Downton Abbey series five, episode one review: Lord G blows up, Edith burns the house down

Phew... nobody died for once but there was a fire, a dirty proposition and the total crumbling of polite society. Welcome back to our breathless Downton recaps!

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It’s 1924 now and, since we left the Crawley family and their inspiring slaves in the heady summer of 1923, the world has changed. Ramsay Macdonald is PM and is “committed to destroying people like us”, according to Lord Grantham, whose reading of his enormous newspaper in the library had taken on added stiffness.

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Downstairs, perennially vexed assistant cook Daisy was bemoaning the kitchen’s shortage of staff, only to be instantly upbraided by Mrs Hughes. Times were tough for the landed gentry everywhere, Hughesy explained: if Daisy thought Downton was bad, she should try life at rival stately home Skelton Park, which had now become so impoverished that the assistant boot boy was shining his own shoes because the under-assistant boot boy had been let go. Also, Daisy and Mrs Patmore needed to look sharp: Lord G and Cora’s 34th wedding anniversary was coming up. M-Patz, foreseeing the need to bake a cake and probably a special batch of devilled bison as well, beat her lemon mayonnaise with angry focus.

The anniversary was news to Lord G, who gaily agreed that Tony Gillingham, Lady Mary’s chief suitor, should be granted his request to stay at Downton on the big weekend. Mary bristled with lust at the mention of Gillingham’s name, fuelling Lord G’s hopes of marrying off his daughter for a second time. The almost catatonically calm Cora didn’t mind that their anniversary was to turn into one of those dinners where a hundred people sit at a long table, yet still manage to have a brittle conversation. As well as Gillingham popping in, everyone in the house was to invite friends.

In the village, the Dowager Countess was enjoying a walk with Isobel Crawley, which meant a chance to unleash some absolute zingers. Isobel moaned that she disliked her admirer, Lord Merton. “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you dislike,” said the Dowager. “Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.” She vowed to set up a luncheon to encourage the courtship, ignoring Isobel’s protests – until a remark from Lord G reminded her that, were Isobel to cave and marry Merton, she would own half the surrounding area and would no longer be the Dowager’s social inferior.

Lord G was bracing himself for a visit by some frightful but well-meaning People From The Village, who wished to discuss a planned war memorial. As expected, they shook him down for a free patch of land to site it on – what wasn’t expected was that their preferred chair of the organising committee was not Lord G, but his faithful retainer Carson, who it emerges is a “considerable figure in the village”.

He tried to put a brave face on it, but Lord G obviously shared Carson’s own sentiment that when butlers start heading up small local administrative bodies, society is aflame. What next? Eating bouillabaisse with a dessert spoon? Letting women drive? Both men shuddered as history marched on.

Branson was travelling the other way, attending the village school prizegiving and reacquainting himself with Sarah Bunting, the socialist firebrand and primary teacher. “I’ve been on a course,” she said, explaining why their relationship had been on hold since the Christmas special. After a bit of jiggery-pokery from Rose, Sarah was invited to the anniversary beanfeast.

The Dowager Countess continued to plot the luncheon that was now aimed at scuppering even the remote possibility of her best friend finding happiness. As well as Lady Shackleton, a saucy nearby widow with an unabashed thing for men with money, the Dowager requested the presence of Clarkson, the reassuringly Scottish doctor. She made the invitation at her place, over tea and cake that her valet Spratt initially refused to serve to Clarkson, since he’s an old-school serving snob who abhors anyone who couldn’t buy Rutland with the money they find down the back of the drawing-room chaise longue.

The D-C’s plan was twofold. First, Clarkson might diagnose that Merton suffers from a horrid disease that would take him out of the game and remove Isobel’s last chance at carnal fruition. Second, he clenched himself even tighter than his default setting when the possibility of Isobel marrying into the aristocracy instead of the apothecary was mentioned, showing that he is a would-be love rival. 

Back at the big house, Barrow, the evil but pathetic underbutler, continued his baffling vendetta against Bates, which hasn’t abated despite all plausible quarrels between them ending two series ago. He went on pressuring Baxter the downbeat maid to find dirt. Baxter seems sensible, but she is still relatively new and not attuned to the house’s magical eavesdropping properties. The news among the servants was that Gillingham, not having hired a valet since the old one was pushed in front of a London bus, was to be looked after by Bates during his stay. Baxter recklessly left the boot-room door open as she told her ally Molesley that this was ironic.

She didn’t go any further, but it was too late. She turned to see Barrow, hanging upside down from the lintel, picking the legs off a rat and malevolently asking her to explain. When she wouldn’t, he threatened to tell Cora something that would get Baxter fired. Later on, Molesley ran into his beloved Baxter when he was on his way upstairs with a tureen of candied hooves. He advised her to tell Cora first.

This kindness was the second part of Molesley’s plan to woo Baxter, the first being the application of some hair dye he’d gone to the seedy metropolis, York, to purchase. It was the consistency of manure, and the jet-black side parting it left him with was a spooky foreshadowing of the rise of fascism in Germany, yet he bravely sported it round the house. The Dowager Countess rumbled it immediately and arranged for Carson to banish Molesley to the lower quarters until he regained his natural mousiness.

