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: A Journey to the Highlands

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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 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 Moseley 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 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…

Downton Abbey: series 3 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 Jeremy Webb. Originally broadcast: 21 October 2012, ITV.

Sybil has been buried, but the family disagree over her baby daughter’s future. Also, Cora’s still giving Robert the cold shoulder, Mrs Patmore helps Ethel cook a feast, while Alfred and Jimmy both flirt with new kitchen maid Ivy… and Thomas flirts with Jimmy.

When is it set? A few days have passed since the last episode, so we’re still in the middle of 1920.

Where is it set? The house. Isobel’s house. The village. The prison. Violet’s house. Mrs Bartlet’s house in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* There’s mention of a wet nurse called Mrs Rose, who’s looking after Sybil and Tom’s infant daughter.
* Daisy goes to visit her father-in-law, Mr Mason, and he asks her to help run his farm. He wants her to be his heir. Daisy is typically ungrateful. 

Best bits:
* The family assume that Sybil’s daughter will be christened, but then Tom says she will be raised Catholic. “He wants the child to be a left-footer!” says Robert, disgusted.
* Isobel, in an attempt to cheer up Cora, invites her and “the girls” to lunch. But she hasn’t spotted that Violet is also in the room. “Do I count as one of the girls?” asks the Dowager, and Isobel flinches.
* Violet’s flustered reaction when Robert reveals that Ethel worked as a prostitute: “Well, you know, these days good servants are so hard to find…” Meanwhile, in a fuck-you to Robert, Cora treats Ethel with respect. (As a rule, the female characters are much more sympathetic towards Ethel than the men.)

Worst bits:
* In the argument over what religion the baby should be brought up in, Mary reveals that Sybil told her – on the day she died – that she wanted her child to be Catholic. Convenient. It’s almost like Sybil knew she was being written out.
* The servants discuss religion. “What do you feel about transubstantiation?” Thomas asks Alfred sarcastically.
* The Mr Bates subplot continues to drag. This week, his solicitor attempts to disprove the evidence of a key witness. The moment when he achieves it happens *off-screen*.

Real history:
* Robert says there hasn’t been a Catholic in his family since the Reformation.
* Mr Mason has seen the future: “Do you think these great house like Downton Abbey are gonna go on, just as they are, for another forty years? Because I don’t.” He’s not wrong.
* Mrs Hughes says that Sybil was a “bright young thing”. The phrase was a nickname given to rich socialites in the 1920s. Their scene was typified by parties, booze, drugs and dancing. Sybil was admittedly a bit of a rebel, but the label is still a bit of a stretch.

Upstairs, Downton: Ethel’s storyline is reminiscent of the Upstairs, Downstairs character Sarah (Pauline Collins), who starts out as a domestic servant, then sleeps with a ‘better’, leaves her job, has a child out of wedlock, and – controversially – returns to domestic service.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet wants Dr Clarkson to tell Cora that he couldn’t have saved Sybil. “So you want me to lie and say there was no chance at all?” he asks. “Lie is so unmusical a word,” she replies.

Review: The episode begins just after Sybil’s funeral: everyone is dressed in black, and religion dominates proceedings – especially an anti-Catholic prejudice.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 3 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 Jeremy Webb. Originally broadcast: 14 October 2012, ITV.

New servants Jimmy and Ivy settle in, Matthew has bold ideas about how to run the estate, and Lady Sybil suffers a traumatic labour…

When is it set? Not long has passed since the previous episode, so mid-1920. We’re told that Bates was arrested “a year ago” – and that was in April 1919.

Where is it set? The house. Bates’s prison. Isobel’s house. The estate.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Isobel hires former prostitute Ethel to work at her house. The cook, Mrs Bird, responds by quitting because she doesn’t want people thinking that she too is a fallen woman. “Nobody could look at you and think that,” deadpans Isobel.
* Sir Philip Tapsel (Tim Piggot-Smith) is a physician brought to the house to oversee Sybil’s labour. Dr Clarkson gets the hump at being superseded, though is on hand to point out that things are not going well: Sybil’s ankles are swollen and she seems muddled. Sir Philip doesn’t think this is a problem, but Dr C reckons she’s toxemic with the possibility of eclampsia and wants to move her to a hospital. Sir Philip says no and…
* …Sybil gives birth to a girl…
* …then in the middle of the night, Sybil’s in awful pain. It’s the eclampsia that Sir Philip insisted wouldn’t happen. “Once the seizures have started,” says Dr Clarkson sadly, “there’s nothing to be done…” Sybil dies a few moments later.

