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Downton Abbey - First episode reviewed

Downton Abbey

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

JULIAN Fellowes is a name synonymous with quality. Hence, new ITV drama Downton Abbey got off to a typically excellent start on Sunday night (September 26, 2010) with its keen mix of class, history and intrigue.

Admittedly, the show occupies much the same territory as Fellowes’ Gosford Park, for which he makes no apology, but is operating in a comfort zone that allows its writer and creator to fully explore some of the issues he holds dear with the benefit of more time to fully flesh out his characters.

The upper classes are therefore represented by Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his three daughters and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who are immediately confronted with tragedy and dilemma in the wake of the sinking of The Titanic in 1912.

With no male heir to Downton Abbey, Robert and family (including his mother, played by Maggie Smith), must face the prospect of the estate passing to a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

Downstairs, meanwhile, the lower classes, or servants, must juggle tending the earl’s needs with keeping abreast of their news as well as keeping a lid on their own politics and intrigue.

Overseeing them is Carson (Jim Carter), the resolute butler, and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), a no-nonsense house-maid. Their lives have been put out by the arrival of Bates (Brendan Coyle), a new valet and former British Army colleague of the Earl of Grantham, who has got the position ahead of footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) despite being lame.

As ever with a Fellowes screenplay, the ensuing drama is played out in intelligent, emotionally involving fashion. There’s a keen eye for period detail, an astute awareness of the class divide and a deep appreciation of the history of the era.

Downton Abbey therefore looks sumptuous but boasts plenty of heart and soul and is typically blessed with a cracking cast, all of whom got moments to shine in the opening (albeit advert strewn) 90 minutes.

Bonneville, as we’ve long come to admire and respect, is a mesmerising focal point… an admirable man with a firm sense of decency who is as much haunted by past weaknesses as he is duty-bound to do the decent thing.

His scenes with Coyle’s struggling valet were particularly affecting… although his dealings with his feisty wife (nicely played by McGovern) and devious Duke of Crowborough (a strong guest appearance by Charlie Cox) show he has both a wily and tough side when pushed.

Of the servants, Carter and Logan make a formidable double act as masters of their own ‘family’, while former Coronation Street star James-Collier a suitably devious footman, whose treatment of Bates and attempts to blackmail Cox’s Duke displayed a truly sinister side to his slick make-up.

Watch out, too, for Joanne Froggatt’s kindly head maid Anna, who shone in the few scenes she was afforded as an astute but sympathetic presence. Her silent moment in the corridor with a crestfallen Bates was truly touching and delicately played.

And let’s not forget Maggie Smith, of course, a typically formidable presence who tuck into Fellowes’ script with relish.

Downton Abbey may not be a stretch for Fellowes or some of his cast, but a few things are already clear: it’s beautifully made, impeccably acted and serves as a real treat for anyone who covets a good Sunday night costume drama. It’s also something of a coup for ITV.

It should be a pleasure tuning in to find out what happens next in the ensuing drama… and means the BBC truly has its work cut out in matching the high standards set by this production when it revives Upstairs, Downstairs as part of its Christmas schedule.

For now, though, let’s sit back and enjoy the fruits of what Fellowes’ arguably does best….

Read our interview with Joanne Froggatt

Downton Abbey is on ITV1 on Sunday nights from 9pm.