Ben Lawrence reviews the first episode of ITV1's Downton Abbey, series 3.
Downton Abbey, ITV1, review
By Ben Lawrence10:45PM BST 16 Sep 2012
At the end of last year’s Downton Abbey Christmas special, Dan Stevens’s Matthew Crawley got down on bended knee and proposed to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). There was a picturesque flurry of snow, Christmas lights twinkled, and, if I’m not mistaken, angels descended from the skies and sang madrigals. It was a deeply satisfying episode for fans who had become anxious after the wonky, half-cooked storylines of series two.
But romance couldn’t be the answer indefinitely, could it? Julian Fellowes, the writer, knows that while we love a happy ending, there’s nothing like a bit of jeopardy to keep us watching. So, in a canny reflection of our straitened times, series three of the nation’s best-loved costume drama began with the revelation that the Crawleys had lost nearly all of their fortune, thanks to an ill-judged investment in the Canadian railways.
In fact, so keen was Fellowes to ensure that Downton Abbey had contemporary relevance that he also had Hugh Bonneville’s Earl of Grantham utter the words: “I don’t want to be the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out.” For one agonising moment, it looked as if Bonneville was going to break the fourth wall and give a knowing wink to the camera. Especially since Bonneville was also the star of the BBC’s spoof Olympics comedy, Twenty Twelve.
This felt like a programme back to its best, the one we fell in love with back in 2010. The script was tight; the detail was there.Fellowes’s gift then and now has been to assemble a large and varied cast of characters and make them interrelate in a plausible fashion, which is where the BBC rival Upstairs Downstairs — with its pared-down household, all of whom stared at one another as if they were strangers — so obviously failed.
And then there was the addition of Hollywood glamour. Shirley MacLaine’s much-anticipated entrance as Cora’s mother, Martha, was a masterclass in how to command an audience.
As she swished grandly out of her automobile onto the Downton drive, the cast looked quite terrified of her; maybe they were acting (Martha was pretty scary), or maybe they were simply in awe of MacLaine’s formidable reputation. Anyhow, Martha was a breath of fresh Transatlantic air; and humorously shrewd about the ways of the English.
“It’s so strange to think of the English embracing change,” she said, moments after her arrival. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess looked as though she had just been offered a mug of luke-warm Bovril.
But, ultimately, tensions are forgiven and forgotten at Downton. Halfway through last night’s episode, Mary nearly called off the wedding — “How can you be so disappointing, Matthew?” — but by the end, she was at the altar, and the whole house, both upstairs and downstairs, breathed a sigh of relief.
As she stood beside Matthew, Mary promised him she would be “unpredictable” — in a good way. It was a rather sweet moment but hard to imagine: for one of Downton’s most lovable qualities is that it is predictable. Good will conquer evil, love will conquer hate, and the Dowager Countess will conquer her distaste for vulgar Americans. Well, maybe.