Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 2

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

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 27 September 2015, ITV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next episode…

 

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Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 1

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

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 20 September 2015, ITV.

Violet is apoplectic when a nearby hospital wants to take over running Downton’s cottage hospital. Meanwhile, a woman tries to blackmail Mary, Edith has problems running her magazine, and Robert considers downsizing the staff.  

When is it set? An opening caption tells us it’s 1925. It’s the hunt season. Robert refers to the “spring/summer ahead.”

Where is it set? Downton Abbey, its estate and the local village. Violet’s house. Dr Clarkson’s office. Michael Gregson’s old flat in London. Mallerton, a nearby country house that’s selling off its contents.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* A young Liverpudlian woman (Nichola Burley) shows up at the house on the day of the hunt and acts coyly when Carson asks why she’s there. She then watches Mary ride along and the two swap looks. Eventually Mary asks who she is and she introduces herself as Rita Bevan. She worked as a chambermaid at the hotel where Mary and Lord Gillingham had a week of secret nookie, and wants a £1,000 for her silence. Mary basically tells her to get lost, so the following morning Rita blags her way into Mary’s bedroom to threaten her; then the next day she tries her luck with Robert. He knew nothing about the dirty weekend, of course, and pays her to bugger off. But he only gives her £50 and gets her to sign a confession, which he’ll hand to the police if she comes back.
* Both Tom Branson and Lady Rose have, separately, moved to America since the previous episode. We’re told that Tom’s in Boston and Rose is in New York with her husband, Atticus.
* A local aristocrat, Sir John Darnley (Adrian Lukis), has fallen on hard times so is selling his large estate and auctioning off his possessions. Robert, Edith, Mary and Cora attend the auction and (for some reason) take Daisy with them – but Daisy can’t resist shouting at the estate’s new owner, who is threatening to evict her father-in-law.

Best bits:
* Having accepted Mr Carson’s marriage proposal, Mrs Hughes – a lifelong spinster, despite her title – is nervous about being intimate with him. Aww, bless. “Perhaps you can keep the lights off,” says Mrs Patmore, trying to help.
* A distraught Anna admits to her husband that she thought she was pregnant but now knows she isn’t; and this isn’t the first time. It’s another very moving performance from the amazing Joanne Froggatt.
* Violet’s bewilderment when Mary announces that she’s going to work as Downton’s agent.
* Mrs Patmore tries talking to Mr Carson about his wife’s fears. It’s comically awkward at first, then becomes very sweet.
* Violet’s maid, Denker, learns that her job is safe but that Downton’s staff is to be reduced. Being a shit-stirrer she gleefully swans over to Downton to tell the servants. When Violet finds out about the indiscretion, she allows Denker to believe that her job is at risk too. “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear,” she confides in Isobel.

Worst bits:
* The argument over the local hospital – Violet and Dr Clarkson wanting it to remain independent, Isobel and Cora advocating an arrangement with a larger institution – is the start of a very dull storyline.
* Rita has waited 12 months before attempting to blackmail Mary.
* Mr Green’s murder investigation drones on into a *fourth* calendar year. The Metropolitan Police are putting a huge amount of time and effort into the maybe-accidental death of a footman. Now, a woman has confessed to killing him but the police think she might be making it up. So while free, Anna and Mr Bates are still on tenterhooks… Then Sgt Willis shows up a few days later to tell them that the confession has been proved genuine. Downton Abbey’s worst long-running storyline is finally over.
* Violet says that Robert seems troubled. “Maybe I am,” he admits. “To be honest, I’m starting to ask myself how much longer we can go on with it all… The household, the servants.” He knows there are only nine episodes left, doesn’t he?!

Real history:
* Rita plans to sell her story to the News of the World, a newspaper published between 1843 and 2011.
* Edith says that she once met the writers Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and Lytton Strachley (1880-1932).
* Mary compares her father to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Italian diplomat who revolutionised political science by codifying amoral behaviour.
* She also refers to The Fall of The House of Usher, an 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
* Spratt mentions The Lady, a women’s weekly magazine since 1885.
* After Daisy has caused a scene at the auction, Carson wants her punished. “I’m sure she regrets it,” says Cora. Carson: “I daresay Guy Fawkes regretted trying to blow up parliament, m’lady, but he still had to pay the price.” Fawkes (1570-1606) was the most famous of the conspirators behind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.
* Mrs Hughes quotes Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1650s, who instructed painter Sir Peter Lely to paint him ‘warts and all’.

Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes’s relationship is very reminiscent of Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges in Upstairs, Downstairs – two middle-aged servants who have been friends for decades but romance blossoms.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”

Doggie! The first shot of the episode is of loads of hounds bustling to get free from a pen: Downton is getting ready for a hunt.

Review: The final season begins – and change is afoot. Not only is Robert thinking about reducing the staff at Downton but blackmailer Rita tells Mary that her kind is finished and the working classes are on the way up. Daisy’s father-in-law is also going to be homeless because his farm is being sold by its aristocratic owners.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: A Moorland Holiday

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

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2014, ITV.

The family holiday at Brancaster Castle, a stately home hired by Rose’s parents-in-law for the grouse season. Meanwhile, Violet tracks down the missing wife of her friend Prince Kuragin, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes make plans for their retirement, and Anna is languishing in prison. 

When is it set? We begin in September 1924 and then jump to Christmas (which is a white one). That means some of this episode is set precisely 90 years to the day before its broadcast.

Where is it set? A local prison. Downton Abbey. Downton train station. The English countryside. Brancaster Castle and its estate (in reality: Alnwick Castle in Northumberland). Violet’s house. A house Mr Carson wants to buy. Isobel’s house. York.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Stowell (Alun Armstrong) is Lord Sinderby’s butler who we meet when our characters go to stay at Brancaster. He’s a bitter, rude man who takes against Tom Branson and lords it over Thomas Barrow. When Mary sees what an oaf he is, she asks Thomas to take him down a peg or two. He plots to embarrass Stowell in front of everyone, then tricks him into revealing some sensitive information about Lord Sinderby. This causes Stowell big problems and puts him in his place.
* The long-missing Princess Irina Kuragin (Jane Lapotaire) has been finally found. Violet arranges for her to come to Yorkshire to be reunited with her husband. Sadly she’s rather rude and ungrateful.
* Atticus has been offered a job in New York, so he and Rose plan to leave the country.
* Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is a friend of a friend of Atticus’s who comes along to the grouse shoot. He’s a car fanatic and strikes up a connection with Mary.
* Henry and Atticus’s mutual friend is called Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn).
* Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) has been the agent of the Brancaster Castle estate for 18 months and is a genial, good-natured bloke. The old Lord Hexham, a previous owner of Brancaster, was his father’s second cousin. But Bertie is a working man. He meets Edith at the shoot and they become friendly.
* Diana Clark (Alice Patten) is a woman who shows up unannounced at Brancaster with a small child. Lord Sinderby is shaken to his core to see her… because the boy is his secret love child. Rose immediately twigs what’s going on and pretends that Diana is a friend of hers, saving her father-in-law from embarrassment and making sure his wife doesn’t find out about the indiscretion. Lord S is now much more predisposed towards Rose.
* Andy, the footman hired for a week in the preceding episode, is given a full-time job. He replaces Mr Bates, who during the episode does a runner out of the country…

Best bits:
* Immaculately dressed Mary visits Anna in a grim, dank prison.
* Mr Bates says he would cut his own arm off if it helped Anna. “Oh, I don’t think that’d be sensible,” quips Thomas Barrow. “We can’t have you wobbly at both ends…”
* Mary and Edith say goodbye to the children before leaving for Brancaster Castle. “Come to Mummy,” says Mary to her son, George. “Come to… me,” says Edith to her secret-daughter-who’s-posing-as-a-ward Marigold.
* Rose wants both sides of her family to use their Christian names. Her Jewish father-in-law points out that his name is not Christian.
* Mary dresses in an absolutely gorgeous frock and jewellery that accentuates her Louise Brooks bob.
* With the family away, Mrs Patmore plans a cosy downstairs dinner for the senior servants still at Downton. Carson is put-out to learn that young Daisy will be joining them. “If that thought’s too democratically overpowering,” says Mrs P, “you can share what I’ve made for the housemaids.”
* Robert kindly, gently lets Edith know that’s realised Marigold is her daughter. Now, everyone within the family except Mary is in on the secret.
* Poor Isobel is having doubts about marrying Lord Merton because his sons have been so resentful towards her. A snooty letter from the dickwad eldest son doesn’t help matters.
* Tom, Mary and Edith share a very moving moment when they hold hands and remember the late Sybil.
* Mr Carson asks Mrs Hughes to marry him. Aww. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says.

