Well, two years after this show premiered on PBS in January 2011, and after the urging of several friends, I finally saw my first episode of Downton Abbey. Being an anglophile AND a fan of period dramas, this show has the ingredients of the kind of show I’d be into, and I’m glad to report that indeed Julian Fellowes’ popular period drama does not disappoint!
Here are just seven things that got me hooked:
Bear in mind I’ve only seen two episodes, so these are just my first impression of the show that made me want to keep on watching.
• The story
The social class of 20th century England makes for a fascinating drama, especially the fact that much like Gosford Park, the story focus on both the haves and the have-nots, kind of like Upstairs Downstairs but in a much bigger house, as my colleague calls it. There are just so many layers in the stories across social classes. I love how the series weave in and out of the lives of both the masters and the servants, and how money and status clearly doesn’t buy happiness as both classes have their own set of problems! Despite the fact that the masters of the house are treated like Kings and Queens, I like the fact that this show is NOT about British monarchy. It is essentially about one wealthy family, both a family by blood and marriage and also the group of servants living together like one family, all living under one roof. The servants care about the house as much as their masters do, as Carson the unmarried butler tells a fellow staff, “They’re all the family I’ve got!”
Fellowes — who won an Oscar for writing Gosford Park — certainly know how to craft a juicy story of people from all backgrounds. From sibling rivalry to servant rivalry, people of all classes plotting for and against one another to get or keep what they want, it’s a feuding frenzy with manners!
• The cast
It’s always fun to see British shows as they often recycle their actors. I’m familiar with a few of the faces in Downton Abbey even if I don’t know their names. The two I am accustomed with are Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith (collaborating again with Fellows after Gosford Park), one of my three favorite British Dames. I’m thrilled to see the always-reliable Bonneville in a leading role and a serious one at that. I’ve only seen him in comedies (Notting Hill, Mansfield Park, The Vicars of Dibley, etc.) but he definitely has the chops as a dramatic actor. He has such a pleasant countenance and dignity as Robert Crawley or Lord Grantham, the head of the massive estate and patriarch of the Crawley family.
Another actor I’m familiar with is Dan Stevens. I featured him in the Jane Austen rain scenes list, as I adore him as Edward Ferrars in the BBC miniseries of Sense & Sensibility. I much prefer him to Hugh Grant in that role. As the presumptive heir Matthew Crawley, he’s perhaps the most relatable to most audiences as he and his mother Isobel represent the middle class, not used to living in a big castle with so many servants. It’s always amusing to see how Violet sneered at Matthew working as a lawyer and Isobel serving in the hospital because of her nursing background. Even the servants give disparaging remarks, murmuring that ‘real gentlemen don’t have an occupation.’
• The characters
Characters are the spice of any film or show. They’re the ones that stick with you long after you’re done watching ’em, and this show is chock full of great, memorable ones! I’m going to hold off listing my favorites until I see at least the first season, but the Crawley family, both Robert & Cora Crawley, the American heiress, plus Robert’s mother, Violet a.k.a Dowager Countess of Grantham are all very fascinating. The tentative relationship between Violet and Cora is fun to watch, and not only because the nature of the a wife and her mother in law is ripe of conflicts, but their different cultural background also makes it even more intriguing.
And amongst the servants, I’m very intrigued by John Bates, the limping valet and the conniving footman Thomas who wants his job. There is something sinister simmering beneath the surface of both men, though Bates seemed like the ‘victim’ initially. Brendan Coyle is brilliant as Bates, as he was in North & South with Richard Armitage. I’m also intrigued by Lady Mary’s turbulent love life, which surely will get even more juicy as the series progresses.
• The dialog
Dame Maggie Smith seems to have the most great one-liners, and some of my friends who’ve seen the entire 3 seasons said the same thing. She’s quite the scene-stealer in this show, she’s a highlight in every episode. There’s something about her shrewd delivery that made those lines sound even better!
Cora, Countess of Grantham: Are we to be friends then?
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: We are allies, which can be a good deal more effective.
When she complained about the bright chandelier is such a hoot, normally I’d be annoyed by a wealthy woman complaining about the most trivial things in life, but the way Maggie Smith delivered it is just amusing.
Violet: Oh, dear, such a glare. I feel as if I were on stage at the Gaiety.
Can’t wait to hear more memorable lines as I catch up with more episodes!
• The historical lesson
A mix of historical events with fictional stories are always fascinating to me. The series started with the shocking news of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 12, 1912.
