Waiting for ...Downton Abbey second series : Reviews
Downton Abbey second series: first review
Downton Abbey’s 10 million fans have faced a long wait to watch the next twist in the tangled tale of the illustrious Grantham family and their servants. By Ceri Radford
30 Jul 2011 in The Telegraph
If a press screening of the first episode is anything to go with, they will not be disappointed when the much-anticipated second series of ITV’s period drama begins in autumn.
The writer Julian Fellowes’s creation first aired last September, quickly winning over audiences and critics with its combination of human drama, period detail, romance, skulduggery and beautiful evening dresses.
His second series picks up the story in 1916, two years into a war which will irrevocably change the genteel world of Downton Abbey’s refined inhabitants.
From the opening scene, the stark contrast in tone is apparent. Instead of seeing Carson the butler (Jim Carter) ironing his master’s newspaper, the audience is greeted by the noise, mud and chaos of the Somme.
Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the middle class heir to the Downton estate, is in the trenches, bravely leading his men into battle.
Female viewers can be assured that he cuts a very satisfactory dash in his military uniform. It is little wonder that the haughty Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who dithered about accepting her cousin Matthew’s marriage proposal in a moment of unmitigated madness in the last series, looks quite so wistful and glum this time around.
In the first major development of the new series, it’s revealed that Matthew Crawley has got engaged – and to a young woman from such a humdrum background (Miss Lavinia Swire, played by Zoe Boyle) that the Dowager Countess of Grantham (a magnificent Dame Maggie Smith) pulls a face as if she has swallowed a wasp. Lady Mary herself has a new love interest in the form of Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), an unscrupulous press baron; but it is clear he is no match in her affections for the strapping Matthew.
As ever with Fellowes’s writing, there is the same deft balance of emotion, suspense and comedy. The materials he has to play with here are clearly darker: as the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) puts it, “War is now reaching its long fingers into Downton, stealing our chicks.”
Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), his sweet and idealistic daughter, has volunteered to join the Red Cross, and it is inevitable that her naivety will soon be shattered when she has to deal with severely wounded soldiers. Matthew Crawley, meanwhile, is in daily peril on the front line. Fellowes himself hints ominously that: “None of them is unaffected by the war. All of them change. And death doesn’t pass Downton Abbey by.”
Despite all this, though, there are some extremely funny moments, along with a sense of smaller human dramas playing out against the backdrop of seismic events.
The Dowager Countess once again locks horns with her cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), and has some very decided views about flower arranging. Gesticulating disdainfully at an arrangement of blooms, she calls out to the head housemaid: “Anna, help me do battle with this monstrosity. It looks like a creature from another world.”
Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) has more to worry about than wonky roses: her relationship with valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), whose glowering charm made him an unlikely heartthrob last year, is threatened by the appearance of Bates’s scheming wife, Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy).
There’s more turmoil below stairs with the arrival of an outspoken new housemaid, Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall) , and, eventually, the return of sneering arch-villain Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier).
All in all, the new series looks set to become another Sunday evening national fixation, and a significant source of cheer once the nights start drawing in.
Downton Abbey fans should prepare to be shell-shocked
Series two pitches stately home drama into horrors of the first world war Ben Dowell
guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 July 2011
Downton Abbey was last autumn's TV hit, with its Edwardian drama offering an escapist antidote to austerity Britain. On Friday ITV previewed the drama at Highclere Castle, the show's Berkshire stately home setting. The first episode will open not with a witty but icy quip from the peerless Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith, but with the massive explosion of a shell in the battle of the Somme, where the heir to Downton, Matthew Crawley (played by Dan Stevens), is fighting.
The drama's producers hope that the darker wartime storylines, and the aristocratic ensemble dressing down in the "we're all in it together" clothing of wartime, will not deter the fans.
The first series finished in November with more than 10 million viewers, a huge figure in today's TV terms. ITV hopes for more of the same with an eight-part run starting in September, with a two-hour Christmas special to follow. "We have a lot to live up to," said executive producer Gareth Neame, who admitted to "second album nervousness" about series two, which is understood to have cost £12m to make.
"This time, the characters are in the middle of the war. That forces us to tell different stories. A world that was unassailable in the first series is now very much under threat."
Neame believes audiences "would have become bored if we had more stories of people stealing snuff boxes and stuff", a past storyline, and is keen to explore the breakdown in the social certainties brought on by the war.
The first series had ended on an August 1914 cliffhanger as Britain declared war on Germany. Among the young men in France at the start of series two is the scheming footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), so traumatised by his experiences at the front that he has forgotten his feud with his fellow Downton servant, Bates, and seeks to find a way back to the house.
