Downton Abbey: series 3 episode 2


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 Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 23 September 2012, ITV.

Mary and Matthew are back from their honeymoon, Violet tries to persuade Cora’s mother to save Downton, and Mrs Hughes finds a lump…

When is it set? 1920. Mary says she’s glad she went to Cannes before the summer takes hold. (Having said that, the scenes in York have an autumnal feel with leaves blowing around in the wind.)

Where is it set? The estate. The house. Isobel’s refuge for fallen women in York. Sir Anthony’s house. Prison. Dr Clarkson’s office. Violet’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Ethel, the maid who left the series after falling pregnant, is back. Isobel finds her living on the streets of York.
* Cora’s brother is mentioned. His mother says Harold hates to leave America.

Best bits:
* Matthew has a spruce new car. Anachronistically, it’s a 1927 AC Six.
* Robert asks his new son-in-law how the honeymoon went. “My eyes have been opened,” says Matthew knowingly. “Don’t I know it,” replies Robert.
* Mr Molesley is asked to work at the big house as Matthew’s valet – he literally runs up the path to the house.
* Cora’s mother, Mrs Levinson, blithely says she’s not able to help Downton financially. She explains that both her and Violet’s husbands tied up their respective capitals tightly before they were taken. “Lord Grantham wasn’t taken,” says Violet, sadly. “He died.”

Worst bits:
* Mrs Levinson misunderstands a euphemism, thinking that Isobel helps women who have fallen over. (There’s a good punchline, though. When the reality is explained to her, she’s also told the women are sent away so they can rest. “I should think they need it,” she says.)
* Matthew, who once objected to having a valet, now embarrasses Alfred in front of everyone by revealing that he’s burnt a hole in a jacket. What an arse.
* Thomas Barrow takes against new footman Alfred and plays cruel pranks on him. Of course he does.
* On the night of a big dinner, the kitchen’s range fails. “We’ve twenty lords and ladies in the drawing room waiting for dinner and we’ve got no dinner to give them!” says Mrs Patmore. The spirit of a French and Saunders sketch is never that far away from this show.

Real history:
* Violet references the Prime Minster, David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), saying that surely even he wouldn’t want the family turfed out of Downton.
* After his posh shirts are stolen, Robert has to dress relatively informally for dinner. “I feel like a Chicago bootlegger,” he laments. The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, came fully into effect on 17 January 1920.
* At the impromptu buffet caused by the kitchen range being out of order, Mrs Levinson leads everyone in a sing-song of the 1910 ballad Let Me Call Your Sweetheart by Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson.
* Miss O’Brien jokes about Thomas sounding like “Tom Mix in a Wild West picture show”. Mix (1880-1940) was Hollywood’s first big Western star. He appeared in 291 films – all silent up to this point, of course, so how Miss O’Brien knows what he sounded like is another matter.

Upstairs, Downton: The Bellamys were in danger of losing everything in series two of Upstairs, Downstairs. Like in Downton, the saviour was a suitor of the household’s daughter: the character of Julias Karekin, who bought the house in The Fruits of Love (1973) and conveniently gave it back to the family.

Maggie Smithism of the week: After Mrs L suggests an indoor picnic to solve the dinner crisis, a shaken Violet turns to Robert, who’s not dressed properly for dinner. “You think I might have a drink?” she says. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter.”

Mary’s men: She and new husband Matthew return from honeymoon in the south of France. As it’s now the 1920s, Mary’s styling is changing – she’s got a very fetching, wavy-but-short haircut. But Matthew is still determined to turn down the money he’s entitled to from his late fiancée’s father’s will.

Doggie! Isis sits attentively and being stroked as Robert has a cigar with Matthew.

