Is it time for a Downton Abbey casting cull?

Too many cooks – and aristocrats – are spoiling the broth, says Alison Graham


It’s obviously terribly wearisome being Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, what with a constant stream of presentable men circling her like urban foxes eyeing the remains of a takeaway. No wonder she always looks and sounds so bored.


But then life at Downton during the fourth series, which ends with a feature-length episode on Sunday, has been more than a little dreary, apart from a visit from a world-famous opera singer and a rape below stairs. But never mind, eh, victim Anna was taken out for a nice dinner at a posh restaurant to make up for it, so that’s all right then.

Maybe writer Julian Fellowes felt he had to take things a bit more easily following fan fury when two violent deaths were forced upon him in the last series and the Christmas special. But when the biggest news, the one thing that unites and transfixes your main characters, is the arrival of a drove of pigs, then maybe you’ve eased off just a bit too much. Downton has talked of little else during the past few weeks to the point where it seems to be turning into Blandings. Or The Archers.

There was even an excruciating little comedy scene last week between Lady Mary and Presentable Man Charles Blake, when he leapt into action to rescue an ailing pig. Lady Mary waded in to help, fell on her backside in the muck and the giggling pair ended up playfully chucking mud at one another. Oh dear, I’d expect that from Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, or Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in some 1930s screwball comedy. But Lady Mary? Oh no.

I can well believe that a fourth series of such a massive, world-conquering drama, one that’s packed with characters who all need stories, is a tall order for a writer. Really, what can Fellowes do with that epic bore Lady Cora, apart from getting her to flash her sickening smile?

But maybe there are just too many characters and stories are spread so thinly there doesn’t seem to be anyone at the heart of Downton any more. Lord Grantham, who was its aorta for so long, has had little to do in series four apart from walk into rooms to announce he’s going to dinner/London/New York, before he walks out again to vanish for almost entire episodes. I miss him.

Then there are the strange little subplots, like the pointlessly brief return of annoying lady’s maid Edna; the curious case of the Dowager’s “stolen” paper knife; and the seamstress who’s in Thomas’s thrall, though we don’t learn what hold he has over her. Or that old friend of Mr Carson’s who turned up, didn’t do much for an episode or so, then went away again on the train. And where’s the Missing Editor, Edith’s married boyfriend who’s vanished off the face of the earth? Or rather, he’s supposedly in Germany, but he might as well have fallen into a mineshaft and been covered in concrete.

Maybe all that is needed is a little re-grouping, a little less need to concentrate on everyone, all the time, and a bit more focus on a smaller group of characters. Downton Abbey is a mighty TV beast, it’s going to be around for a long time, so it needs to get leaner and fitter.

People I’d keep… 

The Earl of Grantham
I want to see more of him again.

Lady Mary
She’s awful, but stop throwing men at her, or at least give her a man and let her get on with it.

Lady Edith
Give her back her spark. Forget the Missing Editor she’s been trailing after.

John Bates
He was almost hanged once, let’s stop dropping hints about how he might hang again. We’ve done that.

Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes
They are great and should be married. To each other.

… And people I’d jettison

Isobel Crawley
Matthew’s mother is an insufferable prig. Boring. Must go.

Lady Rose
She loves London so much, let’s send her there for good and never hear from her again.

Thomas the evil footman
You know something bad about someone. OK, either tell us what it is or get lost.

Ivy Stuart
Too easily confused with Daisy. Serves no useful purpose.

Downton Abbey series four concludes on Sunday at 9:00pm on ITV.