‘Downton Abbey’: Series 2 preview

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Never have I had more of a sense of ‘born in the wrong time’ than I have when stood in the frankly majestic halls of Highclere Castle, better known as Downton Abbey.

I feel like a lord, strolling through the beautifully crafted archways of this stunning location; so much so that I find I have to continually remind myself that I am in fact a journalist of 2011 and not an heir to the Grantham Estate in 1916.

So back to reality, despite the difficulties of doing so amongst footmen (complete with their white gloves and pristine bow ties), housemaids in pinafores and a housekeeper so stern she’d give Mrs. Hughes a run for her money – oh and croquet on the lawn with tea and scones. Either ITV or the Highclere staff really know how to put on a show.

The second series of Downton Abbey picks up two years into the Great War, after the distressing announcement made by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) at the close of Series 1. Changes are afoot – with young men being sent to the battlefields of the Somme, families are torn apart and the Crawley household is no exception to the new world being set about them.

With war in full swing, Downton Abbey is made into a convalescent home for the wounded, something that has tremendous effects on all involved. Although I’ve only seen the first episode of Series 2, the effects of war are already clear, with characters from both ends of the social ladder going through drastic changes to their lifestyles.

We begin the series with an explosion, blasting mud and shrapnel high into the sky as heir to the Downton Estate, Matthew Crawley (rising star Dan Stevens), makes his way across the battlefield, carrying a wounded comrade in his arms. The tone of the series is evident from the word go. This is no longer the pampered world we’re used to seeing.

The show’s executive producer Gareth Neame spoke at the press conference about the war setting and how it was exciting to change the state of play so harshly; though he was quick to add that “the series isn’t about the war, it’s about the effect it has on the characters living through it”.

And boy, do we feel something for these characters now! Without doubt, two of the most loveable characters in the series – the withdrawn valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and the beautifully sweet housemaid Anna (Joanne Frogatt) – return to the screens with their once subtle romance blossoming fully. The feeling of elation is short-lived, however, with the return of Bates’ estranged wife Vera (stunningly portrayed by Maria Doyle Kennedy), who swoops in and causes havoc for the young pair.

Kennedy isn’t the only new face at Downton this year; the arrival of feisty and outspoken new housemaid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) quickly makes waves as she crosses paths with scheming O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran); never a brave thing to do. From what I’ve seen in the series preview, Ethel will be featuring in a large and very modern storyline over the course of the series; though I really can’t say any more.

The biggest new face, however, comes with the arrival of Miss Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle), the ravishing and seemingly innocent new love interest that Matthew brings back from London with him, causing quite a stir with many of the Downton residents – not least of which Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who you’ll remember was due to marry Matthew before turning him down for better prospects at the close of Series 1. Matthew reveals early on that he intends to marry Lavinia, though as we’re shown in the preview, Lavinia may not be as innocent as she appears.

If I honestly had to make a complaint about the Series 2 opener, and believe me it’s very difficult, I’d have to say that the drama throughout the episode (which is an hour and a half in length) and the sheer amount of ‘shout at the screen’ moments that arise have you so excited that you’d easily be forgiven for thinking this was the finale from the previous series and not the introduction to the new one.

Many of the characters are dragged to places you never thought you’d see them, both literally and metaphorically, and so you’re left with a sense of branching out, moving their separate ways and seizing their lives in the uncertain times of war. With the series beginning this way, I can only begin to imagine what could come next for them.

I really could go on forever, talking as though these characters were real; and to be honest, that is the beauty of Downton Abbey. Despite its setting and style, the show moves quickly like a true contemporary production, the drama doesn’t falter and there is always something happening to watch out for.

The show’s creator, Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, stated, “Although it’s set in the past, it has a modern structure. It’s very fast-paced and has lots of different stories running simultaneously, and you have to keep alert. The show has an energy that makes it very watchable.”

But it’s more than just the pacing; the cast performs beautifully, really bringing the characters to life. You tune in because you want to see Bates and Anna together, you want to watch what nasty scheme Thomas (Rob James-Collier) has up his sleeve (oh yes, we haven’t seen the last of him either), you enjoy seeing Robert struggling with his rebellious daughters – and of course, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton sparring is the highlight of a Sunday evening!

Speaking of the show’s success at the launch, Hugh Bonneville told of a small boy who approached him during the airing of the first series and ask why Thomas is such a ‘nasty man’, citing this as the moment where he first realized quite how popular the show had become. When asked if he thought the show’s popularity was due to it reminding people of a better time where people knew their class in life and stuck to it (I won’t tell you which daily newspaper he represented, I’m sure you can guess) Bonneville responded with “No, not at all, I think life was probably horrible for 90% of the population, so that’s not right at all.”

Series 2 begins this autumn, with a Christmas special scheduled for the festive period.

> Buy the Series 1 boxset on Amazon.

> Order the Series 2 boxset on Amazon.

Watch the Series 1 trailer…