Downton Abbey is back, its much anticipated fourth series roaring onto our screens any time now, ready to take back its place as our Sunday evening pastime of choice. And what a series we are in for…
The Crawley family might be in mourning but that doesn’t stop the first episode from being buoyant and bright. As the Abbey glides on into the Roaring Twenties, the series maintains that wonderful balance of frivolous chit-chat and scenes that truly tug at the heart-strings, even treating us to a few laugh-out-loud moments. So what can we expect from series four?
Get ready to mourn beloved characters, welcome fresh new faces (maybe even see the return of a few we recognise), keep up long-running rivalries, forge new friendships, get into mischief, push the boundaries and step into new and exciting territory…
We’re reunited with the Crawley family six months after Matthew’s shocking death during the Christmas episode, and for some much has changed. For newly-widowed Mary, though, time is standing still as she struggles to move on with her life now her husband is no longer by her side.
The first episode takes tentative steps. Time moves slowly – and after a rollercoaster of a third series, a change of pace seems only right. As does the chance to say a proper goodbye to Matthew and the love story we invested so much in.
“[The fourth series is] by and large set in 1922,” said producer Gareth Neame at yesterday’s launch. “Some of the other seasons we’ve spanned more years. But I think the energy and the rhythm of the show are exactly the same as it’s always been.”
The brakes may have been put on a little but the passing of time is still a concern for the inhabitants of Julian Fellowes’ period drama. The modern world is refusing to let Downton sit still. Whether it’s new technology, disputes over farming techniques or social advances, for the most part our characters are being forced to adapt or get left behind.
Those few months have moved some characters forward significantly. Lady Edith has grown into herself even more – the sophisticated lass holding down her own job in London is unrecognisable from the bratty middle-child she once was. And the family’s babies have grown, too. Baby Sybil is a delight – if you thought you fancied Branson as a chauffeur, wait until you see him doting on his little girl – but if you’re hoping to see icy Mary come over all maternal, you’ll have to wait.
Thankfully, Michelle Dockery suits black, as this first episode makes it clear a grief-stricken Mary won’t be moving on from Matthew any time soon. Though I was obviously devastated by his untimely death – who could fail to have been, slumped on the sofa full of Christmas pudding and one too many mulled wines – I have to admit I was getting a little bored of Matthew and Mary’s domestic bliss. Scary Mary haunting the halls of Downton is much more interesting to watch and a few of her lines – drawled, dead-pan – rival the Dowager Countess’. Look out Violet, you’ve got competition.
Of course, competition or not, Maggie Smith is as brilliant as ever. Her withering quips, timed to comic perfection, continue to make every scene she’s in shine. In the first episode, at least, the Crawley matriarch and her insightful, common sense approach were given more screen time, which is of course only right – her ability to deliver moment after moment of brilliance is the reason a lot of viewers tune in in the first place.
While the old favourites continue to impress, new faces make their appearance too. Lady Rose, played perkily by Lily James, slots into her permanent place at the Abbey like she has always been there, not taking the role left by rebellious Sybil but certainly giving the show some much needed lightness.
While the holes left by Lady Sybil, Matthew and lady’s maid O’Brien are yet to be filled, the departure of those main characters does – as Alan Leech (aka Tom Branson) said during yesterday’s press conference – give the show a new lease of life. The shuffle reboots it and stops it from falling into a predictable pattern. Anything seems possible.
Introducing the episode at the London screening yesterday, ITV’s director of drama Steve November accidentally said we were now entering the “post-Downton era”. Getting up on stage after him producer Gareth Neame asked if the internationally beloved show had just been very publicly axed… But it’s fair to assume Neame knows his successful series is safe. And if this first episode is anything to go by, we won’t be forced into the barren, post-Downton wilderness for a good few years yet.
Downton Abbey returns to ITV later this year