Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Downton Abbey (Series One)

It's taken me a long time to start watching the hugely successful period drama that is Downton Abbey. This is ITV's most popular and critically-acclaimed period drama since their adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited from way back in 1981. The show has been a smash-hit both here in the UK and in America. Of course I knew of Downton Abbey but I never really paid all that much attention to it when it first started airing back in 2010. Maybe I just didn't think it would appeal? I don't generally rate ITV's period dramas as highly as the BBC's and I only tend to watch period dramas which are based on novels I already like: e.g. Austen and Bronte adaptations. However I did start to become more interested in Downton Abbey last year and I did try watching it on TV. I only saw bits and pieces of it though because the completist in me felt I should start from the very beginning - so I got a boxset of series 1&2 a while ago and I've been going through the episodes with my mum because I knew this show would be her sort of thing.

Downton Abbey is a show set in the Edwardian era and is about the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, a fictional country estate in North Yorkshire. The show was created by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes who writes all of the episodes. Fellowes also wrote the films Gosford Park and The Young Victoria (the latter is one of my favourite films). Series one is made up of seven episodes and it starts the day after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, going right up to the outbreak of WWI in 1914. I've also read that Downton Abbey owes quite a bit to the BBC's Upstairs Downstairs - the original series from the 1970s - in that it's focused on both the aristocratic, "upstairs" family of Downton Abbey and their working-class, "downstairs" servants.

The upstairs characters of Downton Abbey include Lord Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his American heiress wife Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). The couple have three daughters: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Jessica Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Robert's mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), lives nearby and frequently visits Downton. I should also mention the Crawleys; these are the middle-class distantly-related cousins of the Downton Abbey family who move into the nearby village from Manchester at the start of the series. There's the young solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who is the heir to Downton Abbey, and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton). The two previous heirs to Downton Abbey died on the Titanic and Matthew has settled nearby so he can start to learn the ways of the estate that he will one day inherit. Downstairs the house is run by the butler Carson (Jim Carter) and the housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), with the cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Niccols) in the kitchen. There are numerous other servants. There are the footmen William (Thomas Howes) and Thomas (Rob James Collier). There are the maids Anna (Joanna Froggat), Gwen (Rose Leslie) and Lady Cora's personal maid Mrs O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran). There's also the kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) and, the newest addition to the household, the valet Mr Bates (Richard Coyle). Bates's arrival creates quite a stir in the household. We also get a new member of staff later on in the series, the politically-minded Irish chauffeur Branson (Allan Leech).

Downton Abbey isn't a show I'm head-over-heels in love with and there are several shows on TV that I enjoy a lot more: SherlockDoctor WhoOnce Upon a Time and Horrible Histories. I'd add Merlin to the list as well if it hadn't ended recently. Downton Abbey has its faults, well, things that I consider faults anyway. For example: series one is set in a two year period from 1912 to 1914 with months passing by from episode to episode. But by the end of the series it never really felt like two years had gone by to me. It only felt like a few months had gone by tops. Also, the storyline that involved Mary and the Turkish diplomat Mr Pamuk in Episode Three was so hilariously soap opera-esque that it literally made me laugh out loud! And no, it wasn't supposed to be funny! I've heard that the storylines for Downton Abbey get even more soap opera-esque in the later series so that is a bit of a concern for me. And now I've mentioned Mary I have to say that I got really tired of the constant bitchiness and nastiness between her and her sister Edith. I especially hated Mary. She's just so conceited and whiny and bitchy! As you can imagine then I found it pretty hard to care about her romance with Matthew. Their characters don't even seem all that well-suited and I think poor Matthew deserves better. It's funny really because I think Fellowes and the producers intended for the Mary-Matthew romantic tension to be the big love story of the show. However if you read comments and reviews of the show online you'll realise that most fans were more interested in the Anna-Bates and Sybil-Branson romances. Anyway, my criticism of Mary is entirely down to the character though because Michelle Dockery does a great job playing her.

Some of the historical details on the show didn't feel quite right to me either. Whilst Sybil's close friendship with Gwen is quite touching would an upper-class girl really be BFFs with her maid and even give her a hug? Some viewers have spotted modern satellite dishes and yellow road signs on the show as well which I find quite amusing!

Also, one of the storylines of series one involves Cora and Violet trying to break the entailment so Mary can inherit the estate. That didn't really make much sense to me. I'm not an expert on these things but it's my understanding that to break an entail you needed to have a lot of political influence and a huge amount of money - and even if you did have these things it was still unlikely to go through. So why do Cora and Violet even bother trying to break the entailment? Why don't they just try to get Mary married off as soon as possible? Although in fairness, they do spend a lot of time trying to do that as well. Maybe I'm just nitpicking.

Having said that I do actually like Downton Abbey quite a bit. It's well-written and has some engaging storylines. It has great actors. The characters are mostly likeable. It has superb production values and can be pretty funny at times. It really does have a lot going for it. The entire cast of Downton Abbey is excellent and there isn't a single weak link. All of the actors are great and are really well-cast. It's hard for me to single anyone out but I feel I have to give special praise for Dame Maggie Smith. As Violet, she steals every scene she's in and gets some very funny one-liners: "Put that in your pipe and smoke it!" : D I particularly enjoyed her clashes with Isobel. My favourite guest star in the series was Charlie Cox (Tristan from Stardust) in Episode One. Another thing that I liked about Downton Abbey are the characters. There isn't one main character in the show and it truly is an ensemble piece. I quite liked that. Also, considering that there are so many of them, the show does a a pretty amazing job with the characters' storylines. The characters all get a good amount of screentime and, considering how many of them there are, most of them are very well-developed. The only characters who didn't seem so well-developed to me were Thomas and Mrs O'Brien, the show's villains. They seemed really two-dimensional to me and I wish their motives had been better fleshed-out. I did like most of the characters in the show though and I liked pretty much everyone downstairs. Of the upstairs characters Sybil was by far my favourite out of the sisters and I really liked Violet, Robert, Matthew and Isobel as well; although I probably shouldn't count Matthew and Isobel since they don't actually live at Downton Abbey.

I have to mention the amazing production values of Downton Abbey as well. The show is visually stunning and it must have cost ITV a fortune. I was really surprised at how beautiful it looked and it's right up there with the BBC's period dramas in its aesthetics. The cinematography and costumes are beautiful and Highclere Castle makes for a gorgeous setting. My mum and I want to visit it this year. There's some very nice eye candy in the show as well in the form of Dan Stevens and ex-Coronation Street actor Rob James Collier. Man, his career's improved since then! Oh, and there's a seriously cute dog in Downton Abbey too.

So that's Downton Abbey! It's not a show I passionately love but I do really like it and watching its episodes is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Even if you're not into period dramas I'd still recommend the show it because it has a very modern feel to it.

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