On board of the Titanic was the heir-presumptive of the Grantham estate, whom Lady Mary Crawley was betrothed to, so naturally that caused a major problem as the Crawleys have no son. Oh man, I’m glad I wasn’t born in those days. Not only that we couldn’t inherit anything, we couldn’t even earn our fortune either! In any case, Downton Abbey is essentially one big soap opera comprised of convoluted family drama, unbridled ambition and all kinds of scandals, but the historical setting and events make it feel more ‘grounded’ and not as superficial as it otherwise would.
I think season 2 would be set around World War I, which will bring a set of new issues for the Crawleys. Learning about class division and the prevalent cultures of the times couldn’t have been any more enjoyable!
• The costumes and set pieces
As a big fan of costume dramas, I expect to see gorgeous clothes and fashion of the times. Unlike in the Jane Austen era where the women’s figure is hidden under ginormous empire dresses, the clothes in post-Edwardian show more of a woman’s figure in their gorgeous gowns. Costume designer Susannah Buxton has won Emmy and Bafta awards for her astounding work.
There are sooo much eye candy in this series, and the costumes is definitely one of them. It’s such a treat for fashion lovers! The set design and architecture are fantastic as well, everything in and out of the estate is meticulously crafted down to its last detail which is just astounding. Just from the first episode alone, I’m in love with Lady Mary’s elaborate black choker below, soooo beautiful and such a perfect complement to her black lace dress.
Not only are the costumes beautiful to look at, but the production team of the show seem to have done their research to ensure historical accuracy. What each servant, footman, valet wore at the time are as crucial as what the masters put on as they reflect the measure of status. Reading the PBS site of the show, apparently the footmen were hired for their good looks and height, with the taller footmen earning a higher salary.
• The music
Since I haven’t made my Music Break post this week, I’m including John Lunn’s terrific score for the show. Lunn won an Emmy for Original Dramatic Score, and it’s become one of my favorites!
In an interview with THR, Lunn shared that he didn’t want to simply use library samples chosen by programmers, he insisted on using real musicians. He’s also mindful about the strength of the show, which is the dialog: “We use a 35-piece string orchestra, a solo piano and the odd solo instrument like a French horn and that’s about it. One of the reasons for a string orchestra is that it sits well under dialogue. You can have quite a lot of underscore without swamping the dialogue.”
Great music adds so much to the tone and mood of any production. All that drama, passion, intrigue of the show is reflected in the soundtrack. It really takes me back to the era and has that lush, beautiful melody that soothes the soul.
Well, do you watch Downton Abbey? What’s YOUR favorite parts about it? No spoilers please, thank you!
32 thoughts on “Musings on Downton Abbey – seven things that got me hooked on the show”
OMG, I love Downton Abbey. Like, almost more than life itself. My life is perfect when I sit down watching this and drinking cups of tea. Anyway, season one is definitely the best, season two isn’t quite so great and season three is so so so so so so sad. My favourite character has always been Sybil, but I love Mary too. And Dan Stevens is great. Also, where would we be without Maggie Smith’s wisecracks in this show? Haha.
Hi there Stevee! Glad to hear you love this series too! Ah yes, it’s lovely to watch this over a cup of tea isn’t it? In fact, that’s what I’ll be doing early this evening 😀 Can’t wait to catch up on all of the episodes. Sooo many great characters here, but yeah Dame Maggie tops ’em all!
I admit it sounds interesting but I can’t imagine myself watching. It’s not because I don’t think I don’t think I would enjoy it but I’m just not one to invest in a television series anymore. The last show I watched religiously was LOST. Couldn’t miss an episode. But since then I’ve tried only to fade after a few episodes. But who knows, maybe one day. I have several friends who LOVE DA!
I hear ya Keith. I haven’t been following any TV shows in a while, I much prefer to wait to catch up on them on my own schedule. I’ve always been a fan of costume dramas so I knew DA is right up my alley 😀
Yeah this does sound like something right up your alley! Just reading the description reminds me of several things you really enjoy. But I am a period guy myself and this may be one I try to catch up with eventually.
I’ll probably never watch this show, but I do want to rewatch Gosford Park soon. 🙂
Why wouldn’t you watch the show Josh? It’s excellent! I think if you like Gosford Park, you’ll likely enjoy DA.
Haha, it just doesn’t look like my cup of tea. Plus, it’s hard for me to get into new TV shows most of the time.
Hmm, heard a lot of great things about this show but haven’t seen it yet myself. I always have a hard time getting into British shows for some reason. Might give it a shot though… is this on Netflix?
Yes it is Eric. I think for sure season 1 and 2 are anyways. That’s interesting that you can’t get into British shows, for me I actually like those more than US ones.
