has someone in mind to replace Edna. Someone older, he says.

Best bits:
* Anna’s turmoil is so well played by actress Joanne Froggatt. Not only has Anna been through an awful experience, but she feels she can’t talk about it. Her attacker, the vile Mr Green, is also still working at the house.
* Likewise, Penelope Wilton continues to never be anything less than excellent as Isobel, who’s still mourning her son and feels uneasy about Mary getting on with her life.
* Edith spends the night at Michael Gregson’s – it’s their last chance for some rumpy-pumpy before he emigrates – then has to do the walk of shame in the morning. She’s seen by a maid as she creeps up the stairs with her shoes in her hands. Later that morning, Rosamund takes Edith to task. “Please don’t say you were talking and lost track of time,” she says.

Worst bits:
* Various servants are moody at breakfast. “What’s the matter with everyone this merry morn?” asks Thomas. How did the actor keep a straight face during that line?
* Tom Branson and Edna discuss their night of passion – which he now regrets – and are overheard by… that’s right, Thomas Barrow. He’s always nearby when there’s plot-driving eavesdropping to do.
* More stuff about the younger servants fancying each other. Snooze!

Real history:
* The character of Jack Ross is loosely based on Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson (1900-1969), a cabaret star of the 1920s and 30s who was, for a time, the highest paid entertainer in Britain. He had affairs with society women including Edwina Mountbatten (1901-1960), the wife of the current Queen’s second cousin.
* To make sure she won’t get pregnant, Edna reads Married Love by Marie Stopes, a hugely influential 1918 book that openly discussed birth control.
* Edith mentions the story of Lady Warwick ringing the stable bell at 6am so everyone had time to get back to the right beds before the maids and valets showed up. Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick (1861-1938) was the long-time mistress of Edward VII. The 1892 song Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built For Two) was written about her.

Upstairs, Downton: We see an establishing shot of Rosamund’s house in London. It looks remarkably similar to the Bellamys’ gaffe on Eaton Place in Upstairs, Downstairs.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet admits that there are times when Isobel’s virtue demands admiration. Robert says he’s surprised to hear her say that. “Not as surprised as I am,” says Violet.

Mary’s men: When he leaves after last episode’s house party, Tony Gillingham shares a nice goodbye with Mary. She’s still dressing in widow black, but his attentions have brightened her mood. The next day, Mary visits London and is surprised when her aunt arranges for Tony to see her. They dance with each other on a night out, but she tells him she’s not ready for another relationship. The *next* day, though, he follows her back to Downton – hope he gets a good deal on train tickets – and asks Mary to marry him. “It’s no good, Tony,” she says. “I’m not free of [Matthew] and I don’t want to be without him. Not yet.”

Review: This episode has a fine line to tread. By introducing a black character, it must deal with racism. The young, relatively enlightened Rose shows no prejudice, but Mary, Rosamund and Edith all disapprove of her dancing with Jack Ross. Surely that rings true with what would have happened in 1922. However, the episode was made and shown in 2013 – so the nastiness is downplayed. Rosamund makes a pointed reference to Jack being a ‘black band leader’ but openly racist language and attitudes are avoided, which is probably a fudge.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 3

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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 Catherine Morshead. Originally broadcast: 6 October 2013, ITV.

Various guests come to Downton for a house party, including a card sharp, a famous singer, and potential suitors for Rose and Mary. But events take a very dark turn…

When is it set? Spring or summer 1922.

Where is it set? The house and its estate. Isobel’s house. The village.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mr Green (Nigel Harman) is valet to the visiting Lord Gillingham (so due to the conventions of the time is called Mr Gillingham by the other servants). He flirts with Anna, which rubs Mr Bates up the wrong way, then later rapes her while everyone else is watching a concert.
* Anthony Foyle aka Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) comes to visit the house. He knew the Crawley sisters when they were all young. He has an unseen girlfriend, Mabel Lane Fox, but takes a romantic interest in Mary.
* Other guests include the Duchess of Yeovil (Joanna David), Sir John Bullock (Andrew Alexander) and Terence Samson (Patrick Kennedy). Sir John is a potential boyfriend for Lady Rose. Samson is a card sharp who tries to fleece the other men, so Michael Gregson teaches him a lesson.
* Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba (Kiri Te Kanawa) performs at the house. There’s a fuss, though, when snobbish Mr Carson thinks she should eat in her room rather than with the other guests. Robert agrees, but Cora is furious when she finds out. This is a rare instance of Downton Abbey dramatising a real-life figure (see ‘Real history’ below).

