Goodbye Downton Abbey – it’s been a great ride

Alison Graham has laughed, cried and counted pigs – but as the curtain falls on Downton, she says we’ll miss the fairy tale that revived costume drama

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I’ll miss the pigs most of all. I loved those Downton Abbey pigs. I played pig bingo. Every time anyone said “pig”, I had a bacon sandwich. People talked a lot about pigs. “Did the pigs arrive?” “How are the pigs doing?” “Did the children like the pigs?” “Good luck with the pigs.”

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Lady Mary lost all her poise when she and one of her interchangeable boring beaux had some muddy porcine-centred fun. It was bonkers, but that was Downton Abbey for you. Weird, larky, mystifying, like a barking great aunt you can’t help but love.

Just thinking back to that first 2010 episode makes me smile, with its talk of an “entail”. Or it might have been an “entrail” or even an “end table”. Time and again, “entail this” or “entail that”. What on earth was this crazy new drama all about, I wondered, innocently.

This was an arcane start for a period drama on a mainstream channel that was to become a cultural phenomenon – a touchstone for an idea of Britishness that would go on to conquer the globe, enchanting China and arresting America. (And we all learnt that, put simply, an entail effectively deprived Downton chatelaine Cora of her money. We need to know no more.)

The sixth and final series of Downton Abbey ends on Sunday, though there will be a Christmas special. But to all intents and purposes, it is over. Done. Finished. Downton Abbey is to me the barmiest drama on TV, but – fetch me a damp flannel for my forehead – I will miss it. Really, truly, I honestly will. 

So will roughly nine million other British viewers and audiences of upwards of 120 million worldwide, all captivated by the adventures of the aristocratic Crawley family – mum and dad Robert and Cora and three lovely daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil – comfortable in their glorious country seat somewhere in North Yorkshire, and their downstairs staff presided over by Mr Carson, a man of granite countenance and principles. 

Downton Abbey was immaculate (oh, those upper-class clothes! The jewellery!), a tidy, selfcontained world where everyone knew their place and they were jolly well grateful. Masters and mistresses chatted amicably to servants, often asking for advice and comfort. The toffs might have been separated from their staff by wealth, education and background, but they all got on mightily well. There was a comfortable egalitarianism about, for instance, Lady Mary’s nightly gossips with her maid Anna. 

Such cosiness made us feel good about ourselves, and in tumultuous times we harked back to those old certainties, at least as they were presented to us by Downton’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes. But real servants in English country houses had hard, rotten lives, having to face the wall when their betters walked past and, if they were women, possibly forced to acquiesce to the ancestral droit du seigneur imposed by the master of the house.

But no one wants too much truth from a period drama, surely? We don’t want these ideals to hurt us, which is why that ghastly episode where decent, honourable Anna (Joanne Froggatt) was raped by a visiting manservant quite rightly attracted almost universal opprobrium. Something so hideous in real life had no place in an opalescent fantasy world.

Downton Abbey presented a version of the past that appealed to anyone who had ever bought a National Trust tea towel. It was essentially a fairy tale, but who doesn’t love a fairy tale? After all, a fairy tale is just a story and, as long as the world turns, we all need stories. What Downton Abbey did, it did boldly and unapologetically. 

It gave ITV new confidence in its ability to produce big-hitting dramas, something that tended to get left to the BBC. Then the BBC fell out of love with costume dramas (until it fell  back in love again later, with Poldark), having discovered bleak sagas about doomed prostitutes bound and gagged in cellars. 

ITV could hold its own around the world. As Downton’s executive producer Gareth Neame told us, its success proved that globally “British shows could punch above their weight”. 

But Downton Abbey had many mad moments and more than its fair share of “what the hell was that all about?” plots. Recently we suffered, to the point of despair, that dreary saga of the hospital that no one seemed able to put a stop to, so it dribbled on like a runny nose. And as for Robert’s Alien-style blood-vomit in the dining room… the less said about that, the better.

There was Mysterious Bandaged Man from series two, who came and went again without so much as leaving an indent in the cushions. And I’m still not certain what happened to Edith’s charming, presentable editor-swain Michael Gregson, apart from Something Bad in Germany that her dad was told about in another room. 

Then there was the endless story of Who Killed Mr Green (Anna’s attacker). It might have been Bates, it might have been Anna. No one cared and we all rolled our eyes when that flipping police sergeant turned up yet again with another question about train tickets. 

