A wise journalist once wrote that, should the three minute warning ever go off, he would head into the nearest branch of John Lewis, on the basis that nothing truly terrible could ever happen there. It’s easy to feel the same about Downton Abbey.
Last series, in the space of only a couple of episodes, it established itself as the pedigree television brand; so now it’s back on our screens, it feels like normal (silver) service has resumed.
And what a joy it is to have Downton back! Like its sister in retail, Downton Abbey never knowingly undersells the viewer. For this is a vision of Britishness which shows us as we would like to see ourselves: dignified, imperious and self-sacrificing. These qualities are put to the test in the new series, more than ever, as the action moves forward to the First World War. Thus, all the ongoing storylines – the unrequited loves and social revolutions – acquire an added layer of pathos and poignancy, while old characters find new depths in service to their country.
‘The war,’ as Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham says, ‘is reaching its fingers into Downton and scattering our chicks.’ – among them, the heir to the Grantham estate. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is given a train-side farewell sequence, en route to the Front, that is purest Brief Encounter. It’s best not to watch this after a drink unless wishing to be overcome by maudlin sentimentality. The moment where Lady Mary presents Matthew with her childhood lucky mascot is pure dramatic contrivance – but, damn it, it works.
Writer Julian Fellowes is not averse to the moment of cliché: in the preceding scene, the maid, Anna, declares, ‘In my whole life, I never thought I could be so happy as I am at this moment,’ and one immediately fears the worst. But then, Downton Abbey’s trump card was always its depiction of thwarted love, and actors of the calibre of Joanne Froggat depict it beautifully.
No one, this series, is free from the pain of love and loss. As Lady Edith says, in the episode’s best line, ‘Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead’.
And there, in a beautiful moment of pathos, we have the key reason for Downton Abbey’s success: the dignity of the storytelling and the precision of a script which celebrates and elevates the English language.
Those who loved the first series will have found plenty to love here, as well as a growing unease for the safety of the characters. Can a series which has hitherto been so poignant dare to give us happy endings for both Anna and Bates and Matthew and Lady Mary? Will footman William, so naïve in his eagerness and patriotism, survive the war? Where have the cook’s spectacles gone? The success of the programme must be measured in the number of internet talk threads, exploding round about now, which will be devoted to unpicking such questions.
Any programme this good is certain to spawn a slew of copycat programmes – not just in drama, but in reality TV, too, of the ‘training to be a butler’ type. But before Five unleashes Downton Abi Titmuss, let’s take time to celebrate the genuine article. The service may be silver; but, as far as television goes, this is the gold standard.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 18th September 2011 on ITV1.