Downton Abbey: series 4 episode 1

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

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by David Evans. Originally broadcast: 22 September 2013, ITV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downton Abbey: series 3 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: 4 November 2012, ITV.

As everyone prepares for the annual house vs village cricket match, Mr Bates wants to return to work and Edith writes a provocative magazine column. Also, a young relative comes to stay and causes a fuss…

When is it set? The cricket season of 1920. It’s not yet July. (Sadly, during the cricket scenes, it looks like a fair amount of post-production grading has been done to make a cloudy day look bright. Shadows come and go.)

Where is it set? All over the shop… The local cricket green. The house. The village and the surrounding countryside. Isobel’s house. A nearby cottage where Anna and Bates want to live. Also lots of places in London: Lady Rosamund’s house, the editorial office of The Sketch, and the Blue Dragon nightclub.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Moseley’s father returns for his first appearance since the first series. He’s a big cricket man, we learn.
* Violet’s 18-year-old great-niece, Lady Rose (Lily James), comes to stay in Yorkshire because she hates London. She’s the daughter of the Lord and Lady Flintshire we’ve heard mentioned before. Flighty Rose soon nips back to London and heads to the Blue Dragon, a jazz club on Greek Street in Soho, with a male friend…
* …Terence Margadale (Edward Baker-Duly), who soon gives away that he’s married. Matthew convinces Rose to give him up.
* Mrs Bryant, the grandmother of Ethel’s child, shows up again. She’s been uncomfortable about keeping Charlie away from his mother – so agrees to a plan for Ethel to work as a maid near where they live.

Best bits:
* Downton Abbey is cosy, Sunday-evening drama. But this episode doesn’t shy away from the harsh homophobia Thomas would have faced in reality. While not being totally unkind, Mr Carson still calls him “revolting” and says he’s been “twisted by nature into something foul.” (Later, Mr C objects to being called a liberal. No shit.) In comparison, Mrs Hughes and Mr Bates have more live-and-let-live reactions to Thomas being gay.
* Matthew makes a misjudged joke, saying that Mr Bates must be pleased he doesn’t have to take part in the cricket match. Anna teases him: “I think he’d like to walk normally, sir, even if playing cricket was the price to pay.”
* Walking into the nightclub, Matthew says it’s like the outer circle of Dante’s Inferno. “The *outer* circle?!” replies Lady Rosamund.
* When Jimmy is angry at Thomas making a pass at him, Robert says, “If I shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton I’d have gone hoarse in a month.”
* A nice bit of dramatic irony: Bates feels sorry for Thomas Barrow so fights his corner. But he accidentally goes too far: rather than just getting Barrow a good reference, Bates saves his job. And Thomas now outranks him.
* Edith wears a very fetching cream-and-green outfit with beret when she confronts Michael Gregson about being married.

Worst bits:
* Miss O’Brien is a very one-note character now. All she does is act cruelly. She’s currently dripping poison in Jimmy’s ear, manipulating him into punishing Barrow for making a pass. Jimmy tries to blackmail Mr Carson into giving Barrow a bad reference. So when Mr Bates finds out he then threatens to expose O’Brien’s part in Cora’s series-one miscarriage.  

Real history:
* For the people in the cheaper seats, Mr Carson points out that in 1920 homosexual acts were illegal in the UK.
* Robert mentions a new type of business practice in America: the Ponzi scheme, which pays investors back with money from other investors rather than generating legitimate profit. It was named for Charles Ponzi (1882-1949), the American who popularised the idea.
* Miss O’Brien makes a sarcastic reference to poet and wit Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

Upstairs, Downton: The scene in a 1920s London nightclub bring to mind the Upstairs, Downstairs episode An Old Flame (1975) in which James Bellamy paints the town red.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Isobel suggests that, when they were children, Robert and Rosamund had to be starched and ironed in order to spend an hour with their mother. Violet bristles: “Yes, but it was an hour every day.”

Mary’s men: She’s been to London since the last episode. Then Matthew overhears Mary and her mum discuss a doctor. (“What are you talking about?” “Women’s stuff.”) Later that night, she declines a bit of rumpy-pumpy. Then Matthew visits a doctor in London about his failure to father a child… and bumps into Mary, who’s also there for an appointment on the same topic (using her mother’s maiden name as an alias). She learnt a few weeks ago that the problem was with her, though can’t bring herself to go into details. It meant a minor operation, but now all is fine.

Review: With Sybil’s dead, we need a replacement: so here comes Lady Rose. So brings with her the roaring 20s and scenes of young people jiving to jazz in a downstairs nightclub. Elsewhere, Edith and Michael’s flirting is fun, then takes a turn when she learns that he’s married. His wife has gone insane, so he is unable to legally divorce her. The episode also has a good running gag about Moseley. He keeps talking about his cricketing expertise, then when he finally goes into bat… he’s clean-bowled. 

