It’s no secret: Americans now do period dramas far better than us Brits. In Mad Men they’ve created a cult hit, while the reviews for new show Boardwalk Empire suggests they’ve just launched another. While much recent UK period drama hasn’t been quite up to the standards of classics of the past, Downton Abbey looks to be something of a return to form for period pieces this side of the pond.
The show’s long opening shot meanders down corridors like a walk-and-talk scene from The West Wing. It highlights the importance of the large household staff--common to English estates in 1912--while giving you an authentic sense of haste. Like most budgeted dramas though, the opening scene is the only stunning shot. From here on out it’s up to the writers to stop your attention from waneing. Enter Downton Abbey’s Oscar-winning creator Julian Fellowes (who also wrote Gosford Park).
At first, the “working” characters run around with little of substance to do. We’re teased that something important has just happened, but when the revelation comes--that the Titanic has sunk--it’s hard to feign interest in the seemingly bland characters and their responses. It takes a couple of ad breaks for you to realise that there’s more to this household than meets the eyes.
Dame Maggie Smith steals the show as Violet, Countess of Grantham. Entering the house with a fan shielding her eyes--because she can’t stand the “glare” of the new electrical lights--she takes a no nonsense approach to her otherwise miserable family. The well-meaning Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is put in his place, while wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is excited to have found a “friend” in her insufferable mother-in-law. Only to be told they’re just allies.
The series is littered with amusing one-liners, which are often well-placed for extra punch. Our favourite comes (excuse the pun) when two characters discuss a fling they once had, in which one remarks: “a swallow doesn't make a summer”. Luckily, viewing children won’t understand the show’s sexual undertones.
With so many people living in one house there’s bound to be some secrets, and Downton Abbey certainly has its fair share. Treachery, lies, and affairs, are all revealed in the first episode, and we’re teased there’s more to come. As viewers we’re given more information than most characters in the show, so the secrets shared act as a hook to keep us intrigued. If you’re already feeling this way, you can tune into the show on Sunday (Sept 26) at 9pm on ITV.