Review: As well as the plot to save Downton Abbey for the family – and Mrs Hughes having a cancer scare – romance is a theme of this episode. Sir Anthony and Edith’s relationship keeps flickering, for example. He feels guilty that he’s about 30 years older than her, and has a lame arm, so he and Robert agree that he’ll discreetly back away from the courtship. However, Edith refuses to let him go – and by the end of the episode they actually plan to get wed. It’s very sweet.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 3 episode 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 Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 16 September 2012, ITV.

As Mary and Matthew prepare for their wedding, Anna is still trying to prove her husband’s innocence. Also, Robert learns that the family finances are in dire straits, Sybil and Tom return to Downton, and Cora’s mother comes to visit…

When is it set? Spring 1920. Cora’s mother arrives in the country on the 15th of the month.

Where is it set? The village. The local church. The house. The dowager house. The prison. London, specifically Chancery Lane. Isabel’s house.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Alfred (Matt Milne) gets a job at Downton thanks to his auntie, Miss O’Brien. Carson thinks he’s too tall to be a footman and doesn’t like that he used to be a waiter in a hotel. He’s essentially William’s replacement in the line-up, even though William left about five years ago.
* A childhood pal of Sybil’s called Larry Grey (Charlie Anson) comes to dinner. He’s a total twat who bullies Tom and spikes his drink.
* Larry’s father, Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), also attends the dinner and is aghast at his son’s behaviour.
* Bates has a new cellmate called Craig (Jason Furnival). He’s a cynic who rubs Bates up the wrong way.
* Cora’s caustic and confident mother, Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), arrives from America. She doesn’t actually show up until the 43-minute mark.
* Mrs Levenson’s maid is a fusspot called Reed (Lucinda Sharp).

Best bits:
* Sir Anthony Strallan pops up again. Not only is his guarded flirting with Edith very sweet, but actor Robert Bathurst lifts the character off the page.
* Also good to see Mr Molesley getting more screentime. He’s worried what will happen to his job after Matthew marries. Matthew doesn’t intend to take Molesley with him to the big house…
* Sybil and Branson return to the country for the first time since they left to get married – Cora nervously calls her new son-in-law ‘Tom’, while Carson is not happy having a former servant as a guest. Yay for Isobel, though, who defends him at the dinner table when the others are criticising him for not having the right clothes. In another nice touch, Matthew and Branson make a friendly connection: not only are they going to be brothers-in-law, but they both started as outsiders. Matthew even asks Tom to be his best man (bit unbelievable, this).
* On the morning of Mary’s wedding, Cora asks her daughter if there’s anything she needs to know – ie, about sex. Mary rightly points out that she knows more about it than Cora had on *her* wedding day.

Worst bits:
* We get some more of the perfunctory plotting that Downton Abbey enjoys so much. First we learn that the lion’s share of Cora’s fortune is lost after Robert made a bad investment. Then, in a separate scene, Matthew is stunned to find out that he might inherit a huge amount of money from his late fiancée’s father. Can you guess where this storyline is heading?

Real history:
* Anna makes passing reference to the king, George V (1865-1936).
* Mary says Mr Carson’s motto is “be prepared”. Violet tells her that Baden Powell has stolen it. Former army officer Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) formed the Boy Scouts Association and the Girl Guides.
* Isobel asks Tom Branson what he thinks of “new Act”. The Government of Ireland Act was then making its way through the British Parliament. It proposed to divide Ireland into two subdivisions: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The plan at this point was for both to remain within the UK, but the latter formed an independent country in 1922.

Upstairs, Downton: The daughter figures of the Upstairs, Downstairs household got grand weddings in the episodes For Love of Love (1972) and Whither Shall I Wander? (1975).

Maggie Smithism of the week: She asks new footman Alfred, “Are you really that tall?”

Mary’s men: She’s preparing to marry Matthew and is happy – until she finds out that a) Downton’s capital has been lost, and b) Matthew won’t rescue the estate by accepting the cash from his late fiancée’s father’s will. For a while it seems the wedding might be off, but then the couple have a late-chat night and make up with a kiss. The episode ends with the wedding ceremony. Mary looks scrumptious.