Best bits:
* Miss O’Brien says Thomas Barrow is a “clock expert”. Well, nearly. (This week, Thomas is enamored with new footman Jimmy and even gets flirty. This makes manly man Jim uncomfortable.)
* Isobel calling her cook’s bluff and accepting her resignation.
* Cora sticking up for Dr Clarkson when he disagrees with Sir Philip.
* Sybil’s death scene is *intense*. For a show dominated by stiff-upper-lipped-ness, it’s raw and emotional to see characters such as Tom and Cora balling their eyes out. After Sybil has passed away, we cut to downstairs: the servants are told and there’s shock all round. Thomas Barrow is distraught because he knew Sybil relatively well.
* The last scene of the episode is Cora coldly announcing that she blames Sir Philip and Robert for her daughter’s death.

Worst bits:
* Robert points out that Dr Clarkson misdiagnosed Matthew’s paralysis and missed the warning signs of Lavinia’s fatal flu. Probably not the best idea to draw attention to such things.
* Robert says Sybil is 24 years old. In a series-two episode, which is set just a year before this one, we were told she was 21.

Real history:
* When Edith is asked to write a newspaper column, she says it’ll cover modern women’s issues – not the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Dr Clarkson starts mentioning things such as urine, Robert blanches and asks him to remember that his mother is present. She’s not bothered, though: “A woman of my age can face reality far better than most men,” she says.

Mary’s men: Mary tells her sister Sybil that she wants to have a baby soon. While Sir Philip is at the house, Matthew takes the chance to ask him whether his wartime paralysis could have affected his fertility. He and Mary have had no luck after a few months of marriage. Matthew also talks to the family solicitor about his plans for the estate – and Mary’s not happy that he’s doing it the day after Sybil’s died.

Review: At the start of Downton Abbey the regular cast signed three-year contracts. As the end of that period approached, a number of actors decided to move onto pastures new – and here’s the first loss. In truth, Sybil’s never been the strongest character and, after her romance with Tom the chauffeur was revealed to the family, she’s faded into the background. But she gets a good exit: this episode is a barnstormer of melodrama.

Next episode…

 

Downton Abbey: series 3 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 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

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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 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 Isabel 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 Moseley 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 3 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 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. Isabel’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. Isabel 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 Moseley 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 Isabel 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 “Tim 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…

My 15 favourite hour-long episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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Yeah, I know they’re technically about 50 minutes when you lose the adverts. But having once listed my favourite feature-length episodes of ITV’s Poirot series, I thought I’d mop up the best of the rest.

* Murder in the Mews (15 January 1989) – this early episode has a neat twist and also demonstrates how the show embellished some often thin short stories when adapting them for TV.

* The Third Floor Flat (5 February 1989) – Josie Lawrence pops up in an episode set mainly in Poirot’s block of flats.

* Problem At Sea (19 February 1989) – one of the earliest Poirot-on-holiday stories, and the first episode where I worked out who did it (I was nine years old and very smug).

* The King of Clubs (12 March 1989) – especially in its early series, the show often used its 1930s setting to provide colour and flavour. This episode, for example, centres on the British film industry.

* The Dream (19 March 1989) – Agatha Christie’s plotting sometimes relies on you not being able to *see* the events and that obviously presents a problem for television. This episode has an ingenious solution.

* The Veiled Lady (14 January 1990) – in this light, frothy episode, Poirot dresses up as a workman so he can burgle a house.

* The Lost Mine (21 January 1990) – a slight mystery, but a stylish episode that uses London’s Chinatown as a backdrop.

* The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim (4 February 1990) – there’s a sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb twist, but also lots of comedy. Poirot learns some magic tricks, has to look after a parrot, and sends Hastings out to investigate on his behalf. The episode was written by David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek, Love Soup).

* How Does Your Garden Grow? (6 January 1991) – a nice, well-written mystery with some lovely subplots and a comedic conclusion.

* Wasps’ Nest (27 January 1991) – Peter Capaldi guest stars in a dark yet bucolic mystery story.

* The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (17 February 1991) – a nasty whodunit with stylish flashbacks.

* The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge (10 March 1991) – the script contains a superb sleight of hand, which plays tricks with the drama convention that characters always tell the truth about certain things.

* The Chocolate Box (21 February 1993) – a flashback episode to when Poirot was a copper in pre-war Belgium. Oddly, everyone has an English accent… except Poirot.

* Dead Man’s Mirror (28 February 1993) – a cracking mystery set in a country house with a limited cast of suspects (ie, the definitive Agatha setting).

* Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (7 March 1993) – Poirot and Hastings visit the seaside in the last ever ‘hour-long’ episode. A valuable necklace is stolen and I claim my five guineas.