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!