Best bits:
* Violet’s being very kind this week. She schools Tom on etiquette, then seeks out an isolated Isobel and insists that she come to the house party.
* The servants discuss card games. “You can’t lose a fortune playing snap,” says Jimmy. “I could,” says Molesley.
* Poor Molesley is seconded as a lowly footman and even has to wear gloves while serving food.
* Carson walks into the kitchen to see chaos. “What’s going on?” he demands. A hassled Daisy says, “Alfred’s making the sauces for the dinner and Mrs Patmore’s having a heart attack!” Carson replies, “I’m not surprised.” (He’s misunderstood: Alfred’s doing the cooking *because* Mrs P is having a heart attack. Well, actually it turns out to be only a panic attack.)
* After Robert is conned by a card sharp, Michael Gregson uses his superior skill at poker to win the money back – and Robert’s respect.

Worst bits:
* Mr Green brutally attacks Anna while everyone else listens to Dame Nellie’s performance. (I place this here in ‘Worst bits’ not because it’s bad storytelling or bad writing or because it shouldn’t have happened. There’s nothing wrong with dramatic things taking place in a drama. But it’s a harrowing thing to see.)
* The Edna/Tom storyline fails to fly. She sneaks into his bedroom late at night but it’s difficult to care.

Real history:
* Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) was a famous Australian operatic soprano. By 1922 she’d been singing all over the world for three decades, so Downton Abbey rather underplays her standing. Experts say she would never have been treated as anything less than a star, even by a snobbish butler. She was also 80 years old (Kiri Te Kanawa was 69) and would not have drunk alcohol before a performance, as she does in this episode.
* Robert is a member of White’s, a gentlemen’s club in St James’s. It was founded in 1693, making it the oldest such club in London.
* Rose says she’s a fan of American singer and actor Al Jolson (1886-1950). She’s got all his records including April Showers, a song Jolson debuted in the Broadway show Bombo in October 1921.
* Violet quotes poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894): “Better by far that you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad.” Isobel points out that Rossetti was talking about her own death, not her child’s.

Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson uses the phrase “north of the park” as a dismissive way of saying an aristo is down on her luck. It was a snobbish idea based on the area of houses north of Hyde Park in London; society people generally lived to the south, in Belgravia. In a 1971 episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, Lady Majorie was aghast at the idea of moving there when the family’s finances had to be tightened.

Maggie Smithism of the week: After she complains about Tom’s dull small talk, Violet is told that not everyone can be Oscar Wilde. “That’s a relief,” she says.

Mary’s men: Mary shares a connection with Tony Gillingham. He’s interested in her; she’s reticent, but they share a dance. Also, despite having a girlfriend, he says he’d like to take Mary out. It don’t take a genius to see where this storyline is going.

Doggie! Isis is spotted sitting in the library. When Robert leaves rather than chit-chat with Michael Gregson, the dog follows.

Review: The conclusion of this episode caused a controversy, with some viewers objecting to a rape occurring on a Sunday night on ITV. This, to me, seems to be missing the point. On a storytelling level it works so well because it’s incongruous. Any rape is shocking, but to have something so savage in the cosy world of Downton Abbey is incredibly effective and affecting drama.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 2

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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 David Evans. Originally broadcast: 29 September 2013, ITV.

A letter Matthew wrote before he died turns up, saying his intention was for Mary to be his sole heir – so she flexes her muscles in the running of the estate. Meanwhile, Mr Bates tries to help Molesley, Jimmy and Alfred clash over Ivy, and Lady Rose takes Anna to a tea dance but it ends with a punch-up.

