Downton Abbey is a diamond, and Julian Fellowes, creator, executive producer, and writer of this engaging and addictive show, is a genius. You may remember him from the film Gosford Park; well Downton is the ultimate realization of that idea. Set in Yorkshire at the palatial estate of Lord and Lady Grantham, the three series span the years between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the early 1920’s, and series four will no doubt catapult us right into the roaring twenties.
I myself didn’t start watching Downton until the third series last year, but it didn’t take long before I was hooked. After the season closed I went back to the beginning and watched series one and two to catch up, and I love it even more now that I understand so much more about the characters and the plots. I knew O’Brien left the soap in her Ladyship’s way, but not why; I knew Matthew felt miserable about taking Swires’ inheritance, but not the whole story. So I am hooked, and eagerly await series four, airing in the US in January after its premiere in the UK in September. But why do I call it a diamond? It’s just another period drama, right? Well…
The facets of the diamond all sparkle brilliantly, but together comprise a gem of an experience from all angles. Granted, there are a couple of tangential story lines that go on a bit too long-for instance, the amnesiac who conveniently forgot about surviving the Titanic until injured in the war (!), but overall the picture comes together without a hitch.
The facets-first, Fellowes and his crew assure meticulous attention to period detail. Not only are the upstairs scenes shot at Highclere, the actual ancestral home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the autos, clothes, place settings, food and kitchen items, uniforms, medals on the soldiers, everything is precisely and seamlessly accurate and absolutely beautiful. The music is also an important part of this sparkling facet. The opening theme, as well as the entire soundtrack, compliments the story and setting perfectly. All of this serves to draw you into the world of Downton.
The second facet? The writing, directing, and acting! The characters are well drawn and although they suffer almost every malady, misfortune, and heartbreak known to man, you believe it all (well maybe not quite all-I still find it odd how quickly Lady Mary succumbed to the advances of the Turkish diplomat-but then I guess that’s the exception that proves the rule). It’s true that Fellowes saves the best lines for Dame Maggie as Lady Violet the Dowager Countess, although butler Mr. Carson gets his zingers too, but all of the dialogue is tight and to the point. The situations are timeless; war, in the trenches and on the home front, sibling rivalry, rebellion against parental authority, money troubles, unrequited love, evil plotting exes, accidental and not-so-accidental death, old ways smashing up against a new world, et al, so we can relate to them, whether the players reside upstairs or down.
Speaking of the “stairs”, Fellowes’ evenhanded portrayal of all of the characters, be they nobility upstairs or those “in service”, is the next gleaming facet. The upstairs family is not demonized for their social standing, in fact Fellowes makes a point of demonstrating that although they dress in white tails and finery for dinner every night, the responsibility of maintaining a great house and estate (and assuring its future) is no glamorous task. The economic fortunes of the whole area rest on the estate, and if it goes down, many people go down with it. The show seeks to portray the changes over the years, and help us understand the difficulty for the older generation (but then isn’t upheaval difficult for anyone? Although I must say I think Carson handles all the upheaval belowstairs better than Lord Grantham upstairs.) Speaking of those “in service”, Fellowes does a wonderfully evenhanded job with them as well. They are not pitied or coddled; but portrayed as people doing their work with care and attention to detail who derive an enormous sense of satisfaction from a job well done. If at first it is difficult for us Yanks to comprehend their pride in their contribution to the world of Downton and not immediately pity them as downtrodden victims (but then this blog doesn’t accept that kind of victimhood; we celebrate the individual), Fellowes quickly and painlessly brings us around.
The last facet of the Downton diamond? Fellowes created Downton Abbey to showcase not only fine acting and period detail, but Highclere estate itself! Much of the conflict in the show involves the recognition that Downton may be a grand old lady, but in the 20th century she must earn her keep and not continue to depend on the fortunes of others, both American* and British, as a bottomless well of cash. This is also true for Highclere, which according to a very interesting documentary about the estate, costs $1 million a year to maintain, even with a very limited staff. The brilliance of a show about the life and changing times of one of England’s great estates displaying and supporting one of those actual great estates is undeniable!
When all is said and done, quite the diamond! Looking forward to series four come January-how about you?
*For more interesting and fun insight into American heiresses like Cora marrying into (and propping up!) English nobility, please check out To Marry An English Lord; it’s been in my library and I must read it again! The 1989 edition is out of print, but thanks to Downton, a reprint came out in 2012.
Also, the story of the real British heiress who saved Highclere-Lady Almina.