Worst bits:
* Poor Anna has been locked up on remand because, two years after a man’s death, a witness has come forward and identified her as being on the same street at the time. Later in the episode, we hear that the witness is now having doubts. No shit.
* “Well, Bates was found innocent,” says Cora over tea, pointing out that the same kind of plot is being done twice. “No doubt Anna will be too.”
* Oh, the murder-mystery plot gets even clunkier. We learn that when Anna was a child, her step-father abused her – so she threatened him with a knife and cut him in self-defense. And the incident is now being used by the police as ‘evidence’ that she killed Mr Green. This backstory hasn’t even been hinted at in any of the previous 42 episodes.
* Then… frustrated that his wife is locked up in prison, Mr Bates tells the police *he* killed Mr Green and then flees to Ireland. His sacrifice means that Anna is released on bail, but no one at Downton believes Bates did it. So Molesley and Miss Baxter take it upon themselves to prove his innocence. They visit 60 or 70 pubs in York and find a landlord who will testify that Mr Bates was there on the day Mr Green was killed. So Mr B returns. This entire storyline feels so arbitrary.
* Branson finally moves to Boston. He’s been planning this for about 700 episodes now.
* “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that I have a sister,” says Mrs Hughes to Mr Carson, one of her closest friends and colleagues who she’s known for decades.

Real history:
* At Christmas, the household sing the traditional Christmas carols God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen and O Come, All Ye Faithful.
* Mary then sings Silent Night with Edith accompanying her on the piano. It was written by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818 using lyrics by Joseph Mohr.

Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes plan to buy and run an B&B once their time at Downton is over. In Upstairs, Downstairs, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges make similar plans.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Robert says he’s happy his mother has come to see him off at the train station. “Why must you always talk of me as if I were a salmon who laid my eggs in the gravel and then swam back to the sea?” she replies.

Mary’s men: With the long-running Mary/Charles/Tony love triangle now put to bed, we’re into a new phase of Mary’s love life… A last-minute guest at the Brancaster shoot is a man called Henry Talbot. He’s ‘chumed’ with Mary on the shoot and asks if her husband is one of the other guns. “No,” she says, “but my late husband was quite good at it. In the end.” Their frosty dialogue is played with an underlying attraction. She seems quite disappointed when he leaves.

Review: Probably Downton Abbey’s least enjoyable Christmas special. There are plenty of nice scenes and subplots, but it doesn’t have much cohesion to it. There’s also a hackneyed storyline about a bitter butler who gets his comeuppance, a dull comedy subplot about some broth, and a limp climax to Prince Kuragin’s arc. The time shifts are slightly strange too. The Brancaster holiday makes up the episode’s first two-thirds, then we skim through a few months and it’s suddenly Christmas back at Downton. But the biggest issue, sadly, is the sense that the show is now circling back and redoing the same type of stories.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 5 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 Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 12 October 2014, ITV.

Thomas Barrow takes drastic measures, Robert weighs up whether to allow development of his land, Lord Merton asks Isobel to marry him, and Simon Bricker comes to visit again.

When is it set? Spring 1924.

Where is it set? The house and the estate. York. The village, including the school and the churchyard. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. Lots of places in London: Rosamund’s house, the venue of a dress show, Lord Gillingham’s flat in Albany, Piccadilly Circus, and Kensington Gardens.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Having been mentioned a couple of times, Mable Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) makes an appearance. She used to be engaged to Tony Gillingham… before he chucked her in order to pursue Mary. Obviously there’s some tension when the two women meet.
* Rose’s father, Lord ‘Shrimpy’ Flintshire, returns to England to tell her that he and her mother are to divorce. He knows this will cause a scandal but he’s too unhappy to continue.

