Downton Abbey: A Journey to the Highlands


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 Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2012, ITV.

The family and some of the servants decamp to Duneagle, a house in Scotland, for an annual shoot. But tragedy soon strikes… Meanwhile, back at Downton, Tom Branson is tempted by a new maid, Thomas comes to Jimmy’s rescue, and Mrs Patmore has an admirer.

When is it set? ‘One year later’, according to a caption. So we’re now in the middle of 1921.

Where is it set? The house and the surrounding countryside. Downton railway station. Isobel’s house. Duneagle Castle. The village and its pub. Thirsk. Downton’s hospital. 

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* There’s a new maid at Downton called Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring). She takes an interest in Tom Branson, the only member of the family who doesn’t go to Scotland. Learning that he’s going to the local pub, she bumps into him on purpose and drops hints that he should be eating with the servants. Later, at a local fair, she flirts heavily and even links arms with him. They agree to meet for lunch – but Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes find out and put a stop to the relationship. Edna’s given the sack.
* Lord and Lady Flintshire, who have been mentioned in earlier episodes, now appear. Shrimpie (Peter Egan) and Susan (Phoebe Nicholls) are Lady Rose’s parents; Susan is also Violet’s niece. Shrimpie has been offered a diplomatic posting in Bombay, which Susan is not pleased about. It’s an unhappy marriage generally.
* Jos Tufton (John Henshaw) is a tradesman from the nearby Thirsk. He brings some goods for Mrs Patmore, then starts chatting her up. He also invites all the servants to a local fair. But then Mrs Hughes sees him flirting with other women and realises he’s a wrong’un.
* Miss Wilkins (Simone Lahbib) is a maid at the Flintshires’ who initially forms a friendship with Miss O’Brien. However, when she feels embarrassed by O’Brien’s superior knowledge, she plays a prank on her. She spikes a drink at the ghillies’ ball, but Mr Molesley drinks it instead of O’Brien.
* Feeling unwell, the pregnant Mary returns from Scotland early. On the train home, her waters break. She soon gives birth to a son, George…
* Matthew races south to be by his wife’s side and arrives just after the labour. However, not long later, his car is forced off the road and Matthew is killed.

Best bits:
* The frosty atmosphere between Lord and Lady Flintshire.
* Again, the Michael Gregson subplot is likeable. He’s gone all the way to Scotland in order to meet Edith’s family. She’s flattered, but knows that he’s married with no chance of divorce.
* Isobel and Dr Clarkson grow close. It makes sense: they’re both from middle-class backgrounds; he’s a doctor, she was a nurse.
* Matthew tells Mary and Edith about his futile day stalking deer. “Really, darling,” says Mary. “It’s boring enough to hear about when you succeed…”
* Mr Carson takes the phone call telling him Mary has given birth and is healthy. In his joy at the happy news, he doesn’t think to ask what sex the baby is.
* The tear-jerking scene of happiness when Matthew meets his new son.
* The sucker-punch of the final scene.

Worst bits:
* Mr Bates has to point out that the family go to Duneagle every year… except last year when Sybil died… or during the war. This explains why this ‘annual’ trip hasn’t featured in the show before. Remember, fictionally, we’re nine years on from the first episode.
* Anna plans a surprise for her husband and even declines to tell Mary what it is. But then we see her leaning to dance. Wouldn’t it be more fun to reveal it at the ball when Mr Bates finds out?
* After Shrimpie and Susan decide to separate, the question arises of what will happen to Rose. Will she move to Downton Abbey and replace the dead Sybil as the household’s young, flighty daughter figure perhaps?

