How to maintain the success of Downton Abbey, a populist but quality drama that won 10 million viewers last year by skilfully mixing comedy, drama and sumptuous, stately-home period trappings? How to keep fans happy without stagnating? The answer was there in the foreboding final scene of the first series, when Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) gravely announced the start of the First World War.
The Great War solves, at a stroke, the problem Downton writer Julian Fellowes might have had in refreshing his creation. Stakes are raised, lives are changed; every event takes on greater importance.
In this darker, more serious mood, Downton’s most addictive thread – thwarted romance, often sparked by grand gestures that have to overcome the strict social rules of the time – has a richer hue. The central love stories, between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and between Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt), both have new direction and impetus.
Before long, other characters are movingly spreading their dreams at someone’s feet. But the most affecting scenes in episode one concern Mary and Matthew, whose relationship foundered at the end of the first series. With the action having moved on by two years, they both regret the situation: cue longing looks at functions and charged pleasantries at dinner, with Dockery and Stevens at their best when the script bows out and lets them act with their eyes.
Matthew Crawley gains in prominence as he becomes the programme’s way into the war, flitting (as officers can) between Downton and the trenches of the Somme. The battle scenes are used sparingly – and can’t evoke the scale of the conflict in the way mega-budget Hollywood war movies can – but have tremendous impact.
Utterly different to anything in the first series, they’re claustrophobic and noisy, with shrapnel and shale constantly raining down on the cowering soldiers. The best expression of the terror has an unexpected author: Rob James-Collier as Thomas, previously just a serpentine villain but now a young man succumbing to sheer panic.
Notwithstanding those startling moments, the effects of the war are keenly felt at home. The emotions of those who are not serving are portrayed by Fellowes and his cast with typical economy and clarity, from the inadequacy of those rejected by the army to the all-consuming fear felt both by men who are reluctant to sign up and the families of men who have gone to battle.
A subtler theme is also set to emerge: the social change wrought by the First World War, as class boundaries become less rigid. Later in the run, Branson the Irish chauffeur (Allen Leech) will even bring Sunday-night ITV viewers a taste of the Easter Rising.
Some things never change. Maggie Smith still provokes a laugh out loud with everything she says as the dowager countess. Penelope Wilton still sparkles as the stubborn Isobel Crawley. As Lord Grantham, Hugh Bonneville still hears bad news while putting on or removing a jacket, before reporting the calamity to Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) later on, in pyjamas. Episode one also features the series’ best ever use of implausible eaves-dropping.
Above all else, Downton is still a collection of sweet stories, simply told. Those ten million viewers won’t be going anywhere.