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Somehow, perhaps in a haze of dissertation research, I managed to miss the first season of Downton Abbey. I'm not sure how, because I know period dramas tend to be right up my street. Last Christmas, in anticipation of the Christmas episode, I settled down to watch both season one and two - quite a pleasant way to spend a couple of weeks off!
From the bits and pieces I had caught previously, I had gleaned that Downton was an amazing Stately home-esque house, with three beautiful, if a little moody, daughters wandering around - and one Maggie Smith. This perhaps may be enough for me, but I shall tell you a little more, just in case! Downton Abbey is the fictional estate of the Crawley family, found in Yorkshire. The family includes the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville); his wife, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), who is an American heiress; their daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). To round this family off is Lord Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). You may have noticed that the Crawley family have no male children - and this is where their problems begin; indeed, most of the first series focus' on this fact. The series begins in 1912. To be more exact, it is the morning of April 15th, and the sinking of the Titanic brings some problematic and distressing news to the family - and to their servants below stairs.
Yes, that's right. There's a bit of an Upstairs, Downstairs theme to this series. Not only do you follow the lives of the family, but also of their servants. As the show portrays, the lives of one are tied with the lives of the others. And it's really interesting to see the hierarchy of the servants is almost similar to the hierarchy of the gentry. The servants are led by the butler, Carson (Jim Carter) and the housekeeper, Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who is a little more relaxed, but no less respected by the servants - or the Crawley family. The kitchen is run by the authoritative and no-nonsense Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who runs her kitchen with the help of her downtrodden kitchen-maid, Daisy (Sophie McShera) - who is the lowest rank in the servant hierarchy, and it shows. There are many more servants and family, all of which are key to this tale. But at the risk of producing even more of a list, and spoiling some of the surprises of the show, I shall leave it at this brief (Ha!) selection!
So, as I mentioned before, the show begins with the sinking of the RMS Titanic. This devastating disaster leaves the family without a male heir - and a bit of an incentive to fight for Mary's right to inherit (because at that time, only male heirs could inherit). On her side are her mother and her grandmother, surprisingly working as a team to try and help her. But this isn't the only focus of the story; we also follow Mary as she attempts to conquest a nobleman or two's heart and get married - but her sister Edith and her schemes aren't the only things getting in Mary's way. And that's just upstairs! The servants have their own tales to tell - such as the scheming between two characters to ensure that they get a higher position in the ranks of the staff, which ends with some tragic consequences.
But, the show isn't all doom and gloom. Quite on the contrary actually. Yes there are some tense moments, and yes there are dramatic moments. There are even one or two tragic moments (about one per series). But what I like about Downton is that it isn't like a soap - overly dramatic and not a lot going on. There are some comedic moments, and cracking one-liners from Maggie Smith. There are heart-warming moments, sometimes from those you would least expect. It has been beautifully written, and the cast do it so much justice. I find myself rooting for characters, hating other characters and really believing their stories.
Not only do the family and servants have issues in their lives to deal with, but they must also contend with the changing world around them. This era was a great period of change, with women's rights being fought for (and won), the rumblings of World War One approaching - and even the class system begins to get shaken a little (but that is perhaps more next series). It's absolutely fascinating to see how individuals cope with the changes - there are some, like Carson and the Dowager that are set in their ways, but others, like Lady Grantham and Mrs Hughes (to an extent), that welcome the change and are willing to try to adapt to it. It gives us an opportunity to understand how much the world changed at that time, and how hard it was at times to accept these changes.
I seem to have picked another show with an exceptionally large cast. There are slightly more main cast members at the start - such as Mary, Lord Grantham and one or two of the servants. However, it very quickly becomes an ensemble rather than a supporting cast. Each character has their own story, their own role to play in the life of Downton. And each actor does their character justice. Chemistry sparks fly between certain characters that seem almost natural, and actual sparks fly between others - which can be interesting at times. But the whole cast work seamlessly together. Almost as seamlessly as I imagine a household like that would have worked together. And these bonds aren't just seen Upstairs and Downstairs, but between levels. You see bonds forming between servants and master, and the lines of duty perhaps blurring on occasion. They all work brilliantly together, and really play well off each other. At times, I can't imagine a Downton without the cast - even the really annoying ones that cause so many problems for people.
