Downton Abbey: The Finale

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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 Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2015, ITV.

The end approaches… Mr Carson is forced into early retirement… Thomas and Molesley are offered new jobs… Isobel learns that Lord Merton has pernicious anemia… Henry and Tom go into business together… And Edith and Bertie reunite and get engaged, but his mother poses a problem… 

When is it set? The first 55 minutes of the episode take place in September 1925, then we cut to 29 December and the following few days for Edith and Bertie’s wedding. Downton Abbey draws to a close in the early hours of 1 January 1926 – fictionally speaking, nearly 14 years after the events of the first episode.

Where is it set? Downton and its estate. The village. The countryside. Lord Merton’s house. Edith’s flat and the Ritz restaurant in London. Bertie’s ancestral home. Violet’s house. Downton’s hospital.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge) is Bertie’s severe mother. When Edith, Robert and Cora go to meet her for the first time, they find a woman who clearly means to be the puppet master for her newly ennobled son. She also disapproved of the previous Lord Hexham – Bertie’s cousin, who was gay – and wants her son to be a moral leader. So when Edith tells her about having an illegitimate daughter, Lady P assumes the marriage won’t now go ahead – but Bertie has other ideas and puts his foot down. So at a dinner party, Lady Pelham announces that Bertie and Edith are to marry, then tells Edith she admires her honesty and character.
* Thomas Barrow finally leaves Downton to work as butler in the house of Sir Mark Stiles (James Greene). But it’s a quiet, soulless household and he doesn’t enjoy it.
* Lady Rose and Atticus return from America for the wedding. We haven’t seen them since the previous Christmas special, which was set about a year before this one. They’ve had a daughter, Victoria, in the interim, but haven’t brought her with them.
* Rose’s father also shows up for the wedding.
* Anna gives birth to a son.

Best bits:
* “Is Daisy interested in men?” asks Andy. Mrs Patmore laughs: “What are you implying?” He just meant because she’s so focused on her studies.
* When Thomas tells everyone that he starts his new job on Monday, Mr Bates begins to say something either sarcastic or cutting: “Downton Abbey without Mr Barrow-” but then Anna touches his arm and says, “Nothing ungenerous.”
* Rosamund takes Edith to the Ritz… where they find Bertie at the table. It’s a set-up, arranged by Mary. He wants her back. He says he couldn’t live without her. She points out that he’s done a good job of it recently. He asks her to marry him; he’s ready for the gossip a secret stepdaughter may bring.
* Edith later phones home. Robert takes the call then says to his wife she’ll never guess what’s happened. “She’s pregnant again?” asks Cora. “She’s been arrested for treason?”
* Thomas Barrow has a couple of touching farewell scenes before he leaves for his new job.
* Isobel’s subplot: previously, Lord Merton’s son and daughter-in-law wanted to fob him off on Isobel, but now he’s terminally ill they don’t want her involved. Isobel is distraught, so she and Violet march round to the house and insist that he come home with them; Isobel also agrees to marry Lord Merton. (There’s then a happy ending: Merton’s anaemia was misdiagnosed and is not fatal. Yay!)
* Mary and Edith agree to make more of an effort to be nicer to each other. No melodrama or unrealistic reunion; just two sisters conceding that they’ve both made mistakes.
* After we jump forward three months, Anna is heavily pregnant and says she’s due in 10 days. But her waters break on the day of the wedding.
* Carson’s illness – shaking hands inherited from his father – means he has to resign from position of butler. Robert decides to ask Thomas Barrow to return from his new job to take over.
* The long-running and tedious hospital subplot gets a nice capper: Rose arranges for Robert to witness Cora running a public meeting about the changes and he sees how well she’s doing the job.

Worst bits:
* A few episodes ago, Andy couldn’t read. Now he’s doing the accounts for Mr Mason’s farm. Similarly, despite episode after episode of him showing no interest, Andy has now developed a fancy for Daisy.
* The silly story about butler Spratt masquerading as an agony aunt continues: Edith comes to visit and offers to increase the size of his column.

Real history:
* Edith and Rosamund go for a meal at the Ritz, a hotel on Piccadilly in London that opened in 1906.
* When Robert has a moan, Cora says she doesn’t need the Gettysberg Address – a speech given by US President Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of a cemetery.
* Henry says he wants to be worthy of Mary – “and I know I sound like Bulldog Drummond”, a fictional adventurer created by HC McNeike for a novel in 1920.
* Violet compares her maid, Denker, to the Biblical figure Salome.
* Mrs Patmore says, “Hark at you, Becky Sharp,” when Daisy talks about how Edith will become a marchioness. Sharp is the lead character of Vanity Fair (1847-48), a novel by William Makepeace Thackery.
* Having learnt about Spratt’s double life, Denker compares him to the lead character of Strange Case of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel.
* Daisy uses Lady Mary’s new electric hairdryer but makes a mess of it, so Anna styles her hair. Daisy then asks how she looks. “Like Clara Bow,” says Andy, referring to the silent-movie star who lived 1905-1965.