Review: Yes, they really did cast Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother: a sure-fire sign that Downton Abbey was, by this point, a global hit.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: Christmas at Downton Abbey


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 Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2011, ITV.

As the household celebrates Christmas, Downton plays host to various guests for a shooting party. Also, Robert learns a huge family secret, Mary reaches a crossroads, while Mr Bates stands trial for murder.

When is it set? The episode begins on Thursday 25 December 1919 and progresses into the early weeks of 1920.

Where is it set? The house. Violet’s house. The prison where Mr Bates is being held. The estate. Sir Anthony’s house. A courtroom in York. Downton’s churchyard. Mr Mason’s farm.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund comes to stay for Christmas and brings her maid, Shore (Sharon Small), who is sniffy and haughty.
* Mr Swire, the unseen father of Matthew’s late fiancée, is ill and not expected to live long. So Matthew has to leave the festive celebrations to visit him before he dies.
* Sir Anthony Strallan pops up again. He’s lost the use of his right arm in the war, but is still sweet on Edith. She makes a move, visiting him and asking him out for a drive, but he nobly turns her down. He says he’s too old and a cripple. “If you think I’m going to give up on someone who calls me lovely….” she says. “You must,” he replies.
* We’re told that, since the last episode, Sybil and Tom Branson have got married and are now living in Ireland. Of the family, only Mary and Edith went to the service. Now Sybil writes to her mother to reveal that she’s pregnant.
* Lord Hepworth (Nigel Havers) is the son of an old friend of Violet’s. He also comes to visit the house and is soon flirting with Lady Rosamund. Everyone assumes he’s a gold-digger… then Anna catches him doing the dirty with Lady R’s maid.

Best bits:
* It’s Christmas!
* Mrs Hughes is dismissive of the other servants playing with a Ouija board. Daisy asks, “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?” Mrs H replies: “I don’t believe they play board games!”
* Robert laments that he’s going to have a Fenian grandchild. “Cheer up,” jokes Cora. “Come the revolution it may be useful to have a contact on the other side.”
* Cora finally tells Robert what really happened the night Mr Pamuk died (a death that took place seven years previously). A little while later, Robert reveals that he knows to Mary. The resulting conversation – Mary admitting that she’s marrying Sir Richard because otherwise he’ll ruin her, Robert telling her to break it off anyway – is one of the show’s best tear-jerking scenes.
* The social awkwardness of the annual servants’ ball: Matthew dancing with Miss O’Brien, Thomas with the dowager, etc.
* At night, as the snow falls, Matthew and Mary take in some fresh air… and Matthew pops the questions. Hurrah!

Worst bits:
* It’s been eight months since the previous episode. And not one of the plots has moved on. Then Mr Bates’s entire murder trial is dramatised in around six minutes.
* Sir Richard asks, not unreasonably, how the family solicitor has managed to arrange for the trial to be held in York. After all, the murder took place in London. “I don’t know,” says Robert. “But thank God he has.”

Real history:
* After Bates is sentenced to death, Anna is told to write a letter to the Home Secretary. “He’s a Liberal, isn’t he?” says Robert. “Pity.” Edward Shortt (1862-1935) had been in the post since January 1919. (The letter works, by the way. The sentence is reduced to life imprisonment.)

Upstairs, Downton: Christmas was celebrated in Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1973 episode Goodwill to All Men. Updown characters dabble with a séance in A Voice From the Past (1972).

Maggie Smithism of the week: After Sir Richard is dumped by Mary and revealed to be a twat, he says goodbye to Violet. “I doubt we’ll meet again,” he says. She replies, “Do you promise?”

Mary’s men: As the episode begins, she’s still with Sir Richard but getting increasingly bored of his boorish attitudes. Her father and Matthew urge Mary to dump him and both men also find out about Mr Pamuk, but neither cares: scandal is better than a lifetime of unhappiness, they say. When Mary does tell Sir Richard the wedding’s off, he doesn’t respond well and gets into a brawl with Matthew. “I presume you’ll be leaving in the morning,” deadpans Robert.

