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TELEVISION House divided

Downton Abbey ITV

true, having invested heavily in Downton Abbey (from 26 September), a sumptuous period drama for Sunday evenings. The series tells the story of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, owners of the abbey, their three marriageable daughters and their vast retinue of domestic staff. As the first episode opened, in April 1912, the household was waking up for the day, a busy time for the well-drilled downstairs army of maids, cooks and footmen. But even before his lordship had opened his freshly ironed copy of The Times, shocking news had spread through the household: the Titanic had sunk on its maiden voyage. The earl, Robert Crawley (played by Hugh


Bonneville), showed himself good-hearted, expressing concern for the “poor devils below decks”, but pompous. His butler, Carson (Jim Carter), remarked that the ship was supposed to be unsinkable. “Every mountain is unclimbable until someone climbs it,” came the portentous response. “Just as every ship is unsinkable until it sinks.”

he English love a lord, it is said, and ITV must be hoping that the old saw proves

and estate are set to go to the earl’s third cousin once removed, whom we have yet to meet. So Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Crawley’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), resolve to break the entail so that Mary can inherit the estate. The earl disagrees, thereby setting up a conflict that can be expected to simmer for the remain- ing six episodes. Meanwhile, there is trouble downstairs.

Leading members of the Downton Abbey cast at the Highclere Castle location, in Berkshire

But the national tragedy soon proved to

have consequences closer to home. A telegram informed Crawley that the victims included the heir to his title, and the heir’s son, who was engaged to Mary, eldest of the three daughters. As a woman, Mary couldn’t inherit the title, and a legal “entail” insisted that who- ever inherited the title also got the estate, including the fortune brought to the marriage by Cora, the earl’s American wife. With the heir (and his heir) dead, the title

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The earl has brought in his former army bat- man, Bates, to be his new valet. But some of the staff are determined to undermine Bates (Brendan Coyle), not least footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who thinks the job should be his. Bates has a gammy leg as a result of his Boer War service, and some of the staff insist that this makes him unfit for the job. Chief among his critics is the butler, who, as usual with fictional butlers, considers himself the true guardian of the standards and ethos of the household. This was a bumper 90-minute opening episode. The principal plot line took some explaining. Even so, there was time for another development involving a duke who decided against marrying Mary when he discovered she had lost her fortune. It was a lucky escape: it emerged that he had been in a homosexual relationship (“A few weeks of madness in a London season”) with the disgruntled Thomas. Thomas tried blackmailing him with the help of some letters the duke wrote to him – but the duke had cunningly stolen them from the servant’s room and now threw them on the fire.

Series creator and writer Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for Gosford Park, set in a not- dissimilar stately home. But I wasn’t convinced by this picture of pre-First World War country- house life. It wasn’t just the gay lovers who were behaving inappropriately: the servants were happy to share below-stairs gossip with their betters, while O’Brien, her ladyship’s maid, cheerfully offered the countess her opin- ion on what should be done about the entail. “It’s iniquitous,” she said. “They can’t expect you to sit by silent as your fortune is taken away.” There are a lot of characters, and most of them, especially downstairs, are as yet little more than types: there’s a scatty maid who has to have everything explained to her, a battle -axe, a plump cook, a nice footman and a nasty footman, and so on. Upstairs, the cast has scarcely more to work with. Mary (Michelle Dockery), the eldest daughter, has a welcome edge to her: she barely mourns her drowned fiancé, and is nicely sharp with a sister who accuses her letting the duke slip the hook: “At least I’m not fishing with no bait.” But it’s no stretch for Maggie Smith to play a domineering dowager, and I did feel a bit sorry for Bonneville, who holds himself stiff as a poker while intermittently holding forth on his sense of duty. Still, Downton (played by Highclere Castle) and its gardens are lovely, and there are copi- ous shots of steam trains, snuffboxes and silverware. It’s the Antiques Roadshow brought to life, and plenty of people will be happy with that. John Morrish

32 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010

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