Upstairs, Downton: Edith’s complex relationship with her mother-in-law-to-be echoes Georgina’s storyline towards the end of Upstairs Downstairs.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is asked what she thinks makes the English the way they are. “Opinions differ,” she replies. “Some say our history. But I blame the weather.”

Mary’s men: She’s now a married woman again, though Henry is at a crossroads: since his mate Charlie’s death in a crash, he’s gone off racing driving. So he and Tom cook up an idea: they open a used-car dealership together. Mary is so proud when she finds out that she reveals her news: she’s pregnant.

Doggie! Robert’s new puppy, Tiaa, is in the opening scene as he and the family go for a walk. Then a few more times throughout the episode.

Review: And relax…

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Downton Abbey: series 6 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 David Evans. Originally broadcast: 8 November 2015, ITV.

Edith is torn over whether to tell Bertie about her secret daughter, then he becomes a marquess. Also, Violet has gone away, while Mr Molesley begins work as a teacher.

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton and its estate. The local village. Isobel’s house. Mrs Patmore’s B&B. The Bateses’ cottage. Lord Merton’s house. The office of Edith’s magazine in London. Downton’s church and churchyard.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Although we’ve never seen him on screen, Bertie’s cousin the 6th Marquess of Hexham has died of malaria while in Tangiers. (He went there often, we’re told. And was unmarried.)

Best bits:
* There’s a throwaway subplot about Mrs Patmore’s B&B: her first ever paying guests turn out to be a couple having an affair and now the cuckolded husband is suing for damages. Mrs P is aghast but her colleagues and the family just find it funny.
* Bertie worked as his late cousin’s agent, so Mary assumes he’ll now be out of a job. But then Edith informs her that Bertie has inherited the title. If Edith marries him now, as he desires, she’ll outrank all her family in the aristocratic hierarchy. Mary is consumed with seething jealousy and things turn nasty when she deliberately forces Edith to tell Bertie that she has a daughter.
* Edith’s whole dilemma is very engaging. After the secret is spilled, she’s fearful that Bertie will dump her. He says he’s not sure if he can spend his life with someone who doesn’t trust him, and they part – assuming they’ll never see each other again.
* There’s then an electric scene between the two sisters, as Edith tells Mary some home truths. “I know you,” she says. “I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch.”
* Thomas Barrow gets another rejection letter in his quest to find a new job, then is uncharacteristically kind to Mr Molesley. Miss Baxter deduces that something is very wrong – and she and footman Andy find Thomas in the bath with his wrists slashed.
* Mary tearfully admitting that she can’t face being a “crash widow” again. A few scenes later, she visits Matthew’s grave to explain that she’s fallen in love again. All very moving.

Worst bits:
* Bertie plans to fly to Tangiers, and Robert says that now commercial airlines are operating “we’ll all be flying hither and thither before too long.” It’s Rosamund’s turn to complete the cliche by poo-pooing something that we viewers know will become true: “I rather doubt that,” she laughs.
* Isobel’s storyline with Lord Merton’s manipulative daughter-in-law is all a bit clunky. It feels like the meat of the plot has been moved to the wife because the actor who played the twatty son is unavailable.
* In the last episode we learnt that an agony-aunt columnist for Edith’s magazine, Cassandra Jones, was using a pseudonym. Now it’s revealed who it really is: Mr Spratt, Violet’s dour butler. What a silly development.
* After a lot of build-up, Mary’s wedding comes along very quickly indeed.

Real history:
* Bertie says his mother makes Mrs Squeers – a character from Charles Dickens’s 1838/39 novel Nicholas Nickleby – look like nursing pioneering Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).
* When Mr Molesley begins work as a teacher, his first lesson covers the period between the English Civil War of 1642 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Later he talks about King Charles I (1600-1649) and the Divine Right to Rule.

Mary’s men: She hasn’t see Henry for a while and doesn’t know whether to pursue him. Their different backgrounds are an issue for her, bt Tom points out that she and her first love, Matthew, also had different upbringings. Then Henry shows up at Downton – Tom has illicitly invited him. Mary is angry, but Henry won’t give up. Then she’s upset when he leaves (women!) and despite everyone saying that Henry is right for her she refuses to admit it. So Tom writes to Violet and asks her to return from her overseas trip. When she’s back she’s able to talk some sense into her stubborn granddaughter. Eventually Mary telegrams Henry asking to see him, then tells him she wants to spend her life with him. They agree to get married… the following Saturday! She becomes Lady Mary Talbot.