Doggie! Isis barks her enjoyment as the family play ‘the game’ (not charades, as the Dowager points out). Later, Robert is worried when his pooch goes missing – she’s actually been dognapped by Thomas, who plans to ‘find’ her and claim the credit. He locks her in a shed overnight while Robert offers a £10 reward for her safe return (that’s something like £400 in today’s money). But the dog has vanished when Thomas goes to collect her. It turns out a child found her, returned her, and claimed the cash.

Review: Downton Abbey’s first Christmas episode is a feature-length special with no title sequence. A couple of the ongoing storylines have been parked – Sybil and Branson don’t appear, for example – but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The big headline plot is Mary and Matthew’s on/off romance, which now reaches a new height. Mr Bates also gets a huge storyline, but he’s mostly off-screen with wife Anna carrying the emotional weight. Elsewhere, Nigel Havers is a fun if underused guest star.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 7


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 Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 7 November 2010, ITV.

The family return to Downton after the season in London… Mary considers whether to marry Matthew or not, Bates’s job hangs in the balance, Mrs Patmore’s eyesight needs drastic action, and Cora discovers she’s four months pregnant.

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us the episode starts in July 1914. It ends with a garden party on Tuesday 4 August, at which Robert announces that Britain is at war with Germany.

Where is it set? The house. The dowager’s cottage. Crawley House. For the first time, the show visits London: there are scenes set in St James Park, Rosamund’s house in Belgrave Square, Moorfield Eye Hospital, and an army barracks.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) appears for the first time, having been mentioned in previous episodes. She’s Robert’s sister and lives in London.
* Mrs Bird (Christine Lohr) is Isobel’s cook. She’s seconded to the big house when Mrs Patmore has to go away for an eye operation. She’s an unlikeable battleaxe, but there’s a nice twist when Mrs P returns from London and the two women bond over the perils of being a cook.
* Mr Bromidge (Sean McKenzie) comes to the house to install the telephones. He moans that he can’t find a secretary, so Sybil persuades him to interview Gwen for the job.
* When the household learn that Mr Bates was imprisoned for theft, he won’t explain what happened. So Anna sets off to investigate. She visits Bates’s former army barracks and talks to an unnamed NCO (Richard Hawley), then goes to see Mr Bates’s mother (Jane Wenham), who tells her that her son was covering for his wife, Vera.
* Cora’s mother is mentioned for the first time – she lives in America, and Cora dreads the idea of her coming to visit.

Best bits:
* Cora praises Sybil on her success during the ‘season’ in London. Edith is jealous: “You never say that to me.” “Don’t I?” her mum patronises. “You were very helpful.”
* Robert’s stunned reaction to Cora being up the duff. “I don’t understand what we’ve done differently.” She suggests he go and offer the doctor a whisky.
* The lighthearted subplot about Sybil getting Gwen a secretarial job. Composer John Lunn gamely trots out his plinky-plonky comedy music.
* Carson practicing using a telephone. He accidentally calls the operator.
* Cora loses her unborn baby. “It was a boy,” says Robert, his voice cracking.

Worst bits:
* Upon returning home from weeks in London, Robert asks if there’s any local gossip. Mrs Hughes, aware of the need to shoehorn historical references into the dialogue, replies that everyone’s concerned with the murder of the Austrian archduke. “I’m afraid we haven’t heard the last of that,” says Robert.

Real history:
* The episode is set around the start of the First World War. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) was assassinated in Sarajevo on Sunday 28 June. Thomas reads in the Daily Mirror that the killer, Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), has been arrested. The end-of-series cliffhanger is Britain declaring war after Germany failed to recognise the neutrality of Belgium.
* Violet mentions writer and political activist HG Wells (1866-1946), a pioneer of science fiction amongst much else.

