June Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Published 12 years ago

If you love period drama and can never have enough of the BBC’s Jane Austen adaptations then you will definitely love Downton Abbey (2010), a beautifully and accurately produced television serial, written and created by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park (2001) fame. Having completed two seasons to date, recently, it became the most successful period drama on British television since Brideshead Revisted (1981). A classic Edwardian tale, which titillates the romantic in all of us, Downton Abbeydetails the upstairs, downstairs world of an English stately home, providing minutiae of the hectic goings-on below stairs, in the world of footmen, maids, the housekeeper, the butler and the valet.

The programme pitch is simple: Downton Abbey is a great country house in Yorkshire and the Crawleys, the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three daughters, are a great family. Lord Grantham or Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) believes in the axiom duty before love, which led him to marry Cora, now Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), an American heiress nearly 25 years ago, just so that his beautiful estate would survive. But now, the Crawley family is beset with a succession crisis. Since the English law doesn’t allow daughters to inherit property, Downton Abbey is to be passed on to an immediate cousin who is engaged to the eldest of the Crawley daughters, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery). But, as luck would have it, the gentleman perishes in the Titanic in 1912.

Enter, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a third cousin of Lord Grantham’s, who is now heir to the large estate, and is invited to live on the estate with his mother. A doctor’s son and an attorney by profession he agrees to move to Downton as long as he can keep on working. But that decision shakes up the very core of the aristocratic lifestyle, where a profession is considered completely crass. His presence is objectionable to Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played so aptly by Maggie Smith), who asks why their ancestral home has to be given away “lock, stock and barrel to a stranger from God knows where.” In the meantime, Lady Cora is hoping and planning that her eldest daughter, Lady Mary, might once again be a suitable bride to the new heir to the family fortune.

Without giving away any plot spoilers, the two smash seasons of Downton Abbey aired so far, give one a wonderful idea of what it must have been like to be an aristocrat in early twentieth-century England. The story perambulates the lives of the family in their vast country estate and the etiquette of their daily routine; mealtimes, attire and society. Upstairs is quiet and correct and the downstairs is hectic and engaged as scenes switch from stately drawing rooms to the servants’ quarters and attic bedrooms. From the perfect attire and behaviour of Edwardian period footmen — the real measure of a family’s success at that time — to the fine dresses of the noblewomen of that period, this series provides some fascinating details of that charmed lifestyle. Eventually, in the second season when the First World War arrives to shake up the comfortable status quo of the British aristocracy, the producers of Downton Abbey do a fantastic job of making that time appear as authentic as possible on television — regiments were invented for the Crawley men and new crests especially made for the Crawley family.

So, now, as diehard Downton Abbey fans are experiencing massive Downton withdrawal — the new third season isn’t expected till September 2012 — this might be a great time to catch up on all the episodes you haven’t seen so far.

This review was originally published in the June issue.

The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline