Posted by: Paul | September 27, 2010

Downton Abbey

OK, before I get cracking on the post-holiday…errr…posts… I have to first mention this in a timely fashion.

ITV’s new sunday night drama, Downton Abbey, is the sort of thing the words ‘sumptuous’ and ‘lavish’ were invented for. Think the softest duck-feather cushion upholstered in the thickest, deepest velvet and adorned with intricate embroidery with real thread-of-gold woven throughout. This new seven part (seven!) series from the pen of Julian Fellowes, creator of the Oscar-winning Gosford Park, single-handedly proves me right in my fight against the mindset that ‘TV Is Crap’ from last Saturday.

Downton Abbey hits exactly the kind of sophisticated ‘Upstairs Downstairs’-type note that Gosford Park struck so well. If Fellowes had done absolutely nothing else since Gosford but sit down and concentrate on writing this, then it would have been nine years well spent. It’s (so far) the story of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville in an endearingly sympathetic turn) and his attempt to ensure that the estate into which he has poured his life stays within his family. But when the news of the sinking of the Titanic reaches the household, with his two male heirs unexpectedly among the lost, the succession is thrown into turmoil and the lives of those both above and below stairs hang on one question – who will be the new Lord of Downton Abbey?

Once again not a frame or a word of dialogue is wasted. Every character, no matter how minor or lowly their status, has a part to play in the story of Downton. This is Fellowes’ attempt to show that life on both sides of the Service divide is worthy of attention and study, and that those who devote their lives to helping others live theirs in comfort, are people with ambitions and dreams in their own right and are just as capable of influencing events – witness the way that the fate of the crippled new Valet, Bates, is taken out of his Lordship’s hands and is subject to pressure from the maids and butlers working in the hidden passages. This is office politics, 1912-style.

This series is a major undertaking. At seven parts of 90 minutes each (with breaks), it will run to well over six hours, and is exactly the reason why British television is justly famous for its quality the world over. I was gripped from start to finish, and we only met the new heir of Downton in the very last shot of episode one. This is ‘Event TV’ as it used to be – compelling, thrilling, intelligent – and absolutely unmissable.

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