Upstairs, Downton: The First World War broke out in season three of Upstairs, Downstairs. In The Sudden Storm (1974), the servants are on a day out by the seaside there they hear of the declaration.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is not happy with the idea of progress. “First electricity, now telephones,” she says. “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an HG Wells novel.”

Mary’s men: Mary is staying with her aunt in London as the episode begins. She’s not getting many romantic offers because, as Rosamund points out, she’s now seen as a survivor rather than a society debutant. Old pal Evelyn Napier pops round and assures her that he’s not responsible for the gossip about Pamuk’s seedy death. He reckons the leak came from Edith, so Mary later scuttles her sister’s romance with Sir Anthony. At the end of the episode – which is also the end of the first series, of course – Matthew breaks her heart by deciding to leave Downton. She left it too long to answer his proposal.

Doggie! Spotted sat by Robert’s feet when Mrs Patmore is called up to the library to discuss her eyesight.

Review: The outbreak of the First World War hangs over the whole thing, and a number of pointers to how series two will play out are apparent. But domestically the biggest thing that happens here is Cora’s short-lived pregnancy. It’s slightly odd that this subplot is confined to just one episode – she reveals she’s expecting and then loses the child in just 42 minutes of screen time. But it gives the entail storyline a kick up the arse: if she has a boy, Matthew will no longer inherit Downton and Mary therefore might not be so keen to marry him. Then the way Cora suffers her tragedy is also rather shocking. Lady’s maid O’Brien thinks (incorrectly) that she’s about to lose her job, so cruelly engineers an ‘accident’… Downton Abbey is largely a safe, cosy, Sunday-night drama but it’s often very effective when it steps outside that framework and does something genuinely nasty. Elsewhere, lots of other plots are bubbling away – Mrs Patmore gets her eyes fixed, Anna digs into Bates’s secret past, Thomas tries to secure a cushy job for the coming war, and Mary wrecks Edith’s hopes for romance. The cliffhanger – “We are now at war with Germany…” – points to changes coming in the second series.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 6


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes and Tina Pepler. Directed by Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 31 October 2010, ITV.

Rumours about Mary cause a stir, but she’s realising that she’s in love with Matthew… Elsewhere, Sybil attends political rallies with Branson, but is injured in a fight, while Bates and Barrow’s rivalry leads to Bates offering his resignation…

When is it set? An on-screen caption tells us it’s May 1914. The episode takes place over a few days.

Where is it set? Rippon, country lanes, the house, the dowager house, and Crawley House.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord and Lady Flintshire are mentioned for the first time. Susan is Robert’s cousin, so therefore also Violet’s niece. Hugh is a minister at the Foreign Office.
* Sir Anthony Strallan appears for a second time, intending to woo Mary but ending up making a connection with Edith. He talks about his late wife, Maud.

Best bits:
* While they get ready for bed, Robert apologies to Cora for losing his temper over dinner. “Next time you want to treat me like a naughty schoolgirl,” she says, “you might do it in private.” So, *that’s* how it is in their marriage!
* Edith having a bit of happiness with Sir Anthony is very sweet.
* Mary and Matthew’s flirting. She says she likes a good argument. He replies that if that’s the case “we should see more of each other.”
* Sir Anthony arrives to say he has two tickets to a concert in York. Mary starts to make some excuse… but then he says he talking to Edith.

Worst bits:
* Robert is annoyed that his daughter Sybil went to a boisterous political event without his permission. “I confess I was amused at the idea of an Irish radical for a chauffeur, but I see now I have been naïve,” he quips, naturalistically.

