Less could be more for Downton Abbey if it took a lead from Only Fools and Horses and Sherlock

Perhaps it is possible for Julian Fellowes to have his gilded cake and eat it, says Tim Glanfield

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The times are changing… No, this isn’t another promo for a new series of Downton Abbey, in fact it could be the first line of the ITV mega-hit’s epitaph. 

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Reports that Julian Fellowes is finally gearing up with US broadcaster NBC to get his new late-19th century drama The Gilded Age on American screens in the next year could mark the end of Downton Abbey. The writer and creator has for some years insisted that he wouldn’t have time to make both shows at once, so could this mean that the upcoming sixth series of Downton will be the last?

“What will we do on Sunday nights in the autumn?” I hear millions of you cry. “We don’t care if it’s not as good as it used to be, we need our fill of Downton.”

Undoubtedly, an end to the show would be a big thing but my reaction is – to paraphrase REM: “It’s the end of the period drama world as we know it (and I feel fine).” If Downton were to end with a spectacular series six (and at this stage it is still an ‘if’, rather than a ‘when’), this could be the best thing that ever happened to the show.  

I have enjoyed Downton from the beginning, but I don’t think I’m alone in believing it’s gone off the boil in recent times. Plots are recycled faster than the Green Party and the “ever-changing” world has stagnated before our eyes. Those in any doubt need only watch this Christmas’s two-hour special, which ambled along for 100-odd minutes before a rather confusing and unsatisfactory concluding sequence. 

It is not clear why this has happened. Does Julian Fellowes already have half an eye on the Gilded Age? Have all logical upstairs downstairs-related angles been covered? Do all shows simply have a shelf life?

Contrary to what you may believe reading the above, I consider myself a Downton fan and it is with this in mind that I hope the show ends in its current form at the end of a magnificent, back-to-basics series six. However, I believe this need not be curtains for the Granthams; it could just be the beginning if the show were to follow the Only Fools and Horses model. 

Just as the great BBC sitcom became nothing but a Christmas special format from 1991 onwards (and sky-rocketed into an ever-popular institution), Downton too could prosper with a one or two-part seasonal instalment each year. It would ensure the public still had a connection to their favourite olden-days family (and ITV a fix of their favourite advertising magnet), whilst allowing Fellowes time to run his new show in America and the cast to pursue other projects. Because there would be so much less Downton to make, one would hope the quality would be better and the anticipation among fans at fever pitch. 

Look how successful Sherlock has been with just three shows every two years – why not make Downton event television worth waiting for? So as you weep into your Downton Abbey-branded scatter cushion today wondering how you could live without Carson, perhaps there is hope for fans of pop-period drama after all. 

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This need not be the beginning of the end of Downton – merely the end of the beginning.