Downton Abbey: series 4 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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 27 October 2013, ITV.

Alfred hears that he’s got a job at the Ritz, Mr Bates has a lot on his mind, Rose arranges a surprise for Robert’s birthday, and Violet sacks a gardener for theft so Isobel fights his corner…

When is it set? Spring 1922. Michael Gregson went to Munich “a few weeks ago”.

Where is it set? The house. Violet’s house. Isobel’s house. The Netherby Hotel. A country lane.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* There’s mention of Cora’s brother, Harold (who has yet to appear in the show). He lives in America and has got himself into financial troubles over oil leases.
* Simon Lowe plays a snooty maître d’ at a local hotel.
* Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) is a friend and colleague of Mary’s mate Evelyn. He comes to stay at Downton and is initially a bit brusk. He works for the government, looking into Britain’s farming estates, and rubs Mary up the wrong way by suggesting that national food production is more important than saving the aristrocracy.  

Best bits:
* Poor Edith. At breakfast she asks if there’s any post for her, clearly hoping for word from Michael Gregson. There isn’t. She later makes some phone calls and discovers that he’s vanished into thin air: no one has heard from him since he moved to Germany.
* Young gardener John Pegg calls Isobel ‘your ladyship’. She starts to explain that she’s not a lady, then just says, “Oh, never mind.” Great comic timing from Penelope Wilton.
* Thomas Barrow sees Rose coming out of Mrs Hughes’s pantry. “I wonder why Lady Rose was down here,” he says. Mrs H: “And I’m afraid you will continue to wonder.” She clearly thinks he’s a twat.
* When grumpy Jimmy says he doesn’t know why Alfred is nervous about his new job, Mr Carson swats him down by saying it’s because he’s intelligent. “Only stupid people are foolhardy.”
* Kevin Doyle continues to make every scene featuring Mr Molesley a delight. Having heard that Alfred is quitting, he goes – literally cap in hand – to Mr Carson to say he’s willing to take his place. Sadly for Molesley, Mr Carson is holding a grudge because Mr M once turned the job down.
* Edith gets a letter from her doctor: her symptoms, it says, ‘are consistent with those of the first trimester of pregnancy.’
* Charles Blake makes a good first impression. His relationship with Mary is cliché city – he annoys her, then they get on – but it’s a good performance and he feels like her intellectual equal.
* Rose’s surprise for Robert’s birthday? She’s arranged for a band from a London night club to play at the house. Of course, it’s the band she heard at the Lotus Club two episodes ago… including their African-American singer, Jack Ross. This causes a fuss amongst the lazily racist world of Downton Abbey. “Have you never thought of visiting Africa?” asks Mr Carson. Jack points out that his ancestors left there in the 1790s. As slaves. Embarrassed Carson then switches tacks pointing out that he’s proud of how Britain abolished the slave trade.
* Mary catches Rose snogging Jack Ross.

Worst bits:
* Tom Branson’s long goodbye is still dragging on. He’s going to move to America, he says. Yeah, right.
* Thomas Barrow, meanwhile, is blackmailing Miss Baxter for information. Yawn.
* There’s a rather predictable subplot about things going missing from Violet’s house.
* Anna and Bates go for a meal at local hotel The Netherby, but the maître d’ won’t give them a table simply because they’re not upper class. However, Cora is *coincidentally* eating there, sees the couple, comes over and embarrasses the maître d’ into giving them a table.

Real history:
* Jimmy mentions a new film: The Sheik (1921), which was directed by George Melford. Mrs Patmore says she likes its star Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926). (“He makes me shiver all over,” she says. “What a very disturbing thought,” says Mr Carson under his breath.) However, after Ivy has seen the movie, she reckons Valentino is slithery. She also mentions his co-star Agnes Ayres (1898-1940).
* Mr Carson compares Mr Molesley to ‘Kaiser Bill’ – aka Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – who abdicated reluctantly.
* Mrs Patmore mentions the Norman Conquest of 1066.
* Charles Blake works for David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), the Prime Minister.
* Carson quotes Robert Henley, the 1st Earl of Northington, who in 1763 said: “If a man sets foot on English soil then he is free.”
* Jack Ross and his band perform I’m Just Wild About Harry. The song was written in 1921 by Noble Sissle (lyrics) and Eubie Blake (music) for Shuffle Along, the first successful Broadway show written by and starring African-Americans.
* Cora asks Robert if they’ve ever met “this Senator Fall” that her brother is involved with. Albert B Fall (1861-1944) was a US Senator from New Mexico. In April 1922, it was revealed that he’d granted lucrative oil-drilling rights to his friends in return for $385,000. The furore was known as the Teapot Dome Scandal, named for one of the government-owned oil fields.

Upstairs, Downton: Mrs Hughes mentions the green baize door, the stereotypical threshold in an aristocratic household that divides the servants’ area from the rest of the building. When initially cooked up by actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, Upstairs Downstairs was planned as a comedy called Behind the Green Baize Door. 

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet watches the live jazz band performing in Downton Abbey’s hall: “Do you think any of them know what the others are playing?”