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 3 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: 28 October 2012, ITV.

Bates is released from prison, Edith agrees to write for a magazine, Matthew flexes his muscles in running the estate, Tom plans to christen his daughter at a Catholic church, and Thomas makes a fool of himself with Jimmy…  

When is it set? Not long after the previous episode, so spring or summer 1920.

Where is it set? HMP York and the street outside. Downton and its estate. Isobel’s house. The village. Violet’s house. The London offices of The Sketch.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Robert and Matthew have a meeting with Downton’s land agent, Mr Jarvis (Terence Harvey). Now that Matthew is part-owner and co-manager, he’s suggesting new ways of running the estate. Jarvis is reluctant to the ideas and eventually quits in protest. He’d been in the job for 40 years. (Branson is his replacement.)
* Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) is the editor of London-based magazine The Sketch. He wants Edith to write a column for him and also invites her to lunch.
* Tom Branson’s brother Kieron (Ruairi Conaghan) comes to stay for his niece’s christening. He causes a ruckus by having a laugh with the servants rather than sitting with the family upstairs. He later shocks everyone by asking for a beer.
* A priest called Father Dominic christens baby Sybil.

Best bits:
* Mr Bates finally returns home and is welcomed by all (except Thomas, of course, who fears he’ll now be out of a job).
* Tom asks Mary to be baby Sybie’s godmother. Aww. The relationship between these two is very sweet these days.
* Violet surprises everyone by sticking up for Edith at the dinner table and saying she should live a little. “Have you changed your pills?” teases Isobel.
* Having allowed himself to believe that Jimmy likes him, Thomas Barrow sneaks into Jim’s room and tries to kiss him while he sleeps… Straight-as-they-come Jimmy is furious. The servants’ breakfast the next day is a decidedly frosty affair. Jimmy even makes forward comments to Ivy, just to reassure everyone on which side his bread is buttered.
* Michael Gregson says he saw a picture of Edith’s sister Mary in the newspaper: “She looked very glamourous.” Edith dryly replies, “People say so.”

Worst bits:
* The ‘love square’ between footmen Jimmy and Alfred and kitchen maids Daisy and Ivy is not only hard to follow – which one fancies which again? – but rather dull.
* Downton Abbey convenient plotting klaxon. The post of estate manager becomes vacant just as Tom Branson is looking for a job.
* The photographer at Sybil’s christening just happens to suggest that the anti-Catholic Robert poses with Father Dominic. Sides splitting.

Real history:
* Alfred mentions that a new film is being shown at the village hall: Way Down East, a 1920 silent directed by DW Griffiths (1875-1948). It starred Lillian Gish (1893-1993), who Ivy says she likes. Alfred tells his colleagues it’s about a wronged woman who survives in the wilderness on her wits and courage. Miss O’Brien sarcastically adds: “Blimey. They’ve stolen my story.”
* After Alfred and Ivy have been to see Way Down East, they discuss the differences between English and American actors. Ivy Close (1890-1968) is mentioned, as is her film The Worldlings (1920). Close’s great-grandson is Gareth Neame, Downton Abbey’s executive producer and the man who suggested the idea for the series to writer Julian Fellowes.
* When Alfred laments that there are no film stars with his name, Ivy says there was a king: “the one who burnt the cakes.” Alfred (849-899) was King of Wessex from 871. He was the first ruler to declare himself king of all Anglo-Saxons, essentially making him the first English monarch.
* Michael Gregson is the editor of The Sketch, a weekly magazine about high society that ran from 1893 until 1959.
* While in London Edith also visits the offices of The Lady, a magazine founded in 1885.
* Michael takes Edith to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant. It was established in Covent Garden in 1798.
* While discussing Ethel, Mrs Hughes mentions The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, an 1850 novel by Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864). Violet has never heard of it.

Upstairs, Downton: Thomas’s storyline – an odd, unlikeable footman who struggles being gay because of the attitudes of the era – is reminiscent of the Upstairs, Downstairs character Alfred. 

Maggie Smithism of the week: Former prostitute and now maid Ethel tells the Dowager that her cooking is coming on. “I’m studying, my lady. These days a working woman must have a skill.” Violet replies: “But you seem to have so many…” 

Mary’s men: Matthew tells his wife that she wanted him to take an interest in the estate… and now doesn’t like how he does it. “You can’t have it both ways,” he says. “I can if I want to,” she replies. They then talk about their failure to have children. They’ve only been married a few weeks, but Matthew is assuming that the problem is because of his wartime injuries. He plans to see a specialist.

Doggie! Isis sits by Robert’s side as he has breakfast and is later seen in the drawing room.

Review: Bates had been in prison for over a year so it’s a relief that storyline is over. More positively, the character of Michael Gregson makes a good impression straight off – it’s a fine performance, and he and Edith have immediate chemistry. Also, the fact that Thomas is gay is remembered.

Next episode…