Real history:
* Mrs Patmore is flattered when Mr Tufton asks her to the fair. “No man’s wanted to squire me since the Golden Jubilee,” she says. “And even then he expected me to buy the drinks.” She’s referring to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1897.
* Robert points out that Sunny Marlborough has got divorced and is still part of society. Tory politician Charles ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill (1871-1934) was the 9th Duke of Marlborough and a cousin of Winston Churchill. In 1921 he divorced his first wife, Consuela Vanderbilt (1877-1964). They’d had an unhappy marriage of convenience.
* Mr Tufton mentions Vogue magazine. The British version of the US title began in autumn 1916.
* Matthew mentions novelist Walter Scott (1771-1832).
* Isobel quotes an 1890 Rudyard Kipling poem: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”
* When Susan tells Rose she can’t wear a modern dress, Rose points out that Princess Mary has one just like it. Mary (1897-1965) was the daughter of the then king, George V.

Upstairs, Downton: There are quite a few echoes of Upstairs, Downstairs in this Christmas special. In Updown, the Bellamy family went on holiday to Scotland in an episode called Will Ye No Come Back Again? (1975). In the first series, there was also a story about servants being left at home while the family’s away: Board Wages (1971). Updown’s cook, Mrs Bridges, had her head turned by a dodgy tradesman in The Sudden Storm (1974), while a couple of episodes in series three featured James Bellamy going to a country house for the hunting season: A Change of Scene and The Bolter (both 1973).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Susan says she doesn’t know where Shrimpie’s new job will be: “But it will be filthy and dirty and the food will be awful and there’ll be no one to talk to for 100 square miles.” Violet replies: “That sounds like a week with my mother-in-law.”

Mary’s men: Mary is eight months pregnant and heads home to Downton early, where she goes into labour… But her beloved Matthew is then killed in a car crash. The romance that has been the backbone of this show since the second episode is now at an end.

Doggie! Isis bounds around as the family’s bags are packed into the cars for the journey north. Later, she’s at the station as the family catch the train. Robert asks Tom, who’s staying at Downton, to walk her while he’s away. We later see Tom doing this in the village. Isis wags her tail.

Review: The show’s second Christmas special – which is set in high summer – finally does the poshos-go-on-a-shoot storyline. The stuff in Scotland reeks of cliché: there are bagpipes and haughty servants. More pleasantly, as we’re moving into the 1920s, the fashions and styles – especially those of women like Mary, Edith and Rose – are getting more and more ornate and flapper-like. There’s also fun to be had in how much stuff is being set up for future seasons: Edith’s romance with Michael Gregson, Rose coming to live at Downton, a potential new job for Miss O’Brien, and most notably the huge changes in Mary’s life.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 3 episode 4


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 Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 7 October 2012, ITV.

Tom Branson shows up unexpectedly, having fled the authorities in Ireland. Also, Mrs Hughes and Isobel help former maid Ethel, Edith struggles to find a purpose, and Matthew takes an interest in the management of the estate…

When is it set? A historical reference to US politics tells us that the episode takes place not too long before 18 August 1920.

Where is it set? The house. Prison. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. Dublin.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* The Archbishop of York, Dr Lang (Michael Culkin), comes to dinner. This is the first instance of a real person being portrayed in Downton Abbey. Cosmo Gordon Lang (1864-1945) was Archbishop of York between 1908 and 1928, then Archbishop of Canterbury until 1942.
* Mr Carson hires a new footman: Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers). The female members of the household (and Thomas Barrow) are very pleased by this. He used to work for the Dowager Lady Anstruther, but she’s now gone to live in France.
* Ethel’s son, Charlie, is now a toddler and Mrs Hughes arranges for him to meet his grandparents. Mr and Mrs Bryant initially offer the down-on-her-luck Ethel some cash (“unless you don’t want to give [prostitution] up,” says Mr B cruelly). Then they agree to let Charlie live with them.
* Daisy has been moaning for ages about having too much work to do, so she’s promoted to assistant cook and a new kitchen maid is hired to work under her. Never happy, Daisy then begrudges that Ivy Stuart (Cara Theobold) is very pretty.

