Downton Abbey is poised, ready to take its place in our Sunday nights for the very last time. And it seems we are gearing up for the end of an era, both on screen and off.
As always at Downton Abbey, times are changing. The aristocracy is in decline and the future of the Crawleys’ stately home is once again in question. It appears the Downton Abbey we know and love wouldn’t be feasible for much longer, irrespective of Julian Fellowes’ decision to call it a day.
Social upheaval aside, the Downton we are reacquainted with isn’t wildly different. Very little time has passed since the Christmas episode, which saw Lady Rose embracing newly-married life and Branson leaving for America. Carson still hasn’t got Hughes down the aisle, Mary’s progressive bob is still centre stage and, unfortunately, the future is still looking bleak for Anna and Bates. She’s secretly sobbing in the stairwell while he’s shuffling around the Abbey, the threat of a spell in prison still hanging over their sorry heads.
Of course there are new storylines rearing their heads too – scandal, sex, sexism, a suspicious woman hanging around the Abbey – and we are promised many more twists and turns before the end.
In this opening instalment there are laughs, and countless meme-worthy one-liners (mainly thanks, as usual, to Maggie). It’s as slick and beautiful to look at as ever. A strong, funny and touching first episode that doesn’t feel like the show’s swan song… yet.
The Dowager Countess and co aren’t saying goodbye, or even really preparing to for the time being. It’s the same Downton Abbey we know, love and obsess over. Just bittersweet because we know what’s coming in a mere eight episodes’ time.
It’s something the cast and crew are only too aware of. Some of the stars in attendance at today’s launch in central London had filmed their final scenes mere hours before. Joanne Froggatt told gathered journalists that the day’s final scene had descended into something of a sobfest, with even burly cameramen shedding tears. While Maggie Smith – a welcome surprise at the screening – admitted she already knew what she was going to do with all her new-found spare time: “I’m going to be lying down.”
Writer Julian Fellowes took a minute to reflect on his beloved creations. “The characters have been so real to me for six years, so I do think you have a little sadness… I’m sorry to see them go,” he said, adding: “I’m very unlikely to be involved in anything that is as successful again and so, of course, I say goodbye to these golden years with a slight pang.”
A couple of seasons ago I attended this same launch and the panel discussed the future of Downton Abbey. ITV’s Steve November and exec producer Gareth Neame joked then about the “post-Downton era” and assured us we wouldn’t be forced to enter it for a good few years yet.
Now it’s here, and as a Downton fan I’m not all too happy about it. We might have eight episodes ahead of us until those final credits roll, complete with intruiging plotlines and masses of melodrama, but it’s bittersweet. And I’m already worried about next autumn and the fact that it’s going to be a Downton-free wilderness.
Downton Abbey returns soon to ITV