Doggie! Robert’s new Lab puppy, Teo, sits in a basket in the library.

Review: An episode dominated by Mary and Edith’s rocky romances.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 6 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 David Evans. Originally broadcast: 1 November 2015, ITV.

The Dowager Countess decides to leave for the south of France, Thomas Barrow feels pressured to find a new job, and tragedy strikes when the family attend a motor-racing meeting…

When is it set? 1925. Daisy’s imminent exam is on the 20th, while Isobel is invited to the wedding of Lord Merton’s son on Saturday 29 August.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Lord Merton’s house. Edith’s magazine office in London. Rosamund’s house. Brooklands racing circuit. The Carsons’ house. Mrs Patmore’s new B&B.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Charlie Rogers, Henry’s racing-driver mate, is killed in an accident during a race.

Best bits:
* Daisy says, “Oh, my God!” when she’s told her exam has been set for the 20th of the month. Mrs Hughes tells her not to take the Lord’s name in vain. “I hope it’s not in vain,” says Daisy. “I need all the help I can get.”
* Violet visits Miss Cruikshank, the fiancée of Lord Merton’s son, in order to root out what she’s up to. Miss C makes the mistake of trying to shit a shitter… Turns out, the only reason she wants Isobel to marry Lord Merton is because she, Miss Cruikshank, doesn’t want to look after him in his dotage.
* The sequence at Brooklands racetrack is very impressive. There’s a meticulously art-directed location, lots of extras and lots of period cars. Henry Talbot and his friend Charlie are competing in a race. “Come on, Talbot!” Robert shouts during the race. When his sister points out that Talbot is a type of car, he says he can’t shout out, “Come on, Henry!” because they might all be called Henry for all he knows. Everyone seems to be having a great time, but then there’s a crash and Charlie is killed.
* Having taken an exam after impressing the local schoolteacher, Mr Molesley is offered a teaching job. The way actor Kevin Doyle plays the reaction is very touching.
* Sick of her husband’s constant complaints about her cooking and housework, Mrs Hughes feigns a hand injury so he has to do it all. (The effort of making dinner is so bad he falls asleep while eating.)

Real history:
* While in London, Edith goes past the site of Devonshire House. Something new is going up in its place. On Piccadilly, the grand London residence of the Dukes of Devonshire was built in the middle of the 18th century but demolished in 1924. (There’s now an office building on the site.)
* Robert mentions the Egyptian queen Tiaa, who lived during the Eighteen Dynasty (1549 BC to 1292 BC). She was the wife of Amenhotep II and the mother of Tuthmose IV.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is going to see Miss Cruikshank, who Isobel says is a “quite a tough nut”. Violet: “And I’m quite a tough nutcracker.”

Mary’s men: When Mary asks maid Anna what she thinks of Henry Talbot, Anna says she’s not sure if he’s a good match for her. Mary seems to agree. A few days later, Mary and Henry kiss when she attends a race he’s driving in, but her stomach is in knots because the fast cars are reminding her of late husband Matthew, who died in a crash. Then during the race there’s an accident elsewhere on the track – fearing the worst, Mary runs to the cars. Her relief when she sees that Henry is alive confirms that life with him would be too painful. She calls off their relationship, but it’s clear she loves him.

Doggie! Before she leaves for the a visit to the continent, Violet arranges a present for her son: Robert is given a puppy, who he names Tiaa.

Review: One of the major characters, Violet, who must be well into her 80s, leaves for a trip to France without saying goodbye – will this be the last we ever see of her?

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 25 October 2015, ITV.

In order to raise some money for the local hospital, an open day is held at Downton Abbey. Also, Daisy sits her exams, Mr Molesley is offered a new future, and Robert recuperates after his burst ulcer.

When is it set? It’s been a few weeks since the previous episode. Downton opens its doors to the public (for a sixpence each) on Saturday 6 June 1925; the episode begins a few days beforehand.

Where is it set? The village. The house. Violet’s house. Mr Mason’s farm. The Carsons’ cottage. The Bateses’ cottage. Lady Rosamund’s house and the Criterion restaurant in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord Merton brings his daughter-in-law-to-be, Miss Cruikshank (Phoebe Sparrow), to see Isobel. Knowing that his son is the main reason Isobel won’t marry him, Merton hopes Miss C can ease the troubles.

