For those who didn’t RSVP their invitation for the televised inauguration in 2010, Downton Abbey is the critically acclaimed and multi-award winning TV series, written and created by Oscar-winning writer, Julian Fellowes. Collecting over 200 nominations and 57 wins, the indulgent period drama is also recognised by Guinness World Records as the most extolled English-language television series in the history of Primetime Emmy Awards.
It’s a series that later spawned a spectacular showcase for fans across America with Downton Abbey: The Exhibition and future locations still pending. Ahead of the film’s release earlier this year, Brits also relished the sights and sounds of the series, with a live orchestra on the grounds of Highclere Castle – hosted by our trusted Head Butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter).
The six-series spanning drama echoes ITV’s 1971 series: Upstairs, Downstairs, set in London’s luxurious Belgravia, depicting the lives of the ‘Bellamy’ household and their servants between 1903 and 1930. While Downton Abbey is set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate and portrays the dichotomy of the Crawley family and their servants between 1912 and 1926 – beset by en epoch of social, political and economical evolution. From romance and revolution to scandal and spectacle – the entire series was delivered with decadence and deliciousness – and a feature length film that has proved both satiating and moreish.
Set 18 months after the series culminated with its cloying Christmas special with all the trimmings, the film trails the anarchy the Abbey is plunged into when Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives a missive that King George V and Queen Mary – our current Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents – are to visit during their tour of Yorkshire. But while the thread of this story might reign supreme on surface, there are plenty of plotlines that interweave into the fuller fabric of the film, which Fellowes has deftly and deliberately designed for comfy and cushy viewing.
True to its episodic form, the story is structured through simultaneous subplots, served as a series of tasty tidbits of drama, ardour and aristocratic anarchy. For the entrée, we have of course, notice that the royals’ are visiting and it’s as simple as that that – but it’s the associated threat that extracts the full flavour from the film. Not only does it thrust the upstairs occupants into upheaval, but the downstairs staff too, who discover they are denigrated in their duties to facilitate the banquet. That’s because the royals’ staff decide they should be at the helm of service during their sojourn, after all, Carson’s match is more than a mere butler, he is the ‘King’s page’, okay?
So leave it to the happily wedded, Bates’s, to rally the downstairs denizens to contrive a plot of pride to ‘defend Downton’s honour’. A plot which sets in motion a ludicrous race to be one step ahead of the game and though perhaps inconsequential, it seems a necessary ruse to prove they are in fact worthy to serve their majesties, through revolution in the form of lip service. It’ a servants’ uprising against, well, supercilious servants.
In its midst, the Crawley family understand an estranged relative is arriving for a nebulous purpose, which introduces a new character, Lady Bagshaw, played by Imelda Staunton; and who better to challenge her visit, than the Dowager Countess herself (Dame Maggie Smith). It’s McGonagall vs. Umbridge reloaded. You see, [she] does not generally permit people to talk when she is talking (HP: OTP). By extension, introduces Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton) who serves as her maid and she tags along to the party too. A maid… as a guest… at the royal banquet?! The Dowager is determined to ascertain why because she will not have Bagshaw ‘unpicking every fibre of royal lineage’ thank you very much.
The trailer tells us Mr Carson is called upon by Lady Mary to facilitate the feat. And it’s little surprise that he obliges, to the chagrin of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan). But it’s because Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t exactly primed for the extravaganza or rather, looks like a ‘rabbit in front of a cobra’. It does however liberate him for a while, to explore the bittersweet realms of LGBT in the 1920’s and Fellowes doesn’t fall back on the reality of the ‘crime’ it was considered then too. So there’s a little romance but it’s more of an awakening.
There’s more romance on the menu! Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has eyes for the new girl in town, and as if Daisy (Sophie McShera) didn’t protract her calling enough in the series, Andy (Michael C. Fox) inadvertently makes a bold maneuvre to prove he’s a man of principle – everything our dissenting Daisy is adorably notorious for. But leave it to Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to keep her cooks in check: “Less philosophy and more elbow grease” in an ironic declarative. Conjuring lines from series 6 such as: “I wonder if wonder if Karl Marx might finish the pâté”.
It’s such clever quips and witty repartee that make Fellowes’ screenplay so memorable and quotable. Not least when we’re in earshot of a tête-à-tête between Cousin Violet and Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) or anyone on the receiving end of the Dowager. And ever the pacifier and antithesis to the Dowager, Isobel is asked: “Will you have enough clichés to get you through the visit?” Or the fact that ‘Machiavelli is vastly underrated”. Take a sip of tea, Dowager.
And while Branson might have eyes for the new girl, he’s also got hawk eyes on another furtive fellow, an ex-army man prowling his precincts to ensure Branson “is a leopard who has changed his spots”. But when the King and Queen arrive in the village for the welcoming procession, bedecked with bunting and horse-drawn carriages, can Branson justify his conspicuous tomfoolery?
The deduction is that Fellowes has come full circle from the second the series started. When it began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, it left the future of Downton in jeopardy, with Lord Grantham’s presumptive heir pronounced dead. And after a six-series spanning story and a conclusive catch up with the Abbey’s materfamilias’s – it’s between Lady Mary and Granny to determine the future of Downton.
With all the sumptuous revelry, beautiful banquets and authentic apparel of the roaring 20’s, together with a few new splendid drone shots of Downton and some shots peering through pillars not too distant from the estate, the the film is comfort viewing for Abbey aficionados. It also reminds us of a time pre-EU and how seemingly seamless politics once was (and could be?).