Oooh, I do love a bit of Sunday evening period drama (or, as Grace Dent so wonderfully puts it in her ace review, “brain balm”). There’s nothing better to make you forget the looming drudgery of the working week for an hour or so. Downton Abbey arrived last night on ITV1, after much fanfare, so I settled down with a glass of wine and pen and paper to record my thoughts.*
Written by Julian Fellowes (who wrote Gosford Park, which I found pretty to look at but monumentally dull), Downton Abbey stars a cavalcade of prime acting talent. Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton to name but a few – as my parents would always say during such programmes “they’re all in it!”.
There’s a real ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ feel to this as the story takes in both the servants and the toffs living and working at Downton. We’re swept into the bustling activity of the household staff and given clues as to their allegiances and rivalries – for example, First Footman Thomas (played by Rob James Collier, last seen as Liam in Corrie – he has very pink lips) is smarting over being passed over for the position of Lord Crawley’s valet. The Crawley family themselves exhibit varying degrees of likeability – Lord Crawley is clearly an honourable man (Hugh Bonneville does quiet dignity so well), whereas his eldest daughter is at first meeting a bit of a bitch. And, of course, Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess is a complete dragon – I loved the scene where she shaded her eyes with a fan lest she be blinded by the newfangled electric lights!
The plot starts with the news of the loss of two Downton heirs in the sinking of the Titanic, and as Lord Crawley and his wife only have daughters the possibility that Downton Abbey will be passed to very distant relatives becomes real. Unfortunately much of the opening episode was therefore taken up with explanations of the laws surrounding inheritance in 1912 – entail and primogeniture et cetera et cetera, which meant that it dragged a little. There was some sharp dialogue too though, particularly the line “one swallow doesn’t make a summer”, which was most certainly NOT a reference to birds of either the feathered or female variety. Naughty 😉
My main problem with Downton Abbey, though, was the 90 minute running time and the MANY ad breaks. I know that ITV have to pay for all that sumptuous period detail and top notch acting somehow, but there were 2 commercial breaks in the first 25 minutes! Nothing kills period atmosphere quicker than Babs Windsor advertising internet bingo.
The remaining 6 episodes are shorter, I believe (hope!), so I’ll certainly tune in again as I’ve read that the pace picks up, and it’s certainly a feast for the eyes – the costumes are beautiful, and I’ve already fallen in love with the ‘house’ itself (actually Highclere Castle, see below). I’ll just make sure to press the ‘mute’ button during the ad breaks!
*I have a brain like a sieve – if I didn’t make notes this post would have read “Er, I liked it, a bit”…..