Best bits:
* The reactions of two characters to the word prostitute are neatly telling. Former nurse Isobel doesn’t flinch, while the more sheltered Mrs Hughes is uncomfortable. (They’re talking about Ethel.)
* The Archbishop says he doesn’t want to sound anti-Catholic. Robert asks, “Why not? I am… There always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.”
* During his job interview, Jimmy says to Mr Carson, “You know what women can be like.” Carson replies dryly: “Not, I suspect, as well as you do.”
* Mary’s description of footman Alfred: “He does look like a puppy who’s been rescued from a puddle.”
* Mrs Hughes uses a new-fangled toaster. And nearly burns the house down.

Worst bits:
* In prison, Mr Bates is actually sewing mail bags. It’s presumably historically accurate, but still… Again, this subplot frustrates despite having two strong actors. Both Bates and Anna worry because they’ve not heard from the other in a long time, then each get a bundle of letters all in one go. In the storyline’s favour, there’s then a lovely crossfade between the two characters reading their letters.

Real history:
* Robert reads in the newspaper that Tennessee is going to ratify the 19th Ammendment to the US Constitution, after which all American women will have the vote. Edith points out that, in the UK, only house-owning women over 30 can vote.
* Robert is urged to speak to Home Secretary Edward Shortt (1862-1935) after Tom admits he was involved in some recent terrorist activities. The upshot is that Tom will remain free but cannot return to Ireland, a deal reached because the Government doesn’t want him to be a martyr. Some real-life champions of Irish nationalism are namechecked during the discussion: Maud Gonne (1866-1953), Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932) and Constance, Countess Markievicz (1868-1927).
* Violet is aghast that Edith has written to a newspaper in support of universal suffrage, saying that ladies don’t do that kind of thing. Edith counters with Lady Sarah Wilson (1865-1929), a member of the Churchill family who worked as a war correspondent in Africa.

Upstairs, Downton: Votes for women was the subject of the Upstairs, Downstairs episode A Special Mischief (1972).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Edith has bought some perfume on behalf of her grandmother, who isn’t pleased with the price. “A guinea? For a bottle of scent? Did he have a mask and a gun?”

Mary’s men: Matthew hears the pitter-patter of tiny feet when he’s asked to meet Mary in the nursery having recently heard that she’s been to see a doctor. However, Mary is simply converting the room into a sitting room and needed something for her hay fever.

Doggie! Isis sits attentively as Robert and Matthew have a cigar.

Review: Now we’re in season three, the regular cast is getting a bit of a spring clean. Footman William left last year and was replaced by Alfred, and now we get two further servants: footman Jimmy and kitchen maid Ivy.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 3 episode 3


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 Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 30 September 2012, ITV.

Edith is preparing to marry Sir Anthony Strallan, while Robert is resigned to selling Downton. Also, Mrs Hughes awaits news about her health, Matthew inherits a fortune, and Isobel tries to help Ethel.

When is it set? Around a month after the last episode, so spring 1920.

Where is it set? The house. The village. London. York. A country house called Eryholme.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Mrs Bartlet (Clare Higgins) is a woman Anna visits in London. Mrs B grudgingly reveals some info about the day Vera Bates died, but says she’s sure her husband killed her.

Best bits:
* Penelope Wilton has been smashing as Isobel Crawley since day one. This episode sees the character at her crusading best, trying to teach fallen women how to sew and gamely deflecting their sarcasm.
* The family go on a picnic at Eryholme, a house they plan to move into and rename Downton Place. Mary worries that it’ll be too cramped; Tom Branson reasonably points out that most people would consider the house a “fairy palace”. The sequence is filmed in the kind of bright English sunshine you often get in ITV Sunday-night dramas.
* Reaching the altar on her wedding day, a clearly ecstatic Edith says, “Good afternoon,” to her husband-to-be, Sir Anthony…
* …who moments later admits that he can’t go through with marrying her. He’s decided he’s too old so jilts her!  

Worst bits:
* Anna’s quest to prove that her husband is an innocent man should be gripping. But despite actress Joanne Froggatt selling every moment, it just dawdles. Part of the problem is that no one else at the house seems that interested in what Anna’s doing.
* Similarly, the stuff with Mr Bates having a set-to with his bastard of a cell mate is dull.
* Turns out, Matthew’s late fiancée wrote a letter to her father “only hours before she died.” Both Mary and Matthew question how this is possible when Lavinia spent the day writhing around in sweat and no letter was found in her room after her clogs had been popped. It’s later revealed that – a bit implausibly – Daisy was given the letter when making up the fire in Lavinia’s room. This is fortunate as Lavinia’s deathbed missive means that Matthew is now about to inherit a huge chunk of cash.

Real history:
* Mr Molesley says he’s read about a shortage of servants in the newspaper.
* Anna reckons it won’t be long before all women have the vote. Two years before this, the Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised property-owning women aged 30 or over. It took until 1928 for all women over 21 (the same age as men) to get the vote.
* Happy because he’s found out Mrs Hughes doesn’t have cancer, Mr Carson sings to himself. He warbles a few lines of Dashing Away With the Soothing Iron, a 19th-century folk song about household chores.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Isn’t it exciting?” asks Edith about the preparation for her wedding. “At my age,” replies her grandmother, “one must ration one’s excitement.”

Mary’s men: She’s still grumpy that hubby Matthew refuses to use his windfall to save Downton, but is – in her own words – putting on an act and pretending to be happy. When Matthew receives a letter written by Mr Swire before his death, he refuses to read it. So Mary reads it for him: his daughter Lavinia loved Matthew so much that, in her name, he has decided to make Matthew heir to his fortune. Matthew assumes the letter is a forgery, but Mary proves it’s not. So he finally agrees to accept the dosh and save Downton. Yay!

Review: This is the second episode in the last three to feature a wedding for one of the Crawley sisters (and Sybil recently got married off-screen). The twist that it doesn’t go to plan sneaks up on us effectively. Elsewhere, Mr Carson is worried about Mrs Hughes and tries to trick both Dr Clarkson and Mrs Patmore into revealing what’s wrong; the latter falls for it. But thankfully it turns out that Mrs Hughes doesn’t have cancer.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 6

Episode 6 Season 2 1

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 Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 23 October 2011, ITV.

The household mourn for footman William, Sir Richard makes plans for his married life with Mary, and a man called Patrick Gordon claims to be the heir to Downton and its wealth…

When is it set? Early November 1918.

Where is it set? The house. Isobel’s house. Haxby Park, the nearby stately home that Sir Richard plan to buy. The cottage where Ethel’s living.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Patrick Gordon (Trevor White) is a Canadian serviceman who’s been disfigured in the war and is recuperating at Downton. He claims to be related to the Crawley family and that he spent time with them as a child, but no one can remember him. He then has to spell it out to Edith: he says he’s Patrick, the heir to Downton previously thought drowned on the Titanic. He says he survived the disaster, though with amnesia. He signed up in 1914, then was caught in an explosion at Passendale that brought back his old memories. When the others find out, Matthew immediately twigs that, if the claim is true, he’d no longer be the heir. Robert asks his solicitor to look into the situation, but the findings are inconclusive. So Patrick leaves… (Rather brilliantly, we don’t learn if he was the genuine article or not.)
* New maid Jane is now working at the house, and shares a flirty look or two with Robert. When Robert luncheons alone, Jane serves him and they get to know each other…
* We learn that Major Bryant, the cad who fathered Ethel’s child then didn’t give a stuff, has been killed in the war.