When is it set? Circa Spring 1922.

Where is it set? The house and the estate. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. Michael Gregson’s flat in London. York Dance Hall. Downton train station.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Sam Thawley (Johnathan Howard) is a bloke who chats up Lady Rose at a local dance. Later, thinking she’s a servant, he turns up at Downton looking for her. Quick-thinking Anna gives Rose a maid’s outfit so she can speak to him.

Best bits:
* Mr Molesley continues to be a fascinating character. His appeal is partly because of an interesting performance by Kevin Doyle, but it’s also because he goes through so many dramas: he’s a character who’s rarely settled. This week, Anna finds him working as a labourer and in severe debt. So Mr Bates arranges for some cash to fall into his lap.
* Annoyed that Mary now has more power over the estate, Robert embarrasses her in front of everyone. Knowing she won’t be able to answer adequately, he says: “There’s a question of using empty farmyards as new sources of revenue. I’d like to know what you feel about that? Crop rotation? Livestock versus cereals? Or indeed the whole matter of the tax.”
* Anna visits Rose’s bedroom and Lady R is playing jazz records. Hashtag the 1920s! Rose’s comedy subplot is a highlight of this episode. When posing as a servant, she even tries to adopt a northern accent.
* In Michael Gregson’s flat, when Edith says she has a train to catch, he asks her to stay and puts a hand on her knee. She’s clearly tempted, but shakes her head. “I will say this,” she adds, “it’s getting harder and harder to say no.”

Worst bits:
* Matthew has been dead for more than half a year, yet only now are his personal possessions from his old job being sent to his widow. This is handy, however, as hidden in a book is a letter Matthew wrote soon before he died. In it he says he wants Mary to be his sole heir. Quite why a healthy, wealthy young man would write this down and hide it, rather than just make out a will, is difficult to fathom. It’s *yet another* example of Downton Abbey’s reliance on the ‘it turns out a dead character said something really important just before they died’ cliché.
* Thomas is shit-stirring. Again.

Real history:
* Jimmy reads in the newspaper that actress Phyllis Dare (1890-1975) is due to perform at York’s Theatre Royal in The Lady of the Rose, “which was the hit musical of the London season.” She was one of the famous Dare sisters; the other was Zena (1887-1975), who by 1921 had married a nobleman and retired from acting. Both sisters lived a long life and died within a few weeks of each other.
* When Michael says he wants to become a German citizen (so he can divorce his wife), Edith says the Royal Family “convulses the nation by ceasing to be German.” King George V changed his family’s name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor in 1917.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet wants Tom Branson to teach Mary about the estate… without Robert finding out. Mary says that’ll be risky. Violet: “There can be too much truth in any relationship…”

Mary’s men: She’s understandably shaken when given Matthew’s letter, though is touched and reassured when she learns its contents. After the family solicitor has had a look at the letter, he says it shows “testamentary intention” (ie, it’s as a good as a will) so Mary does indeed now own half of Downton Abbey.

Review: Thankfully the entertaining subplots – the sweetness of Bates helping Molesley, Edith’s romance with Michael Gregson, Lady Rose’s rebelliousness – overshadow the leaden stuff with Matthew’s letter and yet more young-servants-fancy-each-other scenes.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 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 David Evans. Originally broadcast: 22 September 2013, ITV.

With Matthew dead, Mary is in mourning. Meanwhile, Miss O’Brien abandons the family, someone asks Carson for help, and Michael Gregson considers moving to Germany.

When is it set? A caption tells us it’s 1922. It’s been six months since the previous episode. The story takes place over a few days, one of which is 14 February.