Best bits:
* Mr Carson is irritating his new wife by suggesting they get some help in their home and telling her to ask Mrs Patmore for cooking advice. She bites her tongue but is clearly angry with his arrogance.
* Mary says she’s having dinner at the Criterion with her friend Evelyn. Edith interrupts: “I used to go to the Criterion with Michael.” Mary: “Do you have to put a dampener on every restaurant in the capital?”
* Thomas Barrow is secretly teaching Andy to read, but Mrs Patmore overhears them planning to meet in a bedroom and gets the wrong idea. Later, Mr Carson sees Andy coming out of Thomas’s room and confronts Thomas, who’s hurt by everyone doubting his intentions.
* Mary wears yet another stunning 1920s frock and headdress while at the Criterion.
* Edith introduces her ‘ward’, Marigold, to new beau Bertie, and it’s clear she desperately wants to tell him that she’s her daughter.
* The open-house sequence is fun, especially in the way the family have to act as tour guides despite their shaky knowledge. Visitors ask questions they can’t answer and point out features they’ve never spotted before. A young lad by even wanders into Robert’s bedroom and starts chatting to him.

Worst bits:
* We’re glibly told the result of the trial Miss Baxter was going to testify at. The man has been given 10 years, but then writes to Miss Baxter asking her to visit him. Yet another mostly off-screen plotline.
* The climax of the hospital subplot sees Downton’s institution taken over by York and Cora appointed the new president of the board. Yawn.

Real history:
* Robert says the house has in its collection “a decent Reynolds, a couple of Romneys and a Winterhalter.” He’s referring to painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), George Romney (1734-1802) and Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873).
* Isobel says that even “Elizabeth Bennet wanted to see what Pemberley was like inside”. Bennet is a character in Jane Austen’s 
1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.
* Carson mentions the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Robert replies that he knew his wine and women.
* We’re told that Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), the architect who built the Houses of Parliament, also designed Downton Abbey.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Why should anyone pay,” asks Violet, “to see a perfectly ordinary house?” She’s talking about the palatial Downton Abbey.

Mary’s men: She heads to London to see her old pal Evelyn, who arranges for Henry Talbot to be at a big group dinner. Mary and Henry leave together and she tells him why she’s cautious of him: he’s a racing driver, and her first husband died in a car crash. It then rains – instantly, like in a film – so they take shelter… and kiss. He says he’s falling in love with her.

Review: The end is in sight – the ‘open day at Downton’ storyline foreshadows the kind of future some of these stately homes had in store.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 18 October 2015, ITV.

The Minster of Health, Neville Chamberlain, comes to visit. But while Violet tries to get him onside, tragedy strikes… Also, the Carsons’ marriage hits a hurdle, Mary and Edith’s love lives move on, and Daisy gets the hump when Mr Mason and Mrs Patmore grow closer.

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey and its estate. Yew Tree Farm. Violet’s house. The village. A courthouse in York. Catterick race track and a nearby pub. A park and Edith’s office and flat in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mr and Mrs Drewe have left Yew Tree Farm; in their place comes Daisy’s father-in-law, Mr Mason.
* Miss Edmonds (Antonia Bernath) applies for the job of editor at Edith’s magazine. In the interview, Edith points out that they were born in the same year (1892).
* Neville Chamberlain (Rupert Frazer), the Minister for Health, comes to dinner.

Best bits:
* The opening scene sees Mary and Tom walking up a rise that allows the director to show off the amazing countryside around Highclere Castle.
* Downton Abbey has a rare foray into dramatizing a real-life person: the Minster for Health, Neville Chamberlain, is on inspection tour of the north of England so the Dowager invites him to Downton. She wants to bend his ear about the local hospital.
* The Bateses ask Andy why he’s always giving Thomas the brush-off when Thomas tries being friendly. He says he’d rather not say when there’s a lady present, and Mr Bates and Anna share knowing smile. (He’s basically scared of giving gay Thomas the wrong idea.) Later, when Andy wants to learn about pig-rearing, Mr Mason gives him some books… but it soon becomes clear that Andy can’t read. And who realises and helps him? Thomas. Aww.
* Mrs Hughes tells Mrs Patmore that Mr Carson was unhappy with a meal she’d prepared. “I think the correct response is to say, ‘Men!’ and sigh,” replies Mrs P.
* Miss Baxter turns up at court to testify against the man who once coerced her into stealing some jewels, but then learns he’s changed his plea to guilty. She’s been spared having to appear on the witness stand, but she’d built herself up to face the man and it feels a bit anticlimactic. “Shall I go back in and ask him to plead not guilty after all?” jokes Mr Molesley and they laugh.
* Edith and Bertie’s romance begins to blossom: he even kisses her. “God, what a relief,” he says when she reacts well. “I thought I might be pushing my luck.” The storyline has two likeable actors, and the fact Bertie doesn’t know Edith has a secret daughter informs everything.
* The motor-racing scenes are fun: 1920s cars roaring round the track.
* Robert has been feeling painful twinges for several episodes. He says it’s just indigestion. But during a lively discussion over dinner, he’s clearly suffering terribly. He stands shakily… then violently projects blood from his mouth! Downton Abbey becomes a horror movie for a few minutes! (His ulcer has burst.)
* Mary overhears a cryptic conversation about secrets and Marigold…

