Downton Abbey, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Downton Abbey on PBS MASTERPIECE

Created by Julian Fellowes
Written by Fellowes, Shelagh Stephenson, and Tina Pepler
Directed by Brian Percival, Ben Bolt, and Brian Kelly
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens
PBS stations, Sundays, Jan. 9–30, 2011, 9:00 pm ET/PT
(See video interview with Fellowes and selected cast members below.)

For excellent TV entertainment, don’t miss “Downton Abbey,” a spellbinding Edwardian costume drama created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), airing in four 90-minute episodes on PBS.

“Downton Abbey” portrays the constrained yet intriguing lives of the Crawley family and the servants who work for them. The Crawley men have been the Earls of Grantham since 1772, living with their families at Downton Abbey, “a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park,” with unquestioned respect, hunts, garden parties, and sexual intrigues. Below stairs, the servants are as intensely possessive of their ranks as anyone is above.

The action begins in April 1912. The Titanic has just gone down in the north Atlantic, taking with it the two male heirs to Downton Abbey. The current Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley (acted by the first-rate Hugh Bonneville, “Notting Hill”) has only daughters—albeit marriageable ones.

Because the estate is entailed, it must pass to Lord Grantham’s closest male relative, notwithstanding the fact that Robert’s rich American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, “A Room With a View”) has sunk her fortune into Downton Abbey. The presumptive heir to the estate is now Matthew Crawley (the charming Dan Stevens, “Sense and Sensibility”), a distant cousin, a middle-class lawyer living in Manchester—and a handsome bachelor.

The three Crawley sisters vie for Mathew and all other eligible bachelors who visit the Abbey. Like the servants below, they sabotage each other’s prospects, resorting to lies and innuendos to accomplish their goals.

Mathew and his modern-thinking mother, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton, “Wives and Daughters”) move to the local village and make quite a stir. Isobel questions the haughty aristocracy of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, the current Lord’s mother (played by the marvelous Maggie Smith).

The aristocrats see their way of life slipping away as the modern era dawns: telephones (“What is that noise?”); electric lights (“So harsh”); women suffragists (“They should be married”); new fashion for women (“No corset? Shocking!”); socialism (“A bunch of foreigners and rowdies”); sexual liaisons by unmarried girls (“She’s ruined!”). Only one Crawley daughter, Sybil, embraces the new politics and clothing, much to her family’s chagrin. The servants, on the other hand, see that the changing social mores may bring them new opportunities, more independence and better employment.

It is fascinating to observe the intertwined lives of the servants and the aristocrats. There are as many secrets above as they are below stairs. Affection and animosity bind the two classes together. The first-rate cast of servants includes Jim Carter (“Cranford”), as the butler Carson, and Siobhan Finneran (“The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard”) as Sarah O’Brien, the lady’s maid.

I’m afraid I have to let my readers know about the end of the series—there is none; it stops “in medias res.” We’ll have to wait until the second series, now in production, to see how the lives of those who live and work at Downton Abbey evolve.

I wonder if I would have enjoyed “Downton Abbey” as much as I did had the characters been living in the present day, without the period costumes, the wonderful English settings, the fine acting and my American romance with royalty. But why should one bother to analyze? Curl up and enjoy this quintessential Masterpiece Classic.

The “Downton Abbey” DVD is available from PBS Home Video.

©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved

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