The final thing I would like to pick up on is the backdrop. The series is filmed on location at Highclere Castle (as well as some shots in Ealing studios). This is an absolutely stunning home - and one I intend to visit one day. The sets are so intricate and so grand - even the servants' quarters look fantastic (but perhaps not so grand). You can really see and imagine the house working - and I suppose it is in a way. (Perhaps watch out for a review from a visit sometime soon!). The other thing I love is the costumes. It sounds daft, but it is something simple like even the family re-using clothes that really impresses me. It is actually realistic - we don't just wear things once and throw them out, and neither do they. Evening wear pops up often (as they eat dinner in evening wear), but you see repeat outfits. This doesn't mean they aren't beautiful though - and through the series' some fashion changes; and so do the outfits slightly. But they do tend to stick to some old favourites. This is perhaps a way for the producers to save money, or is intentional, but I do love it. The servants uniform (yes, they have a uniform) is understandably far less intricate, but again, no detail is ignored. Like the family they have day and evening wear, and they even have 'normal' clothes that be-fit their rank in the household - and society.
Downton Abbey is a well-written and intricately presented period drama, with an outstanding cast. It gives us a glimpse of life in early 1900's, and how much it changed over a fairly short period of time. You feel attached to certain members of the family, and really get involved with the whole story of Downton. The only shame is that a series tends to be about 8 episodes - which are over far too quickly in my opinion. But, it has been renewed for a fourth series (yay!). At the time of writing, you can buy season 1 on box set for £9.39 on Amazon. So, what are you waiting for? Ready for a visit to Downton?
Downton Abbey series one DVD is a compilation of the first series of ITV's costume drama which normally airs on a Sunday night. The second series has just finished and series 2 has just been released. The DVD comes in 3 DVD's with all the seven episodes, thankfully without the ad-breaks and a making off, deleted scenes and a 'real' Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey is a TV programme which follows the trials and tribulations of the Earl of Grantham's family, servants and his aged mother the Countess dowager. The series was a ratings success but the coast of making everything historically correct meant that the original TV programme had longer than normal add breaks.
Principal actors and storylines
Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham, he is in his fifties, intelligent, forward thinking and has a more modern view on the world compared with his mother the dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). He is married to a beautiful American heiress and has three daughters all in their late teens or early twenties. His daughters Mary, Sybil and Maud are all young, pretty and the lines of succession are complicated by the lack of a male heir. The series begins with the death of two of the Earls cousins on the Titanic, both were the next in line to the Earldom, with their deaths the next male heir is a distant cousin living in Manchester. Matthew is approached and he and his mother come to live with the Earl, to get to know the Earl and his family. That's upstairs, the series also follows the travails of the servants downstairs lead by the head butler Mr. Carson. The intrigues up stairs are followed and amplified by the servants downstairs, with the heirachy upstairs there are the heirachies downstairs led by the head butler Carson, head cook and head of the maids down to the lowest maid.
There are of course villains both above and below stairs, the Earls daughters all fight and bicker leading to hurt and hate. Downstairs the head footman and the Earl's wife's maid are in cohoots downstairs and tend to enjoy stirring things up.
The series as I said starts with the sinking of the titanic in 1912 and ends with the outbreak of war in 1914, through the actions of the upper class upstairs and the servants downstairs we look at the suffragette movement, introduction of lighting, telephones and cars.
Successes and failures
Successes are the quality of the sets, the period correctness and the acting. Hugh Bonneville is perfect as the decent and forward thinking Earl. Maggie Smith as the aspergic and caustic dowager Countess whose views are firmly Victorian if not Georgian is a delight and her battles with Isobel (Matthews mother [played by Penelope Wilton) are a joy. Then there are the pretty girls, Mary and Sybil are gorgeous and get to dress in ridiculously ornate dresses and jewellry. The intrigues of the servants works well and the hostility between Bates, O'Brien and Thomas add to the quality of the TV series.
The programmes to have a long gap between the episodes, and some of the storylines tend to drift a little once introduced. The series tends to have strong interesting episodes but some of the episodes feel like padding and little happens, the series only happens in and around Downton Abbey, the nearby villiage so major events are only conveyed usually through letters to the Earl.
This compilation has all the seven episodes from the first series, it certainly helped me because I only started watching Downton Abbey at the start of series 2. Some of the storylines in that series are continued from events in series 1 so when I was watching series 2 I was a little confused as to why Bates the Earl's valet has issues with O'Brian the ladies maid and why O'Brian has a guilty secret. Watching the original series has made everything clearer and after watching the two series I've got to say that the first series is far better than the second. There is less of a sense of a posh version of neighbours and the storylines aren't as predictable.
This is classic highbrow costume drama and is well worth watching, it has a few problems and issues but compared to the usual rubbish on TV this is a diamond in the midst of averageness.