Best bits:
* “That life of changing clothes and killing things and eating them – do you really want it again?” – Isobel suggests that Downton might not return to normal once the war is over.
* Mary and Carson’s relationship is routinely charming: she’s a lady, he’s a servant, but she clearly likes and respects him and he has an avuncular love for her.
* Sir Richard asks Carson to book him on the morning train to London. Carson replies that Mr Bates will be on the same train… The next day, Bates returns from the capital with a scar on his face and Sir Richard comes back late. A day or two later we hear the news that Vera Bates has been found dead. Has one of them killed her?!
* Matthew feels a twinge…

Worst bits:
* Daisy’s sackcloth-and-ashes routine is getting boring now, as is Sybil and Branson’s glacially slow romance.
* Violet’s dialogue can often be the highlight of an episode. You sometimes get the impression that Julian Fellowes spends as much time crafting her acerbic barbs as writing all the other characters put together. But occasionally the metaphors become painfully tortured. This week, Cora says that Isobel is being awkward and “has the bit between her teeth”. Violet replies, “Well, change the bridal. Find a course than needs her more than Downton.” Cora then says Isobel wants to be a martyr. Violet: “We must tempt her with a more enticing scaffold.”
* Edith isn’t sure whether Patrick is the man she was deeply in love with six years previously. Robert is similarly unable to recognise him. Even with an accent that’s changed a bit and a scared face, is this plausible?

Real history:
* Pushing Matthew in his wheelchair, Mary says she’ll have arms like Jack Johnson if she’s not careful. Nicknamed the Galveston Giant, American boxer Johnson (1878-1946) was the first black man to be world heavyweight champion.
* Cora tell us that, “Turkey’s about to capitulate and Robert says Vittorio Veneto will finish off Austria.” The Battle of Vittorio Veneto (24 October-3 November 1918) was an Italian victory that secured the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
* Patrick claims he was pulled out of the water by Fifth Officer Harold Lowe (1882-1944), a real-life officer on the Titanic who was one of the few to return after the ship sank to look for survivors.
Branson and Carson discuss European politics, disagreeing over whether Germany will soon be a republic and namechecking American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924).
* Robert walks into the servants’ hall to announce that the war is over. The ceasefire will commence on the morning of 11 November. At the allotted time, the household gather in the main hall as the clock chimes 11 times…

Upstairs, Downton: There’s a passing reference to European refugees, a piece of real history that Downton Abbey has mostly ignored. The Upstairs, Downstairs episode A Patriotic Offering (1974) saw a family of Belgians come to stay with the Bellamys. Additionally, the First World War ended in the Updown episode Peace Out of Pain (also 1974).

Maggie Smithism of the week: “I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him, which is quite different.” She’s talking about Sir Richard.

Mary’s men: Sir Richard is hoping to buy – and renovate – a house close to Downton called Haxby Park. He even offers Carson a job as its butler. But Mary is still having doubts, telling Matthew that she needn’t get married. He insists that she do: he wants her to be happy. Later, Mary’s shocked when Sir Richard makes it plain that she’s not to jilt him. “You have given me the power to destroy you,” he points out. “Don’t ever cross me.”

Doggie! Isis is spotted at Robert’s feet in an early scene.

Review: The Patrick subplot is hoary nonsense, but it does put the cat amongst the pigeons. The various reactions to his claim – Edith’s, Robert’s, Mary’s, Matthew’s, Sir Richard’s – are all very interesting.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 3


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 Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 2 October 2011, ITV.

Downton Abbey has been converted into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers, but a number of people are nervous about the new arrangement… Also, Anna spies Bates in the village, Branson’s rebellious plans hit a setback, Thomas gets a new job, and Mary learns some information about love rival Lavinia…

When is it set? No earlier than August 1917.

Where is it set? The house. The village. Lady Rosamund’s house in London. The Dowager’s house. The Red Lion pub in Kirkbymoorside.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Major Bryant (Daniel Pirrie) is an injured officer staying at Downton now that the house is a rest home. Maid Ethel takes a shine to him and flirts. At one point, she tucks her new friend’s blanket in. “I may need some more tucking soon,” he says suggestively. “Well, no one tucks better than I do,” she replies, getting the pun.
* Captain Smiley (Tom Feary-Campbell) is another injured serviceman. He’s lost his left hand, so can’t write to his mother to tell her. He asks Edith to write the letter for him.
* General Sir Herbert Strutt (Julian Wadham) is Matthew’s superior. He comes to inspect the new hospital.