Where is it set? The house and estate. The village, including the church, the post office and Mr Moseley’s father’s house. Isobel’s house. Violet’s house. Rippon. Also a few places in London: a train station (which looks to be St Pancras), Michael Gregson’s home and swanky restaurant The Criterion.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Miss O’Brien does a runner in the night – it’s the first scene of the season and the character has gone before there’s any dialogue – as she’s been headhunted by Robert’s cousin Lady Flintshire. The character is played here by an uncredited extra because actress Siobhan Finneran had left the show between seasons.
* Lady Rose is now living at Downton Abbey, seeing how her parents are off to India.
* Baby George has a nanny called West (Di Botcher). She’s a bit minty towards Thomas Barrow so he makes sure she gets the sack.
* Edna, the maid who caused a fuss in the previous episode, is back and applies for O’Brien’s old job. In a nice bit of plotting, she’s hired before any of the characters who met her last time realise.
* Mr Carson gets a letter from his old friend/music-hall colleague Mr Grigg but throws it away. Mrs Hughes retrieves it from the bin and learns that Grigg is in the workhouse. Carson doesn’t want to help, so Mrs Hughes goes to Isobel. This gives the grieving Isobel someone to focus her attentions on.
* We see Violet’s butler for the first time: the dour, grouchy Mr Spratt (Jeremy Swift).
* Lady Shackelton (Harriet Walter) is a friend of Violet’s. She’s a stuck-up aristo. Violet arranges for Moseley to wait on her, hoping that Lady S will hire him.

Best bits:
* On Valentine’s Day, Anna and Bates share a loving look across the breakfast table as they open their cards. “Who sent you a card?” he teases later. “I don’t know,” she replies. “It’s not signed…”
* Mr Molesley calls on Isobel to ask for his old job back. Violet is there when he arrives and he does a double take.
* Edith’s romance with Michael Gregson is very nicely done: two good, likeable actors with chemistry, and a Downton-style twist of melodrama courtesy of Michael’s dilemma. He can’t divorce his insane wife in the UK, so is considering moving to Germany. If he becomes a German citizen he would be legally able to divorce her. (Also worth mentioning is his flat. It looks like something out of a Poirot episode: there are Art Deco furnishings, then we see a soiree with bright young things.)
* Tom Branson urges Mary to take an interest in something. “I’m interested in George,” she says. “Are you?” he asks. “I will be,” she replies sadly.
* While attempting to embarrass Molesley, Spratt passes him a boiling-hot platter.

Worst bits:
* It’s been a while since the show had to have creaking dialogue where characters tell each other the legal implications of who inherits what. But with Matthew dead, we have to have it explained that his son, George, is the new heir. “Together my grandson and I own five-sixths of Downton,” says Robert as he gets into bed with his wife. “And Mary’s share is only for her life. She couldn’t do much with it even if she wanted to.”
* Now that Bates has stopped caring, and Miss O’Brien has gone, Thomas Barrow has no other servant to bicker with – so he picks on Nanny West. And then the story has a ludicrous climax: Cora overhears West being specifically cruel about baby Sybie.

Real history:
* While acknowledging that workhouses were more or less anachronistic by 1922, Mrs Hughes says the one she visited was like something out of a novel by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).
* Lady Shackleton mentions that “awful Lloyd-George” has just removed land subsidies. David Lloyd-George (1863-1945) was then the Prime Minister. Violet says she wonders whether he’s really German and just pretends to be Welsh.

Upstairs, Downton: A rivalry between the nanny and the other servants also features in the Upstairs Downstairs episode Out of the Everywhere (1972).

Maggie Smithism of the week: After a distraught Mary storms out of dinner, Violet is the one person aware of the servants smirking at the drama. So she moves the conversation on: “This mousse is delicious, Carson…”

Mary’s men: Mary is still in deep mourning after the loss of Matthew. She’s wearing black and moping about; she even refers to her son as an orphan. When Carson attempts to talk to her, she gets defensive and accuses him of overstepping a boundary, then later shouts at her family when they try to help. It’s her grandmother who finally gets through. In a tender chat, Violet says Mary has to choose life or death… By the episode’s end, Mary is again playing a role in the management of the estate.