Real history:
* A man in a street is giving an impassioned speech about Emily Davison, who “last June” was crushed to death under the hooves of the king’s horse during the Epsom Derby. May 1914, meanwhile, saw a spate of suffragette protests: in separate incidents, three portraits at the Royal Academy were defaced, while a planned march on Buckingham House was stopped by the police.
* A by-election is due, and Robert assumes the Tory will be returned. (The Liberals had been in government since December 1905, but presumably Downton is in a safe Conservative seat.)
* Sybil is due to be ‘presented’ to King George V (1865-1936), who’d been on the throne for four years by this point, and Queen Mary (1867-1953) the following month.
* Sir Anthony Strallan has recently been to Austria and Germany. Mary says that’s interesting. “Interesting and worrying,” he says. He tells Edith that Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) is “such a mercurial figure: one minute a warlord, the next a lovelorn poet.”

Upstairs, Downton: The subplot of outsiders knowing about Mary’s indiscretion with Mr Pamuk reminds us of a pair of episodes of Upstairs Downstairs from 1972 – Magic Casements, where Lady Marjory has her head turned by a younger man, and The Property of a Lady, where someone tries to blackmail her about it.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When the Dowager is aghast that Sybil has been canvassing for a potential MP, Mary sticks up for her sister, saying she’s entitled to her own opinions. “No, she isn’t,” snaps Violet, “until she is married, then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.” Also worth mentioning is the scene where a shocked Violet learns that Cora helped Mary move a dead body.

Mary’s men: Rumours about Lady Mary and Mr Pamuk are now doing the rounds in London. (In the previous episode, we saw Edith write to the Turkish Ambassador, presumably telling him about what happened.) Cora even has to admit to mother-in-law Violet that the stories are true. Mary is unaware of all this, though, and her face lights up when Matthew comes for dinner. He later proposes – incredibly oddly, he pops the question off-screen. She tells her mother she’s thinking about it…

Doggie! Robert’s pet is spotted sitting by his feet as he writes at his desk.

Review: Adding Branson to the mix (it’s odd that he wasn’t already there in episode one) brings Downton Abbey’s attitude to revolutionary politics into the light. He and Sybil are both radicals who want to challenge the status quo, and the Edwardian/pre-War era of these stories was a time of upheaval and change. But Downton is nothing if not cosy. It’s a Sunday-night period drama on ITV, so the script is constantly checking the bolshiness. Branson might be for an Irish uprising and votes for women, but he still has to admit that Lord Grantham is a decent man and good employer. Also questionable from a political point of view is the scene where the announcement of the by-election result descends into a punch-up – because, you know, working class people can’t be trusted to act reasonably. Elsewhere, the show’s idiosyncratic attitude to the passage of time continues. Nine months have passed since the last episode yet characters behave like it’s only been a few days. But because it’s spring, the women often wear very pretty dresses.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 1 episode 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 Brian Percival. Originally broadcast: 26 September 2010, ITV.

In the series premiere, the aristocratic Crawley family are rocked by the deaths of their estate’s heirs… What will happen to the house and its resources? Meanwhile, a valet called John Bates struggles in his new job, and a duke comes to visit…

When is it set? A caption tells us that it’s April 1912. As the episode begins, the sinking of the Titanic has hit the newspapers, which would mean it’s probably Tuesday 16 April (the ship struck an iceberg in the early hours of the 15th). The episode takes place over several days or maybe weeks – enough time for memorial services to be arranged and attended, and for Mary to go through a period of mourning.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, a stately home in Yorkshire (in real life it’s Highclere Castle in Hampshire). The dowager cottage where Violet lives. The post office and churchyard in the local village of Downton (in real life: Bampton in Oxfordshire). We start with Mr Bates on a train thundering through Yorkshire. We end in Matthew and Isobel’s house in Manchester.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars: Being the first episode, there are loads of regular and recurring characters being introduced. In order of first appearance:
* John Bates (Brendan Coyle), who arrives at Downton to start his new job as valet. He has a limp from his time fighting in Africa.
* Daisy (Sophie McShera), the dopey kitchen maid.
* Gwen (Rose Leslie), a housemaid.
* Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid who’s kind towards Mr Bates.
* Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the cook.
* Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the head footman who resents Bates getting the valet’s job so plots to undermine him. He’s secretly gay.
* William Mason (Thomas Howes), a footman.
* Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper.
* Mr Carson (Jim Carter), the butler.
* Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), the family’s eldest daughter. As the Crawleys have no son, it’s up to her to marry well in order to secure the estate’s future.
* Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), a lady’s maid with a spiteful streak.
* Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Boneville), the man of the house.
* Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), the family’s middle sister.
* Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay), the youngest sister.
* Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Robert’s Amercican wife who he married 24 years earlier for her money – but they soon fell in love.
* Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), Robert’s acerbic mother.
* George Murray (Jonathan Coy), the family solicitor.
* Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Robert’s cousin and a lawyer in Manchester. The Titanic deaths mean he’s now the heir to Downton and its wealth, despite not knowing his relations.
* Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother.