Worst bits:
* At last the Andy/Thomas subplot develops. For about 27 episodes now, there’s a moment where Thomas Barrow tries to be friendly to footman Andy and Andy brushes him off. It was getting so tedious.
* “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?” asks Mr Carson, aware of how repetitive the show has become.
* Oh, Christ – the hospital subplot. There’s also a rather silly sub-subplot where Violet’s maid, Denker, gives Dr Clarkson a piece of her mind so Violet temporarily sacks her.
* Tom Branson – a defender of the Bolsheviks and violent Irish nationalists – is now hobnobbing with a Tory minister.

Real history:
* Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) comes to Downton. When Violet, Isobel and others argue in front of him, he says he didn’t expect to witness a battle royal. “Don’t you enjoy a good fight?” asks Violet. “I’m not sure I do, really,” he replies. It’s an in-joke: 15 years after this time, when Prime Minster, Chamberlain tried appeasing Adolf Hitler. Although they don’t feature here, Neville Chamberlain’s wife, Anne (1883-1967), and her brother, Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936), are mentioned.
* Tom Barrow jokes that he, Mary and Edith are part of the bright young things – a fashionable set of upper-class socialites in the 1920s. “I don’t know about bright,” says Mary.

Upstairs, Downton: Both incarnations of Upstairs, Downstairs did episodes based on the ‘famous person comes to dinner’ idea: King Edward VII in the 1972 episode Guest of Honour, and John F Kennedy in the 2012 episode The Love That Pays The Price. Even more aptly, Neville Chamberlain was also dramatized in the 2012 series, in the episode A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing

Maggie Smithism of the week: When her maid says Dr Clarkson can no longer claim Violet’s friendship, Violet replies, “If I withdrew my friendship from everyone who has spoken ill of me, my address book would be empty.”

Mary’s men: Henry Talbot invites Mary to see him testing a new car round the track at Catterick. She’s interested in him and thinks he’s attractive, but she “won’t marry down” and he’s not as well off as she is. When she visits him at Catterick, he takes her to a pub – which is a rare thing for Mary.

Review: With only a handful of episodes to go, a less cosy show would have killed off Robert. Here, however, he’s basically fine despite spraying blood all over the dinner table.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 11 October 2015, ITV.

With Carson on honeymoon, Thomas Barrow is acting butler. Also, Mary has her head turned, Miss Baxter has a dilemma, Tom Branson is back in the fold, and an old face returns to Downton…  

When is it set? We begin the day after the previous episode ended. So it’s somewhere in the middle of 1925.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, its estate and the agent’s office. Violet’s house. Rosamund’s house in London. The Royal Automobile Club. The farm that used to be the Drewes’ and is now run by Mr Mason.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Violet’s minty friend Lady Shakleton visits again, and this time brings her nephew – who turns out to be Henry Talbot, the man Mary met last summer at a shooting party. He’s in Yorkshire to look at a car he hopes to race at Brooklands.
* John Harding (Philip Battley) is the treasurer of Hillcroft, a college for women of which Rosamund is a trustee, and he comes to Downton for lunch. He also brings his wife with him… who turns out to be former Downton maid Gwen (Rose Leslie).

Best bits:
* Sgt Willis shows up again – but for once it’s not about Mr Green’s death. This time, he’s come to question Miss Baxter. A man called Peter Coyle is on bail for theft, which does not surprise Miss B. She knows him of old – he’s the man who once coerced her into stealing some jewels. Will she testify against him?
* Anna is pregnant but keeping it secret, even from her husband. It seems to be going well, but then she feels twinges of pain. Mary leaps into action, insisting that they go to see the specialist in London immediately. He performs a small, routine operation and all is fine. When she gets home, Anna lets her husband know she’s expecting a baby.
* Bringing Gwen back for a guest appearance is a fine idea. We haven’t seen her since the first series, when she left to be a secretary, so it’s been more than a decade from her point of view. She’s gone up in the world and married respectably. Anna and Tom Branson both recognise her and say hello, but Gwen is embarrassed when Lady Mary only finds her familiar. Then a bitter Thomas Barrow deliberately embarrasses Gwen in front of everyone by outing her – thankfully the family react with kindness. There’s also a few back references to the episodes in which Lady Sybil helped Gwen apply for jobs.
* Mary says that all she was taught as a girl was “French, prejudice and dance steps.”
* Going downstairs to welcome the Carsons back from their honeymoon, Violet says she’s not been in the Downton kitchens for 20 years. “Have you got your passport?” asks Isobel.
* Mary is uncharacteristically positive about Edith’s plan to hire a female editor for her magazine. “That was nice of you,” says Rosamund when Edith’s out of earshot. “A monkey will type out the Bible if you leave it long enough,” deadpans Mary.