Best bits:
* Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes keep giving Mr Molesley extra chores because he’s made such a big deal about being considered the first footman.
* We learn that, 50 years earlier, Russian Prince Kuragin asked Violet to run away with him – but then her husband gave her a Fabergé frame with pictures of their children in it. It made her realise she loved him so stayed.
* Lord Merton’s proposal is sweet. He tells Isobel that he’s not asking her out of loneliness or selfishness; he’s genuinely fallen in love. He asks her to think about it rather than give an answer straightaway.
* Thomas Barrow’s been looking sallow and acting oddly, then Miss Baxter overhears him crying out in pain in a bathroom. She forces her way in and sees medical equipment. Later, she discovers that he sent away for a barbaric package designed to ‘cure’ men of being gay.
* While in London, Mary attends a fashion show – and Downton goes full-blown 1920s. It’s an Art Deco lover’s dream.
* Anna’s also in London (because Mary is) and takes the opportunity to visit Piccadilly Circus – ie, where Mr Green was killed. Is she returning to scene of the crime?! The sequence involves an impressive green-screen recreation of 1924 London.

Worst bits:
* Robert’s dogmatic resistance to selling part of the Downton estate contradicts his position when Matthew died – so we get a line of dialogue to explain why he’s changed his tune.
* Bolshy schoolteacher Sarah Bunting is invited to dinner yet again. Before the meal, Tom Branson specifically asks her not to antagonise Robert, but she can’t resist in repeatedly trying to embarrass him (while, you know, eating his food and sitting at his table). So he loses his rag and demands she leave. The worst thing about the storyline is that her progressive politics are spot-on and Robert’s reactionary lifestyle is grossly unfair – and yet he’s the one you side with.

Real history:
* The Russian Revolution of 1917 is why the Tsarist refugees cannot return home. The current Soviet regime has no desire to help them.
* Violet refers to the House of Fabergé, a prestigious jewellery firm formed in Russia in 1842.
* As part of her schooling, Daisy is studying the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw King James II of England (James VII of Scotland) overthrown in favour of William III, Prince of Orange.
* Edith has news from Munich. A trial of some thugs is going on – the thugs who got into a fight with Michael Gregson. “I’ve read about this,” says her father. “They wear brown shirts and go around bullying people. Their leader tried to start a revolution last year.” The brownshirted Sturmabteilung were the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party; their leader was, of course, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Robert reckons they haven’t heard the last of them: “We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war,” he says as if he were a GCSE textbook.
* Mable Lane Fox makes an excuse to leave a conversation with Mary: she’s off to meet her friend Ralph Kerr, who she says gets tetchy if he’s left waiting. Kerr (1891-1941) was an officer in the Royal Navy. He saw action in both world wars.
* Cora mentions the Reign of Terror, a period of unrest in France in the 1790s. The then Lord Grantham was in France when it began but escaped with his art collection.
* Mrs Hughes finds a copy of The London Magazine (founded 1732) lying around.
* Robert and Miss Bunting’s row is referred to as the Battle of Little Big Horn by Mrs Hughes. Fought on 24-26 June 1876, the Battle of Little Big Horn was a major clash between Native American tribes and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army during the Great Sioux War.
* Anna mentions Kier Hardie (1856-1915), the founder – and first leader – of the Labour Party.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us accepting reality.” (“Oh, you only say that to sound clever,” says Isobel. “I know,” replies Violet. “You should try it.”)

Mary’s men: She heads for London – ostensibly to attend a fashion show – and bumps into Charles Blake. He asks Mary to dinner, where she reveals that she’s decided against a life with Tony. The next day she meets Tony by the Robin Hood statue in Kensington Gardens to tell him. He’s furious that she slept with him and is now dropping him, and refuses to accept that things are over.

Doggie! When Robert, Mary and Tom Branson inspect some Downton land, Isis comes too and has a fun sniff around the fields. She also gets a walk around the village.

Review: An entertaining balance of subplots: there’s plenty happening, as usual. 

Next episode…