For those of you who spend quality time on your sofa watching TV, tomorrow, Sunday, January 3rd, 2016, marks the end of the NFL’s regular season. But there’s another event tomorrow that undoubtedly will capture the attention of a multitude of tv watchers.
And that would the 1st episode of the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, the flag-ship and runaway hit British Drama by Masterpiece, shown here in the US on your local PBS channel.
Downton has received 51 Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and has garnered 11 wins. For those of you who enjoy elegance, romance, beautiful pastoral countryside settings all awash in the lush glow of superb clothing, cars, hats, horses, flowers, and furnishings, one cannot find a better show.
And if drama and excellent characters are topics that are requirements, then consider all of the lies, manipulations, the plotting, the scheming, the mistrust, the broken loyalties, alliances, and the like. And with those, I’m just talking about the servants.
To be honest, this is an adult drama, or said another way – it is a soap opera of the highest and grandest order. You’ll laugh, and yes you will cry – and that’s each and every week. But the series is never less than entertaining. Try this sample:
I came to Downton Abbey, the series, in a roundabout way. In fact, until a little more than a week ago, I hadn’t seen even one episode. I had nothing against the series – like one who had elected to watch something, and then after a small sample, had decided that the show held no interest for him, and then the show was abandoned. Those were not the circumstances.
No, my decision was based on alternate choices, or that fact that period dramas were neither my first, second, or third choice of TV fare. I had enjoyed a smattering of British actors in my younger days and I could readily identify the likes of Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris. But at the time of Downtown Abbey’s debut season in 2010, a series involving a British aristocratic family and their 18 servants, held no interest for me.
So Downton Abbey was totally ignored by yours truly. Even after such actors and actresses like Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, and Maggie Smith were always up for Emmy’s or Golden Globes repeatedly. Even though I knew that the series Creator and Writer Julian Fellowes had already won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gosford Park, I still did not find any time for Downton Abbey.
I read neither reviews, recaps, or notices of renewals about Downton. I looked at no video clips, promos, or trailers. The series settings in Yorkshire or London may just as well been on the Planet Mars for me. That is until this Christmas Eve.
On that night, I watched the finale of Season Five which was called A Moorland Holiday. It was set in the fall of 1924. And to borrow from IMDB – It is grouse shooting season, and Rose’s father-in-law invites the Crawley family up to North Umberland for a shooting party.
Imagine my surprise to see that these folks dressed in white tie and formal dresses for a dinner in-house. That the men wore full tweed suits with vests, shirts and ties to go hunting. That the women came along as well, but they never handled the guns. Their task was to look pretty and stand at the appointed place. The men who had the guns were also accompanied by loaders whose one job was to reload the double-barreled shot guns.
I learned of the tasks of the butlers, under-butlers, valets, Lady’s Maids, cooks, kitchen maids, and footmen. I watched as it seemed every one was tied to both tradition and time – as if they were in two-step that would remain unchanged in decades and centuries past as well far into the future.
People dressed in suits and ties to go down to breakfast, there was both lunch and afternoon tea. At the stroke of a gong in late afternoon, everyone would retire to their rooms to change clothes. The men had valets to help them dress. The women were dressed by what were called Lady’s Maids. The evening dinner, even when served at home required formal black tie and evening wear for the ladies.
I learned that the staff from Cooks to footman to butlers were on duty in what seemed like an endless amount of hours in the day. When they weren’t serving, they were cleaning and polishing. The lords and ladies even had staff to help them prepare for bed.
It was history as the story began in 1912 and continued into the mid 1920’s. It was about the life and times of one aristocratic family in Yorkshire in England. It was about a time that has mostly ebbed away, and one that had no first hand connection for we Americans. That’s discounting that Robert Crawley’s wife Cora was American.
The Crawley family itself clung to its traditions and customs with a fierce tenacity and fervor that was unmatched anywhere except by certain of the servants working for them, some of whom were even more conservative than their employers.
Not all of them, either family nor staff, were like this, but from the most senior members like Robert Crawley, the latest Earl of Grantham, who once said while talking to Matthew Crawley his son-in-law:
Lord Grantham: You do not love the place yet. You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that may crack in the frost…
Matthew Crawley: And you don’t…
Lord Grantham: I see my life’s work.
Or this conversation with the Dowager Countess
Dowager Countess: Don’t you care about Downton?
Lord Grantham: What do you think? I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claimed no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes! I do care…
Then there is Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Robert’s mother, down to Robert’s daughters Lady Mary, Lady Sybil, and Lady Edith – their breeding and class was obvious.
Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) would be the first to break ranks as she married her chauffeur. Besides being the chauffeur,
Tom Branson was also Irish, and a socialist. So, as their wedding vows were spoken, Tom Branson already had three strikes against him.
Lady Mary (played by Michelle Dockery)was the eldest daughter. She wore the best clothes had the most style, was gorgeous, and was the object of desire by many men. But she was also spoiled, selfish, and a snob. Yet, you could barely blink your eyes when she was on-screen.
Lady Edith (played by Laura Carmichael) was the least attractive of the Crawley girls; in my view, she’s quite beautiful when you see her wearing her naturally long hair rather than the hideous series of wigs they assigned her throughout the first five seasons. She also had the worst luck in choosing men. One man arrived at the church for their wedding and even watched as Lady Edith came down the aisle on her father’s arm.
He stood there up until the time when the Anglican cleric asked him to repeat the vows. Only then did he bail out on the proceedings.
Lady Edith had another lover. He also had an institutionalized wife. Since living in sin was out of the question – he decided to go abroad to Germany where his wife’s insanity was grounds for divorce. He’d only have establish residency there in Germany. But on his first night in Munich he got involved in a fight in bar, and he was brutally beaten and killed. His assailants – a gang of brown-shirted men. Yes, they were Nazis.
This was another in a rather intriguing series of events and people that had a factual history yet they were tied to the fictional Crawleys. From the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic in 1912, to World War I, to the movie stars of the times like Theda Bara and Rudolph Valentino. In fact the films weren’t even called movies in those days in England. One went to the ‘pictures’. Oscar Wilde was mentioned, as was Lloyd George, and Rose was presented in the palace of the royals which you may have heard of as a place called Buckingham.
But the events from history seemed to place the Crawley family in a specific time frame for us. As did the advances in the Crawley motor cars. And the fashions.
We were also tied to the fact that women were not yet permitted to vote. Those were the days when women rarely offered opinions on anything other than what affected women. Dowager Countess Crawley and her cousin Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton had the role) had numerous discussions:
Here’s one on whether or not woman would be allowed to have opinions:
No. She isn’t until she is married, then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.
In reality, The Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) steals every scene she’s in. She has the best written lines, and is easily both the funniest and the most outrageous character in the entire series.
As an example, in this scene, she is discussing Lady Cora Crawley’s American mother, Martha Levinson who is played by the breezy and bold Shirley MacLaine:
Dowager Countess: I’m so looking forward to seeing her mother again. When I’m with her I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.
Matthew: But isn’t she American?
Dowager Countess: Exactly.
But Martha was more than able to toss back as good as she got.
Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is seen smoking in almost every scene in the first two seasons. Although he will mellow out in later seasons – from the jump, he was hated by all and sundry.
The most adorable and easiest character to love is the kitchen maid who became the Assistant Cook – Daisy Mason. She’s played by Sophie McShera, and when you can understand what she’s saying, she’s even more wonderful.
Ditto for the Head Cook, Mrs Patmore played by Leslie Nicol.
Surprising couple (but not really) Head Butler Mr. Carson played by Jim Carter, and Head of Housekeeping, Mrs Hughes played by Phyllis Logan.
The most intensely loving couple could only be Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) who was Lady Cora’s maid, and John Bates (played by Brendan Coyle) who served as Robert Crawley’s valet.
But lest you think this just a loving homage to the show and nothing more, there are and were some questions or problems that deserve mention. Far too often, characters remained the same and displayed neither character growth nor plot growth.
It took until nearly the end of Season Five for us to see that the Crawley mansion and estate had a front gate. For almost all of the first five seasons – we hadn’t been shown the gate.
Far too often the script became too obvious. By that I don’t mean to say that there weren’t any surprising turn of events, tragic and otherwise. What I am saying that they were telegraphed and you weren’t caught by surprise very often.
I would have liked to have seen Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess, in a different cut of clothing, even once. But that never happened in the first five seasons. We never saw either an open throated blouse, or short sleeves, or anything less than skirt down to the floor. However she was always and simply the sharpest of all the characters.
Most handsome cast – easily a toss-up between Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
Unnecessary plot lines – The émigré Russians, the stress between the Dowager Countess’s staff – meaning the butler Spratt and the Housekeeper/Maid Mrs. Denker.
A pair of terrific characters were the undervalued Isobel Crawley and Dr. Clarkson.
Here is a clip from Season Two set to the music of U2 – an anachronism yes, but still beautiful.
While I could write more, much more – I will close with a preview clip of Season Six which begins with the first episode (here in the US) tomorrow (January 3rd) night.