Worst bits:
* While he’s been in America, Bolshevik firebrand Tom has had a conversion – he’s now a fan of American-style capitalism where someone can raise themselves from nothing to a fortune.
* The hospital subplot continues to go round in circles.

Real history:
* Molesely thinks Baxter should testify in the trial but she’s not sure she will. So he quotes philosopher Edmund Burke (1730-1797) – “All that’s needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”
* Henry has driven at Brooklands, a motor-racing circuit near Weybridge in Surrey, quite often. It held races from 1909 until 1939.
* Mrs Patmore sarcastically refers to a stroppy Daisy as Karl Marx (1818-1883), the father of socialism. She’s got the hump because her father-in-law might miss out on a new home.
* “You’re a braver man than I, Gunga Din,” says Robert, quoting Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem.
* The Royal Automobile Club’s building seen in this episode, at 89-91 Pall Mall in London, was built in 1911.
* While the servants arrange some decorations to welcome the Carsons, Mr Bates thinks they’re putting too much effort into it. “We’re not striving for a setting by Diaghilev,” he says. Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872-1929) as a Russian ballet impresario.
* In a mangled piece of logic, Violet cites Magna Carta – a wildly influential piece of legislation signed by King John of England in 1215 – as a reason why the nobility should run the country.
* Now that Mrs Hughes has married Mr Carson, there’s confusion over her name. Rosamund says it’s like Jane Eyre, the eponymous character of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, being asked to be called Mrs Rochester. (Later, Carson and Hughes please the family – if not historical accuracy – by asking that she still be called Mrs Hughes.)

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet asks Lady Shackleton about Henry’s place in the world. “He’s nowhere near the earldom,” replies Lady S. “About 40 strong men would have to drop dead.” Violet: “Well, nothing is impossible.”

Mary’s men: After several episodes in hibernation, Mary’s love life is awoken when Henry Talbot breezes into Downton. A few days later they have dinner together in London and flirt. She says that she hopes he’s building up to making a pass. “Will you accept?” “No, but I shall enjoy the process enormously.”

Review: Gwen provides a fun subplot and Mary’s clearly starting a new romance. But the Miss Baxter storyline fails to fly. 

Next episode…

 

Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 4 October 2015, ITV.

Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson prepare to get married, but she’s not happy with doing things his way. Elsewhere, Anna thinks she’s pregnant, Thomas tries to find a new job, and Edith gains an admirer…  

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Dryden Park, a stately home near York. London (including the Covent Garden offices of Edith’s magazine and Rules restaurant). The local hospital. The local church. The local school.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Knowing that he’ll lose his job sooner or later due to downsizing, Thomas Barrow goes for an interview at Dyden Park, a large and imposing yet delipidated house near York. There he meets Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup), who admits he’s let things slide since his wife died. Thomas is disappointed that the house is on its uppers and there’s no staff, so he decides against the gig.
* Mr Skinner, the editor of Edith’s magazine, quits in a huff. His secretary, Audrey (Victoria Emslie), helps Edith finish the issue.
* Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes get married. Aww. So we get another appearance from the local vicar, Reverend Travers (Michael Cochrane).
* Tom Branson shows up unexpectedly at the wedding reception, with daughter Sybie. He’s decided to come home from Boston – for good.

Best bits:
* Mrs Hughes shows her wedding outfit – a dour, brown dress – to Mrs Patmore. “Well, you’re not wasting money, that’s for sure,” says Mrs P. On the day before the wedding, Mrs Patmore, Anna and Lady Mary arrange a new frock as a surprise – and for Mrs Hughes to borrow a coat from Cora. Unfortunately, no one tells Cora, who’s angry when she walks in on Mrs Hughes trying the coat on… (Don’t worry: later, Cora calms down and apologises.)
* Mary doesn’t know why Edith doesn’t just sack her editor “unless she enjoys racing up to London in a swirling cloud of crisis and drama.”
* Anna tells Mary that she might be pregnant. “Lord knows the problem isn’t Bates!” says Mary, pleasantly surprised that it’s happened so soon after she took Anna to see a Harley Street specialist.
* Edith’s two intertwined subplots are entertaining. While in London, she bumps into the affable Bertie Pelham, a man she met at a hunting party the previous year. He invites her for a drink and she suggests Rules… but then she can’t make it due to a crisis at work. During a row with her editor, she suggests he quit – which he does. So Edith has to complete the current issue: “We have to get the proofs to the printers by 4am,” she says, gathering up sheets of paper. She then remembers Bertie and heads off to find him at Rules to say she can’t have drinks. He surprises her by offering to come back to the office and help. We then get a montage of people looking at proofs and arranging spreads and typing copy and looking at the clock: classic stuff.
* At the Carsons’ wedding reception, Mary apologises because she’d lobbied for it to be held at the house rather than in the school hall. “Please forgive me,” she says to the newly-weds. “M’lady,” says the former Mrs Hughes, “Mr Carson would forgive you if you attacked him with a brick.”