So glad you are enjoying the show! I love the first two seasons and Maggie Smith has the best lines, she is hilarious! I really need to see North & South, I’m currently enjoying Richard in Strike Back, oh my God yesterday as I was watching it electricity died in the entire neighborhood – i blame his sexiness on that 😛
Oh man, I’m downright addicted! Maggie Smith is just awesome. I LOVE her expressions as she’s saying the most snooty things, ahah.
I actually watch most of Strike Back on Youtube, but yeah Richard is sooo hunky in that one and lots of shirtless scenes too 😉 Yep I bet his sexiness took off all the lights, ahah. Man, wait ’til you see him as Mr Thornton in North & South Sati, you’ll be a die hard fan in no time!
The shirtless scenes are unbelievable, finally a show where they know what the female audience wants to see! 🙂 I’m gonna check his episodes in Spooks next and then North & South 🙂
Ahah, yeah I think people who hire Richard knows he’s VERY easy on the eye, with or without clothes. He’s shirtless a lot as Guy of Gisborne too, in Spooks not as much and practically none in N&S but let’s just say he’s got other qualities. Never has a man’s cravat looked so darn sexy!!
God I’m gonna need to drink plenty of water during that 😛 Robin Hood series looks great too, Richard as a villain sounds really hot! 🙂
Yes and better sit down in case you hyperventilate 😀 John Thornton is just sooo well-written and Richard does brooding and that tortured-soul thing down pat. It’s a GREAT story that’s not just about romance, that’s what I like about N&S. But of course the romance is the best part about it! As for Guy, I’ll forever thank the series creator for putting Richard in all black leather! Oh la la!
I’m not hooked yet, I just haven’t had time to watch anything. I’m thinking I’ll have to wait until it’s over. It does look good though.
I hope you give it a shot Paula. Right now there are only 3 seasons and the 4th one hasn’t been shot yet. So far so good, Maggie Smith is so wonderful, she’s my fave of the entire cast!
She is excellent, there’s no doubt about it. I can’t guarantee anything, but i will try to watch it 🙂
Fair enough Paula. I hope you like it as much as I did, I wish I could watch an episode a day but sometimes that’s just not possible. Btw, I nominated you for a LAMMY this year, glad you’re a member now! 😀
Hi, Ruth and company:
No one does period costume dramas as well as the Brits!
Writing, location, sets, detail all seem to propel the cast to even greater heights.
Due to ‘Downton Abbey’, I’ve been going to You Tube for episodes of the superb Royal Engineers, WW II Bomb Disposal drama ‘Danger:UXB’.
Also, the forerunner of ‘Spooks’ or ‘MI-5’, ‘The Sandbaggers’. With Roy Marsden and Ray Lonnen.
Hello Jack! You’re right, the Brits has the period drama market cornered and boy do they have such splendid actors at their disposal, as well as writers! You seem to like military movies than I do though, I think for me spy shows like Spooks are more my cup of tea 😀
Many, many years in uniform, Active and Reserve may have something to do with my liking and appreciation of war films, series and service comedies.
Though I do enjoy great espionage, like ‘The Sandbaggers’. The early seasons of ‘MI-5’ when I had access to it. And the ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ and ‘Smiley’s People’ miniseries from the UK.
I’ve discovered that the brains behind the 1981 (US Release) series, ‘Danger”UXB’. James Hawkesworth, also went on to be the guiding hand behind ‘Upstairs’, Downstairs’ and ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’.
Very cool Jack. I didn’t know you’re a man in uniform, well that explains your amazing knowledge about anything military or war-related films!
That James Hawkesworth is one talented fellow, I’ve never heard of ‘The Duchess of Duke Street,’ I should look that up.
Spot on post, Flixy! I love that they film almost entirely in and around Highclere Castle (the real name of the house), everywhere except the kitchen. It’s been modernized so they have to film the kitchen (and some of the servants quarters too, I believe) in a studio.
Hey Becky, are you gonna go to Highclere Castle when you’re in London? Not sure how far that is from the city. I’d love to visit that beautiful estate next time I visit the UK.
It’s on my day trip maybe list, I would love to tour it. Rick Steves has a whole page devoted to Highclere in his 2013 London book, so that helps. I think it’s about an hour or two west of London (and it looks like it’s on the way to Cornwall, how convenient, I must say :-D)
Oh that sounds very doable! I DEFINITELY will go visit next time I’m there. I’ve been to Bath so I’ve got my Jane Austen *kick* out of the way, ahah.
It’s always fun getting hooked on a new show, this one looks right up your alley!!! Love it.
Ahah yes indeed! Always nice when that happens.
fine review, Ruth!
I can see why you like it so much…I am tempted to write 5 things I love about the boosh 😉
Good to know you have a series you really like….as for me, I am still not sure about The abbey
I’m sure you could come up with 50 reasons 😉