ITV’s Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Sometimes I hear about a show before it comes out and know instantly that I want to watch it. Unfortunately, more often, I’m too much of a sceptic. I have a horrible tendency of avoiding something that generates too much because I feel too much like I’m being sold to. This protects me from wasting my time on an over-hyped bomb but it also means that I fall into a lot of shows far later than everyone else, forcing me to play catch up. I did Game of Thrones – leading to an epic binge during my second year of university – and now I’ve done it again with Downton Abbey. Just in time for the promised film!

Downton Abbey is a period drama series created by Julian Fellowes, following the aristocratic lives of the Crawley family and that of their servants downstairs between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and 1925. It has a full cast but tends to focus more heavily on the struggles of Mary, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family, and the servants Anna and Mr Bates, a couple that gets all the worst in life thrown at them.

I am stupendously late to the game when it comes to loving Downton Abbey but love it I do. It’s an immersive world, as shown by the fact I binge through all six seasons, and it uses historical fact to build the drama within the fictional family. While I’m sure they take a number of liberties with the details, I actually learned a lot while watching the show. This was particularly true when it came to the character Tom Branson, an Irish socialist chauffeur, as I found out a lot more about Irish history and the politics of the time through his clashes with the family. While the educational factor isn’t the reason most people would choose a series, it goes to show the power of good television: teaching lazy people like me about things they wouldn’t go out of their way to learn about.

One of the big things that really sets the scene in Downton Abbey, and definitely helps indicate the passage of time across the series, is the fashion. While the costumes of most shows and films only garner a passing mention from me, I’m pretty sure I could devote a whole blog post on my favourite outfits in the series. Would anyone want that? They are beautifully detailed and relate well to the characters. I’m quite sure that I could be shown pictures of just the outfits and then easily allocate them to a character. While the servants and the older characters don’t go through great changes in their fashion, the young ladies of the Crawley family adapt to the times and demonstrate their personalities through everything from hairstyle to jewellery choice. I loved the detail they put in.

For a series like Downton Abbey to work, where it’s not necessarily all fires and cat fights (though there are some), the characters need to be strong. You need to feel a connection Thanks to the large cast and brilliant actors, it is inevitable that you will find someone at Downton to adore. For me, any storyline involving servants Mrs Hughes and Carson together made me happy. I just wished there was more of it. The youngest of the daughters, Sybil, was another one. The great thing about this was that you would feel encouraged to keep watching, even if you weren’t enjoying another storyline, just for the tidbits of these characters. You get attached to them and then, almost by association, you fall in love with the others.

While I have my personal favourite characters in Downton Abbey, the show would not have worked quite so well without Michelle Docherty’s Lady Mary. She is a compelling and well-written character who pretty much carries the series – and I say that as someone who doesn’t actually like her. As a person, she is incredibly flawed. Mary is selfish, cold, and conniving. She sabotages her younger sister, Edith, on several occasions just because she can. She ploughs through people to get what she wants out of life and only realises the negative impact she may have had later. And yet you can understand her and even sympathise with her. That is the mark of a truly well-written character. Mary’s actions cause a lot of the drama in the show but I am quite sure that she would be one of those characters you can’t take your eyes off of even if she didn’t.

Downton Abbey is such a binge-able show. I can’t imagine watching it week by week, episode by episode. It works too well as a show you just plough through because the episodes just flow. Apart from the odd episode and series ender, I can’t think of any abrupt cliff hangers that would say “oh, you must tune in next week!” but, admittedly, I was able to just watch the next episode any time that happened so that may have helped. But the structure just wasn’t typical. Because of Downton’s span across the years, it made sense that episodes often broke the passage of time, but there were still moments where an event would happen and I would be ready to move on to the next episode and… It would just keep going. Like Lord Robert collapsing in the last season – in any other show I would have been left staring at the screen in horror – but it just carried on to deal with the remaining drama and ended at a far less shocking moment. It threw me off on several occasions but I really appreciated the less predictable format.

I do wonder what they’re going to do for the Downton Abbey film because I felt the series was rounded out nicely. Apparently Maggie Smith won’t be returning, which is to be expected, but a lot of the other characters will. I think the most natural options would be to either focus on Downton’s life during World War Two or the family eventually reaching the conclusion that they must sell up. The series depicted the First World War in some detail so the war idea would make a good deal of sense, particularly as the house would be so well placed to help with refugees (a subject that would draw parallels to life currently). I do, however, lean towards the second option. There was a moment in the final season, after the family had let people visit the house to raise money for the hospital, that they discussed the benefits of opening the house full time and I thought that would be the end of the series. I had always been convinced that the series would end with the Crawley’s surrendering Downton Abbey. As that didn’t happen in the series, it seems like the natural conclusion is that it should happen in the Downton film. I could be wrong but, as a screenwriter, this seems like the most natural course of action to conclude such a wonderful series without the film feeling forced.

Downton Abbey is one of those shows that you fall into, wishing to be part of the exciting era it depicts, loving the characters, and obsessing about it when it’s not on your screen. I was late to the game but I’m so glad that I went back to it. Now I just have to wait for the film…

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