Downton Abbey: the making of a masterpiece

In just three series the period drama has won the nation's hearts with its bewildering plots and twists of fate. Tim Dowling sketches the story so far...

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Downton Abbey: the making of a masterpiece
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Tim Dowling

1. The Dowager Countess

Sailing through three series like a stately galleon listing slightly to port, the Earl’s mother’s main function at Downton is to await awkward silences that she can fill with a cutting remark or a comment that shows her healthy disdain for her social inferiors, which of course is everyone.


2. Matthew Crawley

The country solicitor turned heir presumptive got off to a bad start, but proved himself to the family by going to war and then curing his paralysis through sheer force of poshness. His budding romance with Lady Mary was complicated by him already having a fiancée, but thankfully the influenza epidemic of 1919 intervened. Undaunted by the fact that sex with Lady Mary had hitherto proved fatal in 100 per cent of cases, he agreed to be her husband.


3. Lady Mary

Very much the non-heir of Downton, Lady Mary got into trouble early on by taking Turkish diplomat Mr Pamuk into her bed, an adventure that the foreign gentleman did not survive (see above). The scandal was successfully hushed up, allowing Mary to pursue Matthew in hopes of forging an alliance that would save the estate and thus prevent her from having to change bedrooms. 


4. Mr and Mrs Bates

It takes a special kind of woman to marry a man who is about to go to jail for killing his first wife, but Anna believed in Bates’s innocence even when viewers grew so tired of his plight they began to hope he might get stabbed in prison. After his release, the couple moved to a cottage in the village, and are now the happiest overworked servants in the world. And who knows? Maybe he did kill his first wife.


5. Lady Edith

The middle sister’s embitterment began early, because she was in love with the Earl’s original heir who died on the Titanic. She spitefully tried to reveal the scandal of the Mary’s dead Turk, but in her favour she’s the only one in her family who can drive. After twice failing to marry Sir Anthony Strallan, she’s settled for spinsterhood and journalism.


6. The Earl of Grantham

Initially preoccupied by a turn of events that began with the sinking of the Titanic and ended with an insufficiently grand cousin becoming heir to Downton, the Earl has since divided his time between going broke and disapproving of the 20th century. In both these endeavours he has the tireless and mildly patronising support of squeaky-voiced wife, Cora.


7. Julian Fellowes

The Downton scriptwriter has earned fame, fortune and an actual title – Baron Fellowes of West Stafford – for his gift for lush period detail, fondness for absurd plot twists and unfailing knowledge of which spoon to use when. He’s now off to America to make a series about class snobbery in 19th-century New York, by way of an ill-fated voyage on the Titanic which, fortunately for him, nobody watched.

The Downton Abbey Christmas special will air on Christmas Day at 8:45pm on ITV1

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