Best bits:
* The glee that Barrow takes from being the manager of Downton and therefore being able to lord it over Carson.
* The arrival of the first batch of wounded is done in a 68-second Steadicam shot, which starts in the hall, leads Robert, Cora, Sybil and Edith outside, circles around many extras unloading from a truck, follows Sybil back inside, finds Barrow helping a wounded officer and ends on Mary walking into the room.
* Anna tracks Bates down at the pub where he’s now working. Their romance has a likeable Brief Encounter vibe.

Worst bits:
* Matthew shows up at the house unexpectedly. For someone fighting the Hun, he doesn’t half make it home to rural Yorkshire a lot.
* Noted firebrand Branson, who’s already in a bad mood after one plan to cause a scene has failed, is told that Matthew is bringing a famous general to the house. O’Brien asks why he’s interested in the information. The camera actually tracks in like Branson’s a bad guy in a Bond film. “No reason,” he says, almost twirling his moustache.
* Matthew says he’s just lost his soldier servant and can’t find a replacement… on the very weekend that newly enlisted William has popped home for a visit. Hashtag Downton Abbey plotting!

Real history:
* Branson tells the other servants the news from Russia: Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) has been made Prime Minster (this happened on 21 July 1917). Additionally, Tzar Nicholas II (1868-1918) and his family have been imprisoned (this happened from August 1917), but Bolshie Branson is certain they won’t be harmed.
* Branson says he lost a cousin in the Easter Rising “last year” – the Irish rebellion against the British occurred in April 1916. The cousin was walking down North King Street when an English soldier shot him, he said, “because he was probably a rebel”.
* It turns out Lavinia was a key source in the 1912 Marconi-share scandal, which involved Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd-George (1863-1945) and others. She gave secrets about her dodgy uncle to newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle, as a way of getting her father out of a large debt.

Upstairs, Downton: Worth mentioning is the BBC revival of Upstairs, Downstairs that ran concurrently with Downton Abbey. A three-part miniseries started on Boxing Day 2010, just six weeks after Downton Abbey’s first season had concluded. Six more episodes were then shown in early 2012 (ie, between Downton’s second and third seasons).Both shows being made around the same time led to some minor bad blood, with Jean Marsh (who co-created the 1970s Updown and played Rose Buck in both versions) suggesting that Downton Abbey was rushed into production as a spoiler series. If so, the plan worked. Updown didn’t return after its second block.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is happy that former footman Thomas Barrow will be put in charge of running the house now it’s also a hospital. “Why?” asks a jealous Isobel, who wanted the job herself. “Are you planning to divide his loyalties?” Violet: “I wouldn’t say I was planning it.”

Mary’s men: A busy week for Lady M. She writes to beau Sir Richard on behalf of Anna, who needs help finding Mr Bates. She then has a chat with Matthew when he shows up. And her old friend Evelyn Napier is in hospital elsewhere and asks Mary to get him into Downton. (Dr Clarkson and Isobel object to such favourtism, which royally pisses Robert off because it’s his house after all.) Later, Mary says to her grandmother that there’s no point chasing Matthew any more because, even if he were to ditch Lavinia, there’s no guarantee he’d propose to Mary. Violet asks if they can perhaps take their fences one at a time. Mary inititally plans to tell Matthew about Lavinia selling secrets to the press, but then finds out she was doing it for noble reasons.

Doggie! It’s seen as the house is converted into a hospital. Later, Isobel asks Robert what they should do to stop Isis (yay! The dog finally has a name!) bothering the patients. “Absolutely nothing,” says an irritated Robert.

Review: More change. People both upstairs and down are unsure how the new situation in the house will work, and this causes plenty of entertaining rows and tension. On the downside, Mr Lang’s subplot doesn’t make much impression, perhaps because we didn’t know him before the war. But the Isobel-Cora rivalry is fun.

Next episode…