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Sunday, 14 November 2010

Downton Abbey S1: A Master-Class In Storytelling

Perhaps my review of this exquisite series of television drama could be summed up by the title alone. Many people have already expressed quite articulately why Downton Abbey is the best thing to happen to British drama in years. I'd just like to add a few points from a writer's perspective.

I deliberately waited until I'd watched the DVD through before I wrote this. I wanted to see if I caught anything I missed the first time around and I wanted to see how well it flowed as seven episodes placed one after the other. A lot has been made of the time frame and how irritating it seems for the series to begin with the sinking of the Titanic and end with the advent of WWI. I admit that on first viewing I found it jarred a little, but when I watched again and realised that several months pass within the first episode alone, it doesn't seem quite so terrible. If anything, it demonstrates the monotony of life, especially for the servants. It also allows for development of relationships so they can reach the point they need to before the close of the series.

One of those is, of course, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, the cousins whose marriage would be the answer to the family prayers but who aren't eager to be pushed into a match of convenience. Their relationship development is curious but almost inevitable, although writer, Julian Fellowes, is adamant it shouldn't be an easy ride. Throw in potential dalliances with Mary's sisters and Mary's own disastrous fling with a Turk who proceeds to die in her bed and you've got a very Edwardian soap opera. However, the sparks between Mary and Matthew are evident from their first encounter when Matthew despairs of having one of the Earl's daughters thrown at him. Their ending, while not happy, leaves potential and seems to suit the characters. After all, following their tumultuous ride through the series a conventional happy ending would've been rather bizarre.

Fellowes is careful to offer a good balance of relatively 'happy' endings along with the more open ones. Gwen, for instance, lands her dream job as a secretary, after a lengthy bid to escape service. There also seems to be hope for Daisy and William who appear set on a sweet little romance after a series of maybes. Troublemaker, Thomas, escapes service and the perils of dying on the battlefield by applying to join the doctors while Mrs Patmore regains her sight and is back to her formidable self.

Then there are the questions left unanswered. Lady Edith has hardly been a model of purity throughout the series. However, far from being a motiveless harridan, the forces that have made her the jealous woman she is are demonstrated directly to the audience. All thoughts have always been on Mary's marriage and Sybil has the sweetness to shine as the younger daughter. As Robert and Cora discuss in one episode, Edith is probably the one to look after them in their old age. Treated as such her entire life is it any wonder Mary inspires such jealousy in her sister? Her acts against Mary aren't completely justified but they are at least explained. It is also unhelpful that Edith was in love with the man Mary was reluctantly set to marry. Throughout, the sisters torture each other whenever opportunity arises and their antipathy towards each other is always simmering underneath. However badly Edith has treated Mary, though, I still felt sympathy for her when Mary took her revenge and scuppered her hopes of marriage with Sir Anthony.

The love story between Anna and Mr Bates is perhaps my favourite aspect of the entire series. Very shrewdly painted at first, it soon developed into something that was evidently mutual and beautiful to watch. Joanne Froggatt has been in the habit of scene-stealing in everything I've seen her in and this was no different. Such a straightforward character who holds the knowledge that there are some things she can't influence. Two of my favourite scenes had to be the dual scenes that, in effect, book-ended their opening flirtations. When Anna takes a tray up to Mr Bates in the first episode she hears him crying and deftly avoids showing she has heard while asking him to keep in touch when he leaves. A few episodes later Bates reciprocates the gesture, taking a tray up to a sick Anna even though it's strictly forbidden for her to open the door to him. The symbolism of that gesture is just one of the many light touches that Fellowes left for examination but, beside that point, it's a beautiful scene that demonstrates their relationship growth sweetly.

I can't possibly cover everything in this review so I'll wrap up with just a few more points. Sybil is a remarkable advocate for the coming independence of women, intelligent and self-assured even within a constrained environment. Mrs Hughes and Carson are exceptionally understated characters whose complexity I can't even begin to justify with limited space. Not one character was left out in gaining some sort of development, even if they only appeared in a few episodes, as was the case with Molesley and Branson. Also, the precision of the plots are evident on second viewing. The deliberate viewing of the snuff boxes in episode one sets up the theft in a later episode, for instance. There are recurring themes - Mrs Patmore's indignation at not being able to manage her own stores and Robert's irritation with O'Brien as his wife's maid. Nothing is really forgotten from episode to episode.

I am delighted there will be a second series but I won't speculate on the changes that Downton will have to undergo as the war takes hold. I'd just like to finish the review by pointing out that Maggie Smith's portrayal of the Dowager Countess was the most inspired and yet obvious piece of casting I've encountered in a long time. Her line delivery inevitably stole every episode and I won't be forgetting her interaction with a swivel chair at any time in the near future.

Yes, there were historical inaccuracies. But truth sacrificed briefly in the name of excellent drama is something I'm happy to compromise on. What Downton Abbey portrayed to perfection was a group of people and their interaction with the difficult world around them. What else is good drama about if not that?

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