Review: The episode begins with spooky shots of the house at nighttime as Miss O’Brien flits away unseen. Matthew has been dead for about six months, yet it’s strangely played like he’s only just died. (For example, Molesley is only now worrying about not having a job any more.) There are a handful of lighter subplots, but grief overshadows everything. Actress Michelle Dockery is especially haunted, and the moment when Mary’s frosty façade drops and she sobs into Carson’s arms is very moving. The whole episode then noticeably lightens for its final few minutes – there’s even a shot of the sun breaking through the clouds.

Next episode…

Dracula: The Impaler (2013, Derek Hockenburgh)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The modern day, plus a few flashbacks to the 15th century. We start somewhere in America, then the main bulk of the story is in Transylvania – specifically at Vlad the Impaler’s castle.

Faithful to the novel? This low-budget, straight-to-DVD movie starts with seven friends celebrating the end of high school with a pool party and beer pong. They’re all off to college soon, so decide to go on a holiday beforehand. Based on a dream had by rich kid Adam (Christian Gehring), they decide to visit Vlad Tepes’s castle in Transylvania. They’ve all heard of the fictional Count Dracula, who was based on Vlad, because Bram Stoker’s book exists in this fiction. At the castle, they meet a young woman called Veronica (Diana Busuioc). She plays host and tells them about Vlad (Gregory Lee Kenyon), who in 1476 or so accepted being an immortal vampire as a trade-off for his love Elisabet being spared death. The film soon becomes a slasher-flick: the fat friend (Mark Jacobson) is attacked by weird baldy men caked in mud, the phone-obsessed friend (Rocco Nugent) is impaled, and the blonde friend (Christina Collard) is torn to pieces by Dracula’s Brides-types who appear in that one scene. At the climax, as one survivor is tortured by another, we start to question whether what we’ve seen took place the way we saw it…

Best performance: In tone and performance, the sexy Veronica is not a million miles away from the Red Woman in Game of Thrones. She’s played by one of the movie’s writers, who’s also the wife of the director.

Best bit: When the survivors find two of their friends dead, their reaction is one of violent distress. One character even retches. It’s a nice bit of genuine emotion, which lifts the film above the Scooby-Doo surroundings.

Review: This is a poor film with plenty of blemishes: the cast is variable, the story is muddied, scenes set at night are lit by floodlights, unwanted shadows appear on people’s faces, a scene set on a moving train is filmed with a rock-solid camera and actors sitting stock still… But there are a few things in its favour. For a start, the gang of friends do actually feel like real pals. They swear at each other, have in-jokes and take the piss, which helps set them up for when they go through the various traumas. The script also contains a couple of funny scene transitions and there’s some trippy editing. It’s barely a vampire film, barely a Dracula film, but it passes the time well enough.

Six promise rings out of 10

Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thor must defeat a foe who wants to plunge the universe into eternal darkness. His quest leads him back to Earth and old flame Jane Foster, and also means an uneasy alliance with brother Loki…