Worst bits:
* The hospital subplot rumbles on. Violet and Dr Clarkson are on one side of the argument; Cora and Isobel are on the other. It’s difficult to care.
* Edith, who can be no older than about 30, says she’s staring middle-age in the face.
* After all that build-up – literally years of him saying he was going to move to America – Tom Branson was away for a grand total of two episodes.

Real history:
* When Violet asks whether it’s proper for Edith to stay alone in a London flat, Edith points out that Adrienne Bolland flew over the Andes alone four years previously. French pilot Bolland (1895-1975) was the first woman to do so.
* Spratt the butler collects stamps and is pleased to have acquired the “first commemorative stamp ever” – one to mark the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. (It was actually only the first commemorative stamp issued in the UK.)
* Daisy’s studies have now reached the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet says her butler Mr Spratt “has a great many relations who seem to get married and buried with numbing regularity, usually on very inconvenient days.” (Spratt gets a subplot this week: his nephew is in the area, having escaped from prison!)

Review: The wedding stuff is sweet enough, but Edith is the star of this episode.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 6 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 Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 27 September 2015, ITV.

Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes disagree over their wedding plans, the takeover of the local hospital grows closer, Thomas Barrow fears for his job, and young Marigold goes missing… 

When is it set? 1925. The summer is approaching, though the weather needs coats and gloves.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey and its grounds. Violet’s house. The local school. The village. The London offices of Edith’s magazine. Rosamund’s house. The hospital. Harley Street. The town of Malton. Rothwell Manor.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mr Finch (Martin Walsh) comes to see Downton’s agent and is bemused to have to deal with Mary, who has decided to take the job on. He needs to discuss the entries in the fat stock show at Malton.
* Mr Molesley visits the local schoolmaster, Mr Dawes (Patrick Brennan), to ask a favour. He gets hold of some old exam papers so Daisy can practice.
* Mr Skinner (Paul Putner) is the editor of the magazine Edith owns. But the two are not getting along, so Edith travels to London to confront him. He patronises her, telling her she doesn’t know how to produce a magazine, which angers her.
* As his job is at risk, Thomas applies to be assistant butler at Rothwell Manor, a nearby stately home. His interview is with butler Mr Moore (Trevor Cooper), who tells him the job is part butler, part chauffeur and part valet. “Did the right girl not come along?” he asks when Thomas says he’s not married.
* Knowing that having the Drewes nearby can only lead to trouble, Robert suggests to Mr Drewe that he and his wife move away. Mr D initially says no, but then his wife snatches Marigold and runs off. They’re soon found but the couple clearly can’t stay near Downton.
* Mary takes Anna to see a GP called Dr Ryder (Richard Teverson).

Best bits:
* Robert offers to decorate the servants’ hall for Carson and Hughes’s wedding. Carson is touched, but Mrs Hughes is not sure if she wants her wedding to be where she works. “Tell him thank you but no,” she tells Mr Carson. However, before he can, Mary – who’s embarrassed by her dad’s small gesture – offers to stage the whole wedding at Downton and Mr C feels he can’t turn it down…
* Poor Anna, after everything she’s been through, now fears that she can’t have children. She’s been pregnant two or three times, she tells Mary, but each has led to miscarriage. Mary offers to take her to London to see the specialist who attended to her when she couldn’t conceive. Anna initially says the fee is too much for Mary to spend on her. “You’ve earned it fair and square,” replies Mary. “Keeping my secrets. Hiding that fearful Dutch thingamajig. Carrying poor Mr Pamuk down the gallery at the dead of night.” The two women laugh. Anna: “We have had our moments, haven’t we, m’lady?” Later, Anna is seen by a doctor who tells her she suffers from cervical incompetence – her womb is too weak to carry a child – but this can be allayed by a small operation.
* Several subplots get screentime as various characters attend the fatstock show in Malton: footman Andy makes it clear he’s not interested in being too close to Thomas, Mary swans around as the agent (and is dressed in a very fetching country suit), the hospital feud is discussed, Carson and Hughes row about their wedding plans, and little Marigold goes missing sending Edith into a panic.