Talking of the foreshadowing of the rise of fascism in Germany, Edith was having a glum episode, even by the standards of someone who has not smiled or worn primary colours since the 1916 Ripon Women’s Institute Summer Bazaar. Mrs Hughes had found and handed over an old book inscribed with the name of Gregson (Michael Palin), the newspaper editor who got Edith pregnant but then went to Germany and was killed by proto-Nazis.

The keepsake deepened Edith’s sorrow at having visited her secret daughter Marigold, who is being raised by Tim the kind pig-wrangler. The good news is that Tim also raises children and is thus not feeding the illicit Crawley spawn on potato peelings and excrement. Also, his amazingly dim wife, who has adopted a child she knows was given up by an old friend of her husband, is apparently none the wiser when an old friend of her husband visits the house, cuddles the child and cries.

Tim promised to make things better. He also passed on the irrelevant, whimsical news that he was now the head of the local volunteer fire brigade.

“I wanted to call on you but I didn’t like to be a bother,” said Merton to Isobel as they were reunited at the Dowager Countess’s rigged luncheon. “And also, nobody’s been filming us since 1923, so it seemed rather futile.” Once that conversation petered out, Clarkson made his move, despite the ignominy of Spratt repeatedly walking straight past him with a full jug of coffee. He and Isobel were both outsiders, Clarkson said plaintively, although the argument lacked urgency since by then, Merton had met Shackleton and was obviously keen to give her a large portion of his estate.

The night of the anniversary dinner arrived and was soon plunged into acrid chaos by the arrival of Sarah Bunting, whose chaste but irregular late-night visit to the house last year still causes Lord G to stand bolt upright and stare furiously into the middle distance like a constipated otter. Before anyone had finished their salmon mélange, Bunting was merrily announcing that the First World War had been a colossal bloody waste of time and the memorial was thus stupid.

Lord G turned the colour of Mrs Patmore’s redcurrant sausages. “YOU ARE WRONG!” he said, with the armchair warrior’s normal grasp of nuanced argument – and a new belief that Branson, who had sprung to Bunting’s defence when the massed toffs turned on her, might have relapsed and become an uppity commoner again. When Bunting went for the class-war kill by crowing that Lord G had been rejected by the memorial committee, Carson stepped in to save the love of his life. The villagers had in fact requested that Lord G be the project’s patron, Carson reported, neglecting to add that he had personally insisted on this.

Still the tension remained. “I admire it when young people stand up for their principles!” bellowed Isobel from the other end of the table, 85 yards away. The Top-Banter Countess already had her copy of ‘Oscar Wilde’s Rejected Epigrams Vol 4’ open at the right page. “Principles are like prayers,” she whinnied triumphantly. “Noble, of course, but awkward at a party.” She’s here every Sunday. Please, try the jellied grouse.

After din-dins, while Molesley was downstairs dejectedly hosing his scalp, Barrow attempted to shop Baxter to Cora, who informed him that she already knew Baxter had thieved jewellery from her old employer and done time for it, she couldn’t give one and, furthermore, she was now wondering why Barrow had knowingly recommended that she hire a felon. Barrow was riled, at realising both that his masterplan had a screamingly obvious flaw in it, and that he’d been outwitted by a codger who drips Kiwi Black into the custard when serving dessert.

Will Barrow continue his senseless feud? The other question remaining is why Baxter stole the jewels, since she refused to divulge to Cora. This mysterious lady in black has a secret. And a back-up secret, in case she’s forced to reveal the first secret.

Salvation for Barrow came quickly. His second rubbish wheeze of the week was to take great interest in his unrequited love Jimmy receiving letters from Lady Anstruther, a randy former employer. She was widowed and intent on re-employing Jimmy on more favourable terms. Having invited herself to dinner, she was soon passing Jimmy suggestive notes as he served the buttered sheep’s liver.

That night, Barrow accompanied Jimmy when he made his way to Anstruther’s room. What the scheming batman was going to gain from this wasn’t clear, unless he planned to listen to their coitus through the door as a demented erotic consolation prize.

Before Jimmy made his entrance, he and Thomas had to dodge Gillingham, who was also slinking down illicit corridors. He knocked up Mary and went right in, catching her in her nightwear: some sort of Japanese fighting blanket. His urgent proposition was that they go away not for a dirty weekend, but a filthy week. They would spend the days together. “And the nights?” she asked, visibly quivering with desire through an inch of thick wool. It seems Gillingham is to join the pantheon of Mary’s lovers, which means a brief period of tepid pleasure followed by death.

Not tonight, though. Edith, bereft in bed gazing at Gregson’s book and a photo of their child, threw the book across the room and went to sleep with the pic under her pillow, understandably not foreseeing that the book would land in, and then fall out of, the fireplace. Soon the room was ablaze and the lurking Barrow was in first to save Edith and raise the alarm, with Branson and Lord G uniting to throw sand on the flames – possibly leaving the photo intact – and operate the hose until the firemen, led by Tim the kind pig-wrangler in a simply magnificent helmet, arrived.

Outside, developments were swift. Lord G, who had happened upon Jimmy in bed with Lady Anstruther, informed Carson that Jimmy was so, so fired. Cora expressed her gratitude to Barrow and informed him that he once again was miraculously not fired. And Tim the kind pig-wrangler outlined his plan for Edith to plausibly take a particular interest in Marigold. Without any doorways or air ducts on the front drive, he probably thought he was free of the Downton surveillance network, but no: ace spy Mrs Hughes was using battlefield tactics, simply hiding behind Edith before emerging, having obviously heard every word.

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