But Downton had its delights – the Dowager Countess, Violet’s (Maggie Smith) acid drops (“What is a weekend?”), the assiduous self-betterment of Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle), the charm of Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson’s blooming love and the bustling capability of Mrs Patmore, who should have had a spin-off series

And it knew how to spring a surprise. Who could have guessed new dad Matthew would die in a car crash, leaving the nation sobbing into its turkey sandwiches on Christmas night 2012? Things like that just aren’t supposed to happen. 

Yet they did. Maybe Downton Abbey is never supposed to end. But it will, and for all its strangeness and its flaws, we will miss it.


Laura Carmichael’s Downton moment

Laura Carmichael plays Lady Edith in Downton Abbey

You don’t do a job like Downton and not picture the end; it was always just a question of when. We’ve been preparing for it for a long time — and it wasn’t until halfway through this year that we thought, “Now we can be really sad.”

I think I was ready to let go of Edith — we all took our lead from Julian [Fellowes, the writer] and when he was ready, so were we. We wanted to end on a high and I think these final episodes are the best we’ve done.

My granny was a journalist: she worked in Bath, I think on the Chronicle, during the Second World War so I loved my journalism storyline and the scenes in the newspaper offices. Gran saw the first series, but then passed away. Nobody could have predicted then that that was where Edith would end up!

Edith didn’t have all the romantic offers that Mary did, but she made something of herself and discovered a talent, which I think is much better and more exciting!


Gareth Neame’s Downton moment

Gareth Neame is the executive producer of Downton Abbey

She’s incredibly unlikeable at times, snobbish, selfish and opinionated, but Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery, above] is my favourite character and it’s one of her scenes with Matthew I always go back to. When she sees him off at the station, back to the war, in season two, she knows she loves him, she knows he’s engaged to somebody else and that she’s lost him and that they may never see each other again. There is so much emotion. 

For all those reasons, killing Matthew off was hard. I remember our post-production supervisor, who loved Mary and Matthew, going stone silent and then bursting into tears when she saw the car accident scene and I thought, “This is what 12 million people will be like on Christmas Day.” It was a bit of a concern, and pretty cruel of us. 

Downton is one of those shows viewers have invested years in — right from the off Julian and I saw it as a sort of soap opera — and they’re going to miss that world. I’m going to. Most of all I’m going to mourn not knowing what happens to baby George when he’s the Earl of Grantham and running the estate in — when would that be — the 1960s! I guess we’re never going to know…


Jessica Fellowes’ Downton moment

Jessica Fellowes is the author of Downton tie-in books and the niece of creator Julian Fellowes

When Lady Edith turns up at the Drewes’ cottage to claim back her daughter, Marigold, the acting in that scene — by Laura Carmichael as Edith and Emma Lowndes [above] and Andrew Scarborough [as Margie and Timothy Drewe] — is nuanced and utterly heartbreaking. 

In researching the background to that plotline I learnt that adoption was not legally formalised until 1926 and then only for that reason — to stop mothers from turning up and claiming back their children. So the scene is also rooted in historical truth, as is so much of Downton. 

For all the nostalgic pleasure it gives, the production is not afraid to remind us that the good old days weren’t always so good.


Alastair Stewart’s Downton moment

Alastair Stewart is a journalist and broadcaster working for ITV

The First World War haunts the early episodes; and remembrance provides the most poignant scenes. A war memorial is to be erected; the Earl of Grantham offers a plot, but the village want Mr Carson [Jim Carter, above] to chair the committee.

It flusters Robert: “They don’t want me.” It shatters the Dowager’s view of order: “Your father always told the village what they wanted.” An embarrassed Carson is eventually persuaded.

The issue of Mrs Patmore’s nephew, Archie Philpotts, tops off this tableau of a changing order. Shot for cowardice, Archie cannot have his name inscribed alongside those who “stood their ground and fought for King and country”, as Carson puts it.

Lord Grantham resolves the issue by installing a separate plaque to the memory of Archie: a compromise, but an act of noblesse oblige that pleases Mrs Patmore.

As the Dowager Countess says, “A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.”

No white feathers, but there are a few tears, there is compassion, and a further resetting of the old order.


Kirsty Lang’s Downton moment

Kirsty Lang is a journalist and broadcaster, and a Downton super-fan

I can date my infatuation with Downton to the first series and Lady Mary’s indiscretion with a dashing Turkish diplomat [played by Theo James, above]. I remember the tension of thinking, “Will she or won’t she?” as he slips into her bedchamber.

I think I leapt up and screamed when he then drops dead in flagrante delicto! And as the body is dragged down the corridor by Anna, Mary’s loyal maid, I realised how far Julian Fellowes was prepared to go to hook his audience.

As told to Alexia Skinitis

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Downton Abbey is on ITV tonight (Sunday 8th November) at 9.00pm