Downton Abbey: An Empire in Change

downtonabbeyI’ve lost count of how many times various actors have come to my country to promote a new season of Downton Abbey. Because of the sprawling size of the cast it hasn’t always been the biggest names. But each cast member has become like family, especially to the viewers, and to a large extent each other. Whenever visiting they have provided interesting or amusing details or stories about what it’s been like doing the show. They’ve also shown a sense of humor; part of the attraction of watching these people in interviews is to see what they are like in modern times because it’s been so easy to identify them as characters stuck in the 1910s and 1920s. Downton Abbey brought back the past, romantically and vividly.

The story began in 1912, on the day when the sinking of the Titanic was reported in newspapers. We were introduced to the Crawley family, living at Downton Abbey, a Yorkshire country house. Money was often on the mind of the patriarch, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who many years ago had married an American heiress, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Their joint funds provided security and made it possible to maintain a large staff of servants. But according to old rules a male heir was needed in the future for the estate, and the Crawleys’ three children were all girls. A distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), emerged as a candidate to marry the eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), but everything was not hunky-dory from the start.

Meantime, the servants’ quarters were rocked by the arrival of a new valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), and the demotion of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who immediately viewed Bates as an enemy…

Covering many historical events
Downton Abbey
became a worldwide phenomenon, not unlike its predecessor Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975), which also followed servants and their masters during the Edwardian era. The first, short season covered the period between April 1912 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914; over the years, creator Julian Fellowes (who wrote every episode himself) preferred to move a bit slower, ultimately taking us to 1925.

Many actual historical events were covered in that time, including the war, Spanish influenza, and Adolf Hitler’s failed coup attempt in 1923, as well as the changes that affected the characters’ lives in more direct ways, such as new social habits, and the Crawleys’ evolving realization that maintaining their traditional lifestyle with a large household was inevitably going to become outdated and too costly. Conservatism often clashed with more liberal values, both upstairs and downstairs, in interesting ways. The love affairs (often complicated for more or less contrived but nevertheless enjoyable reasons) captivated audiences, as well as mean-spirited intrigues involving reliably wicked characters.

The style of the show, its sense of humor and themes borrowed heavily from another previous Fellowes production, the movie he won an Oscar for, Gosford Park (2001). The aristocratic writer, himself a baron, tended to repeat himself over the years, devising plot lines that seemed lazy (Bates usually found himself in some kind of danger)… but he also frequently redeemed himself with great assistance from cast and crew – not least Dame Maggie Smith, who was beloved as the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess.

Downton Abbey 2010-2015:Britain. Made for TV. 52 episodes. Color. Created by Julian Fellowes. Theme: John Lunn. Cast: Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley), Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Brendan Coyle, Laura Carmichael, Maggie Smith, Allen Leech, Rob James-Collier, Joanne Froggatt, Penelope Wilton, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, David Robb, Kevin Doyle, Samantha Bond, Lily James (12-15), Raquel Cassidy (13-15), Dan Stevens (10-12), Siobhan Finneran (10-12), Jessica Brown Findlay (10-12), Thomas Howes (10-11).

Golden Globes: Best Miniseries 12; Supporting Actress (Smith) 13, (Froggatt) 15. Emmys: Outstanding Miniseries 10-11; Directing 10-11; Writing 10-11; Supporting Actress (Smith) 10-11, 11-12, 15-16.

Quote: “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel.” (Smith)

Last word: “The first [season] would be before the war, essentially at the end of Edwardian England, and then the second would be the war, and the third would be after the war, when the world really was different. I mean, the 10 years between 1912 and 1922 was rather like the ’60s. The difference between 1959 and 1970 was absolutely extraordinary, and the same can be said of that time. One of the reasons we chose Highclere [Castle, the series’ main setting] is that Highclere is the most tremendous statement of aristocratic superiority. It really is a very early statement of the fact that as long as England is in the hands of the aristocracy, it’s a safe place to be.” (Fellowes, The Wrap)

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