Mary’s men: Two admirers come to stay at the house, Mary’s old friend Evelyn Napier and his pal Charles Blake. She doesn’t get on with the latter and makes some barbs towards him; then they sit next to each other at dinner and he calls her out for being a hypocrite. “You seem to have brought a traitor into our midst,” she later says to Evelyn. Charles, meanwhile, tells Evelyn that he’s not keen on Mary because she wants everything on a plate. “She feels much the same about you,” observes Evelyn.

Doggie! Isis sits with the family as they have an evening drink.

Review: A disposable episode in some ways, though the introduction of Charles Blake shows promise.

Next episode…

Downton Abbey: series 4 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 Philip John. Originally broadcast: 20 October 2013, ITV.

Anna is still refusing to tell her husband why she’s being so distant, Alfred trains for a cookery test at the Ritz Hotel, and Edith makes a secret trip to the doctors…

When is it set? We’ve seriously slowed down now. Early seasons of Downton Abbey took place over a few years each; now, every episode is set just days after the last. So we’re still in mid 1922. It’s been long enough since episode three of this season for Anna to know that her rape hasn’t resulted in a pregnancy.

Where is it set? Outside the Bateses’ cottage. Downton Abbey. Isobel’s house. The churchyard. Violet’s house. The office of Dr Goldman in London. The Ritz Hotel.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) is Cora’s new lady’s maid, hired to replace the short-term Edna Braithwaite (who herself was Miss O’Brien’s replacement). She makes an effort with Cora – bringing her orange juice for breakfast, which reminds Cora of her American youth – and uses a thrillingly modern electric sewing machine. Thomas thinks he can get her to be his mole like O’Brien was, but Miss Baxter has other ideas.
* John Pegg (Joncie Elmore) is a local lad whose family are struggling, so Isobel gets him a job working as a gardener for Violet. There’s a bump in the road when the Dowager suspects he’s stolen a knife, but it turns out she simply misplaced it. (John and his mother actually appeared in the version of the preceding episode that was shown in the US. Their scenes were missing from the UK broadcast.)
* Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is a local farmer at Yew Tree Farm. His father has died owing back rent to Downton, so Robert and the others want to evict the family. But Mr Drewe wants to stay and argues his case. He wins the day – thanks to Robert secretly subsidising him.
* Alfred has a job interview at the Ritz. The sous chef who conducts it is called Arsène Avigno (Yves Aubert).

Best bits:
* Edith is optimistic when the post arrives, but she’s disappointed that there’s no letter from Michael Gregson. Poor Edith.
* Unseen by anyone, Mary’s eyes well up as she writes to Tony Gillingham to congratulate him on getting engaged.
* Edith says she thought Tony was keen on Mary. Mary replies caustically: “Not for the first time you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”
* The charming scene of Tom Branson playing with daughter Sybie.
* Edith visits London, telling people she needs to go to Michael’s office. But then we see her head for a doctor’s office…
* When Bates says he’ll leave because Anna clearly doesn’t love him any more, Mrs Hughes has no choice but to tell him about the rape… Of course, he doesn’t believe the detail that the man was a stranger and assumes it was Mr Green. He then tells Anna he knows what happened and pretends that the matter is at an end. But he later tells Mrs Hughes that nothing is over and nothing is done with…

Worst bits:
* How the Downton estate is run – which tenants to evict, which land to farm – has become a boringly recurring topic of conversation. At least it stops people debating who’ll inherit the house when Robert dies.
* Also dragging now is Tom’s feeling that he’s out of place at Downton. This week he moots moving to America.
* Alfred applying for a new job as a cook at the Ritz? Where’s the fast-forward button?
* Mrs Patmore is sniffy and dismissive about Miss Baxter’s new-fangled sewing machine. Then – guess what? – snags her apron and needs it fixing pronto.

Real history:
* Robert makes a passing reference to George III (1738-1820), who was on the throne from 1760 until his death (with his son as regent for the final decade due to George’s dementia). Violet does the same with the poet Lord Bryon (1788-1824).
* Robert tells Mr Drewe, “It’s no good painting me as Simon Legree,” when the latter is upset at being evicted. Legree is a slave owner in the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harrier Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). His name became a synonym for cruelty.
* Alfred wants to work at The Ritz Hotel. On Piccadilly in London, it opened in 1906. If he gets the job he will be working under the famous chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) while his interview is with Arsène Avignon, a sous chef who really did work at the Ritz. 

Upstairs, Downton: “Mrs Patmore,” asks Cora at one point, “is there any aspect of the present day you can accept without resistance?” It’s because Mrs P is unhappy about an electric sewing machine and a refrigerator now being part of her life. It’s reminiscent of Upstairs, Downstairs cook Mrs Bridges, who also had a distrust of modern gizmos.

Maggie Smithism of the week: When Isobel says that Violet cares about the unemployed as much as she does, Violet replies, “Nobody cares about *anything* as much as you do…”

Mary’s men: She reads in the newspaper that her friend Tony Gillingham, who’s been flirting with her over recent episodes, has got engaged and it upsets her. Later, her pal Evelyn Napier turns up on official business: he works for the government and is assessing rural estates’ chances of survival. (He adds that Downton is not under threat.) He says he has a colleague called Charles Blake, who will be staying at Downton soon.

Doggie! Isis bounds into the library at one point.

Review: An episode with a lot going on. Too much, probably. The show’s format has hit peak soap-opera-ness now: scenes are short and terse, and some plots feel short-changed.

Next episode…