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Downton Abbey ~ A Capsule TV Review

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Downton Abbey ~ A Capsule TV Review by Allen Kopp

The British TV series Downton Abbey is set on a large country estate in Yorkshire in Northern England in the early years of the twentieth century. The abbey of Downton Abbey is an enormous house of imposing appearance and many rooms, set in a park-like environment of lovely vistas, rolling hills, beautiful trees and lawns. The occupants of the house, the Crawleys, are, as you might expect, members of the aristocracy, which was becomingly increasingly irrelevant as the world and society changed around the time of World War I.

Robert Crawley, the owner of the abbey, is a member of the peerage, so his title is Lord Grantham. His wife, Cora Crawley, is Lady Grantham but you can call her m’lady or her ladyship. She is a rich American and a lot (most) of the Crawley money comes from her side of the family. And, of course, what family in a period costume drama would be complete without a matriarch? The matriarch in this instance is Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess. She is Robert Crawley’s mama (accent on second syllable). She is outspoken, presumably because she is in her eighties, and opinionated. If she likes you, she will treat you well, but if she doesn’t like you, you’d better watch out. Except for the late Dame Edith Evans, who could play the Dowager Countess better than Dame Maggie Smith?

The Crawleys have three daughters (Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil) and no sons, so that means there’s no male heir to inherit the title. In the very first episode, the Crawleys receive word that the heir to the title, Patrick Crawley, a cousin of Robert Crawley, has drowned in the sinking of the Titanic. That opens the door for cousin Matthew Crawley, the next male heir to the title, to appear on the scene with his well-meaning—though at times, overbearing—mother, Isobel.

Matthew Crawley is wholesome and handsome and just the right age to marry Lady Mary Crawley, the oldest daughter of Robert and Cora Crawley—such a marriage might keep Lady Mary from being penniless in later years—but—wait just one damn minute!—Lady Mary and Matthew don’t really like each other very much. Or do they? As you can see, there are (and are going to be) lots of complications of the romantic and other varieties.

They may be rich and pretty (mostly), but the three Crawley sisters are not without their personal problems. The lovely Lady Mary is drawn into scandal early in the series when a visiting Turkish diplomat (a real babe) just happens to die in her bed. This kind of thing can ruin the “reputation” of a young society woman, so her future is put in jeopardy. No decent man would ever want to marry her after her name has been dragged through the mud. Lady Edith, the middle daughter, is, of the three daughters, the one who might be called “plain.” As expected, she has a hard time attracting male admirers and she is afraid she will end up an “old maid.” The youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, thinks class distinctions are passé; she personifies how society is changing by falling in love with the handsome, young, Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson.

As you can see, there’s lots of drama on Downtown Abbey and that’s just the upstairs, for heaven’s sake! Below stairs we have the servants and they are just as interesting, if not more so, than the aristocratic Crawley family. Mr. Charles Carson is the no-nonsense butler. He’s British to the core, meaning that he hides his feelings, but we know he has them (feelings) and quite a lot them. Mrs. Hughes is the Scottish-accented housekeeper, a middle-aged matron who passed up her chance at marriage when she was younger because she is a servant and that is more important to her than anything. She has a kind heart and a mothering touch. Mrs. Patmore is the rotund, redhaired cook, not unlike a little red hen whose sky is always falling. After you get to know her, you like her fine. Daisy is the kitchen maid who is the soul of innocence. She has to take plenty of guff from Mrs. Patmore. William is the woebegone footman who courts Daisy (sort of) and then persuades her to marry him right before he dies of wounds sustained in World War I. The other footman, Thomas, is an extravagantly handsome, black-haired fellow with a black heart who seems to be willing to do just about anything to get ahead. Oh, and to make Thomas more interesting, he also happens to be gay. In the early going, he tries to blackmail a visiting aristocrat with incriminating letters written after they had a sexual liaison. He also, foolishly enough, makes an unsuccessful attempt to get the aforementioned Turkish diplomat into bed with him. (Homosexuality was a crime in England at this time, punishable by imprisonment.) Mr. John Bates is a pudgy fellow with a kind smile and a lame leg, a veteran (with Lord Grantham) of the African war. Anna Bates is a kind-hearted, saintly maid who falls in love with Mr. Bates and sees him through his woes with his wicked wife. Miss O’Brien is the sour-faced, acid-tongued lady’s maid of Lady Cora Crawley. She doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether to put her employers on a pedestal and worship them or stab them through the heart. As Thomas the footman says to her, “You’re sweet and sour.”

Season One of Downton Abbey was bookended by the sinking of the Titanic in April of 1912 and the beginning of World War I in August 1914. Season Two concerned itself mostly with the war, and it was fascinating to see how the abbey was turned into a field hospital for wounded officers, with the Crawley daughters all becoming nurses. So, you see, we have a large dose of history here and a lesson in how world-altering events shape the lives of a handful of mostly good and extremely interesting fictional people.

So far I’ve watched the first two seasons of Downton Abbey and am free to watch the other four seasons when the mood takes me. (That’s 52 episodes in all.) It’s a veritable feast of drama and escape into a world of fantasy that I prefer, when all is said and done, over the world I currently occupy.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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