Best bits:
* Early Steadicam shots give us a sense of the geography of Downton Abbey’s ground floor. They also show how well-drilled the servants are at opening up the house.
* Thomas sarcastically refers to Mr Bates, who has a limp, as Long John Silver.

Worst bits:
* The expositionary dialogue! Watch actors try to make information about a complex legal mechanism seem like naturalistic conversation!
* We also get the cliché of characters saying they thought the Titanic was unsinkable, which is presumably true to life but still sounds written.

Real history:
* Robert and Cora mention knowing some of the real-life Titanic passengers: businessman John Jacob Astor (1864-1912), his second wife Madeleine (1893-1940), and Noël Leslie, Countess of Rothes (1878-1956).
* Robert knows Bates because the latter was his batman during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).
* Violet mentions that her home was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).

Upstairs, Downton: Given the similar settings and situations, it was inevitable that this show would cover similar ground as period drama Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75, ITV). ‘Updown’ had also used the sinking of the Titanic for a storyline, for example, while both shows have a fussy butler, a cook frustrated by her simple kitchen maid, a gay footman, and a family with a moral father figure and bickering siblings… Thomas’s subplot with the visiting Duke of Crowborough vaguely echoes the 1971 Updown episode A Suitable Marriage. Meanwhile, electricity has just been installed at Downton; the 1972 Updown episode Your Obediant Servant, which is set in 1909, had the same thing happen at 165 Eaton Place. A very noticeable *difference* is that, while the shows’ families are roughly the same size, the staff at Downton is considerably bigger.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Cora asks if she and natural enemy Violet are to be friends, Violet replies coolly, “We are to be allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.”

Mary’s men: Robert’s eldest daughter was engaged to Patrick Crawley, her cousin and one of the victims of the Titanic disaster. But it seems it was just to be a marriage of convenience in order to keep Downton and its wealth in the family. She’s certainly not that upset at his passing (her sister Edith, who was in love with Patrick, is much more cut up). Mary later gets all a-flutter when the dashing Duke of Crowborough comes to visit and flirts with her. But he then privately tells Robert that he’s not interested in her. In a later scene with footman Thomas we understand why…

Doggie! Robert’s faithful Labrador is seen a few times, including when we first spy Robert, though he or she has not been named yet.

Review: This 65-minute opener introduces a large cast – eight family members, 10 servants – but almost all of them make an impression and have moments to shine. (William the footman, maid Gwen and youngest daughter Sybil are perhaps the only ones to miss out.) Downton Abbey is a soap opera, really, so needs a large and dynamic group of characters, and the relationships and subplots being established here are more about questions than answers. We get unrequited romances, sibling rivalries, antagonisms, secrets and lies, and a series of shit-stirring characters: Thomas, O’Brien, even Mary. Of course, it’s also a soap with astonishing production values. There’s a real polish to the filmmaking. Rumours have the show’s budget as being £1 million per episode, and the locations, sets, period costumes, props, set dressings and lighting schemes are all wonderful. They more than make up for the occasionally creaky dialogue. A good start.

Next episode here…