Ask a fanboy to name some all-time great bad guys in superhero films and he wouldn’t need to stop playing with himself: one hand is enough to count off Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Terence Stamp’s General Zod, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. But ask him to list mediocre examples and he’d need dozens of tweets’ worth of space. For example, the antagonist in Thor: The Dark World is the spectacularly forgettable Malekith, a Dark Elf who wants revenge for a long-ago defeat and plans to take his anger out on the whole universe. He’s played by Christopher Eccleston, though from under so much prosthetic make-up and with such non-descript alien dialogue that they could have cast anyone. And he’s such a drab, lifeless villain that you wonder why Thor bothers leaving the gym to give him the time of day. As the story gets underway, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is preparing to take over as king of the magical realm of Asgard, but is still pining after Jane Foster, the human woman he met in his first solo film. The current king is still Thor’s dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins); the queen is still Frigga (Rene Russo, given much more to do this time round); and the all-seeing Helmdall (Idris Elba) is still standing guard at that fancy teleport-booth place. Meanwhile, Jane (Natalie Portman, bright and likeable) is in London. She’s on an awkward date with Roy from The IT Crowd – but when her colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings, the comic relief) interrupts, Jane has to leave to investigate a weird time/space portal in a warehouse. Before you know it, she’s been transported to an alien world and infected with a strange space gas called the Aether (ie, yet another meaningless Marvel plot device). It’s bad news for her health, but it does attract Thor’s attention. So he journeys to Earth to see how she is. She responds by slapping him and saying, “Where were you? I was right here where you left me. I was waiting and then I was crying and then I went out looking for you. You said you were coming back.” He replies that the Bifrost bridge was destroyed, the Nine Realms erupted into chaos, wars were raging, marauders were pillaging, and he had to put an end to the slaughter. “As excuses go,” she concedes, “it’s not terrible.” They then travel to Asgard, leaving Darcy and her intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) to break old friend Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) out of a psychiatric facility. Traumatised by the events of Avengers Assemble, you see, he was committed after running around Stonehenge in his birthday suit… As with the first Thor film, there’s a clash of tones going on here: ever-so-earnest scenes on an Asgard full of ceremony and glean and people in capes… versus comedic scenes in the London of the Shard and the Jubilee Line and high-viz-jacketed Metropolitan Police officers. The contradiction is heightened by Thor himself, who switches his attitude depending on which world he’s in. He’s clearly aware of irony on Earth, yet at home talks like he’s in an am-dram Shakespeare. The film’s not a disaster, by any means, and is very watchable at times. But sadly the cross-cutting between worlds doesn’t flow at all, the pace sags in the middle, and because the plot needs so much explaining – it’s something to do with the convergence of planets, which only happens once every five thousand years – everything feels very stodgy. Some action scenes have little meaning because we’re not experiencing them through a character’s point of view, while drama scenes are shot like television, with flat coverage and some epileptic editing. (Darcy’s first appearance, for example, lasts for 66 seconds and contains *35* separate shots. It’s just a scene of three people talking and not moving.) Thank the Nordic gods for Loki, the bad guy from both Thor’s first movie and Avengers Assemble. We see him briefly at the beginning of the story, then the film comes alive at the hour mark when he takes centre stage. Tom Hiddleston’s performance fizzes and pops as trickster Loki has to team up with his brother. In fact, thinking about it, we’re going to need that extra hand – let’s call Loki the sixth great bad guy in a superhero film. It’s just a shame that he’s not *this film’s* bad guy. It could do with him being more than just a subplot.

Six men who’d like their shoes back out of 10

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A self-indulgent appendix: The big action climax of Thor: The Dark World is both set and filmed in Greenwich, south-east London, which is about three miles from where I live. For the Dark Elves’ battle with Thor and his pals, the production team used the beautiful site of the Old Royal Naval College. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712; originally a hospital for seaman, from 1873 it became a Royal Navy training college. The Navy left in 1998, since when the buildings have been both a tourist attraction and a university campus. Over the years, many films and TV shows have shot there: once you clock its architecture and layout, you never stop spotting it. For example, I first visited the site in 2010 specifically to see a filming location from the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games (1992). The scene of Jack Ryan foiling an IRA assassination attempt was filmed at the ORNC, which was standing in for central London. Having been there in person, I then noticed the buildings being used in dozens of other films: Octopussy (1983), Four Weddings and Funeral (1994), The Madness of King George (1994), The Avengers (1998), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Starter for 10 (2006), The Queen (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), The Duchess (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Wolf Man (2010), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Skyfall (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Les Miserables (2012), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), even a spoof Doctor Who episode in 1993. I mention all of this because over the last seven years I’ve been back to the ORNC hundreds of times. I go most weeks for one reason or another: to attend a free music concert in its Chapel, to see a new art exhibition in the visitors’ centre, to show it off to friends, to see the Painted Hall (perhaps the most beautiful room in Britain), for a walk round its grounds, for a pint in its pub. It’s become a very special place to me, as has Greenwich in general. So, when it came to blogging about Thor: The Dark World, I took my laptop there to write the review.