It was a heck of a night for Downton Abbey. With timing so pat Julian Fellowes wouldn’t dare write it into a script, the period drama returned to ITV on the same night it won four Emmys in Los Angeles.
Awards for Dame Maggie Smith, best direction, best writing and best mini-series (the US term for a serial, though no one could reasonably think of Downton as mini-anything) have crowned the first series a whopping success in America, even as the second delivered nine million or so viewers to ITV1 last night.
So how was it for you? Fellowes has taken the brave decision to jump ahead and plant his characters in 1917, in the midst of the First World War. Most writers would gladly have milked the first run’s era of Edwardian innocence for at least another couple of series before letting the war crash in on the characters’ hopes and dreams. Not Fellowes.
From the opening shot we were bombarded with the horrors of the trenches, which look like providing a counterpoint to the starchy comforts of aristocratic life back at Downton. Poor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) had to move between the two worlds and keep his sanity.
The leap in time meant we had a few on-the-nose exchanges where characters explained plot developments to each other (Exposition Abbey, they nicknamed it on Twitter). Did that bother you? One of the great things about Downton, for my money, is that even when it wobbles like this, or veers towards top-class soap, the conviction in the performances always delivers dramatic oomph.
The best scene involved Matthew and Lady Mary standing on a railway platform for an awkward, early-morning goodbye (he’s heading back to the Somme), as they wondered if they had blown their only chance of love. The dialogue and the upper lips remained stiff, but their eyes told a different story, the very British story about longing and regret at railway stations that we’ve been falling for since Brief Encounter.
Meanwhile, noble Bates was being noble again, limping off into the sunset, nobly. Hatchet-faced O’Brien was punishing a newcomer to the servants’ quarters for dissing her age. And young Lady Sybil learned how to bake a cake, bless her, before that nice Irish chauffeur drove her off to nursing school and declared his love for her – whereupon he found she wasn’t quite as keen to break out of the class system as he’d hoped.
Did all this envelop you in a satisfying, Sunday-evening glow? Or were you too busy watching angst-ridden spies chase each other around London on Spooks to care? Post a comment and let us know.