Worst bits:
* Tom left for American several months ago, yet only now is Mary starting work as the agent. What have they been doing in the interim?
* The boring subplot about the local hospital drags on.
* It’s still a jolt when Anna calls her husband ‘Mr Bates’, even when they’re alone.

Real history:
* Mr Drewe says his family have farmed their land since before the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).

Mary’s men: After a lot of activity for several seasons, Mary’s love life is in stasis now.

Review: An enjoyable episode. And, as ever, it looks amazing. Downton Abbey is incredibly polished television, with a real sheen to the imagery – both in terms of the physical sets, costumes and locations, and the photography. Lens are chosen with real craft to make the spaces feel huge and detailed and textured.

Next episode…

 

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…

Ant-Man (2015, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ex-con Scott Lang is recruited by a wealthy scientist to steal some dangerous technology….

There’s a parallel universe out there where film fans got Ant-Man as originally conceived. Nine years before the movie’s eventual release – no, seriously, that’s how long this project was in development – writer/director Edgar Wright was hired. Given his track record – Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), The World’s End (2013), all excellent – it promised to be something special. But he then quit just a few months before filming, citing creative differences, and was replaced by Peyton Reed. The result is enjoyable, but you can’t shake off the feeling that it’s not as good as it could have been…

We start with a short prologue set in 1989. In a meeting with MCU semi-regulars Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell in a grey wig) and Howard Stark (Trevor Slattery), scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) resigns from SHIELD. He’s developed technology that can shrink a person down to just a few millimetres tall, but objects to other people using it. Cut to the present day and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, a classy, charming presence) is released from prison after serving time for burglary. While he tries to go straight and raise the cash he needs to support his daughter, he hooks up with ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña, very funny). However, after Scott is fired from the one job he managed to get, he’s tempted by a criminal gig Luis has heard about…

The opening third or so of the movie is comedic, quick and slick – a style typified by a breezy montage showing some information being relayed from person to person. This freewheeling sequence is the most Edgar Wright-y that Ant-Man ever feels, though the idea was actually cooked up after he left the project. (Incidentally, the scene is scored by a terrific music cue written by Roy Ayers for the 1973 film Coffy then reused by Quentin Tarantino in 1997’s Jackie Brown.)

Meanwhile, Hank (“Yes, I’m still alive…”) starts to take an interest in his tech company again. It’s now run by his former assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, who may as well have ‘I’m the villain’ tattooed across his forehead). He’s developed miniaturisation technology of his own, which he hopes to sell to the military, so Hank and grown-up daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, totally rocking a black bob cut) set out to steal it and wipe all the data files. How do they plan to do this? By using Hank’s miniaturisation technology from the 1980s. (Hypocrites.) However, Hank reckons he’s too old to wear the shrinking suit and doesn’t want to risk his daughter’s life. They need someone else, so recruit Scott via a sting operation…

So far, so good enough. It’s enjoyable stuff. But now the film gets a bit messy. Once Hank and Hope have enlisted Scott, the story moves into a leisurely middle act. There are Mr Mayagi-like scenes of Scott being taught how to use the miniaturisation suit, a bit of backstory is revealed, some plotting is set up for the climax, series regular Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has a cameo, and we get the rather silly notion that Hank can control and coerce ants to his will. But all the threat disappears from the story – as does Darren Cross, and Luis and his gang, and the cop who’s been on Scott’s trail. All these characters seem to conveniently freeze for – what? – at least a few days while Scott gears up.

But if the storytelling is loose, at least we get plenty of comedy. There are self-referential gags – “I think our first move,” says Scott when presented with a big problem, “should be calling the Avengers” – as well as Ocean’s 11-style, planning-the-heist scenes, which are always enjoyable. If anything, it’s a shame the film doesn’t push harder on that pedal and try to be a more full-on caper movie. The heist itself – with Luis and some friends now part of the team – is great fun and the film picks up pace again. It also helps that director Peyton Reed throws in some bonkers imagery: a shootout with a tiny Scott running across a scale model of a factory, an enormous Thomas the Tank Engine bursting out of a house, and a very trippy sequence of Scott shrinking beyond infinitesimally small.

These visual effects are very impressive, as they are throughout the film, while the fights and chases are inventive and the film never loses sight of humour. During Scott’s climactic battle with Cross, for example, Cross has miniaturised himself… so Scott picks up a table-tennis bat and swats him into an electric fly zapper. Oh, how the film should’ve ended on that gag! But for all its fun and vibrancy, Ant-Man lacks ambition. It feels a bit stunted, a bit limited, a bit scared to go all-in. Too small, you might say.

Seven bartenders out of 10

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