The war also changes things for those above stairs – the Earl of Granthan (Hugh Bonneville) is bitter that he is too old to serve. His daughter, Lady Sybil Crawley, who holds the distastefully modern idea that women should be allowed to vote, does the unladylike thing and becomes a nurse, giving her the melancholy line to deliver: "Sometimes it feels as if all men that I ever danced with are dead."
The drama is noticeable for its obsessive attention to detail. Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and the production team had a long debate about whether aristocrats of the period – the second series takes us from 1916 to 1918 and the Christmas special takes place on New Year's Eve 1919 –would eat asparagus with their hands or a fork. In the end producers cut the asparagus up and pretended they were green beans, which they knew were eaten with a fork, so keen were they not to put a foot wrong.Five days of the 23-week shoot was done in replica Western Front trenches. "Because the show is so popular, we've a special role in teaching, particularly young people, about the war," said Neame. "ITV wanted more of the same [as the first series]. But because this is wartime, we had a duty to show the social impact of war."
One person who does not like the upheaval, unsurprisingly, is the dowager duchess. At one point, asked if she wants everything to return to the way it was before the war, she replies: "I certainly do, and as quickly as possible."
She will be grateful to learn that writer Julian Fellowes is already storylining scripts for a third series, which will take Downton Abbey into the devil-may-care, swinging 1920s.
Julian Fellowes: Lord and master of Toff Television
With his 'Downton Abbey’ set to return, a contrite Julian Fellowes tells Jusith Woods of his regrets at letting pernickety viewers get the better of him.
By Judith Woods
06 Jul 2011
Order! Order! Lord (Julian) Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, has an apology to make. Well, perhaps not an apology per se, more of a clarification. You see, the man who brought us the scandal of Lady Mary and the dead Turk in her bed, and the sly machinations of O’Brien the Machiavellian maid, was so taken aback by the extraordinary fervour following each Sunday night episode, he rather lamentably lost his sense of humour.
As viewers lambasted him for apparently appalling anachronisms – a modern conservatory! The term “boyfriend”, which wasn’t used until 1933! – he signally failed to take their passionate pedantry as a compliment. You see, the raging, often rancorous debate over historical accuracy was a measure of success, rather than failure.
“I think I behaved rather stupidly about the criticisms,” he says. “I allowed them to irritate me, but really they were a tribute to how much the nation took Downton to their hearts. There was also an assumption in the media that the complainant was automatically correct and we were wrong, which was frustrating.” Quite so – the conservatory in question dated back to the Edwardian era and the first printed usage of “boyfriend” was in 1889.
“When there was a television aerial in a shot, as there was once, I was happy to hold my hands up, but I expended a lot of energy getting agitated about accusations that such-and-such piece of music wasn’t released until 1922, when in fact it was being played in 1910. Or the butler should have been in uniform when they came out of uniform in the Regency period – I mean, just shut up!”
Fellowes, 61 – a clubbable, hearty, high church Tory in mandatory Vyella shirt and Harris tweed jacket – regrets coming across as such a churl and hopes to enter the forthcoming Downton Abbey fray in a more relaxed frame of mind. He understands now that audiences gripe because they feel intensely involved with and proprietorial towards Downton, even if they have a peculiar way of showing it.
“This year I think it might be nice to have a column called This Week’s Downton Blunders, where I have the right of reply and can say either 'It’s a fair cop’ or 'No, we got it right, actually they did wear bathing costumes in 1761’ or whatever. That might be a much better way of handling all the excitement.”
Excitement? Excitement doesn’t begin to describe the building sense of anticipation at our immersion into the gloriously escapist world of Downton Abbey. We are two months away from the second series and already Ladies Mary, Sybil and Edith Crawley are gracing the pages of Vogue in their silk taffeta finery. There have been suggestions that the digital Olympic stopwatch counting down to 2012 in Trafalagar Square could be exchanged for an Edwardian longcase clock, set to chime when the opening credits roll in September.
Fan sites are buzzing and Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of Gosford Park, admits to feeling under pressure. Filming has already begun at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the fabulously characterful pile chosen to play the plum role of Downton Abbey, but he is still tapping away furiously on his laptop, charting the upstairs-downstairs fortunes of the Crawley family and those who serve them.
The phenomenal viewing figures, which topped 11.6 million, made Downton both a critical and commercial triumph and ITV’s most successful costume drama since Brideshead Revisited. Yet Fellowes claims he was taken aback by the groundswell of enthusiasm. He describes himself as a lone Right-winger in the predominantly Leftie television industry, who was forcibly told on more than one occasion that Toff Television was infra dig.
“I have proved them entirely wrong,” he says, with a hint of the Cheshire cat about him. “I think the reason why people love Downton Abbey is because all the characters are given the same weight. Some are nice, some are not, but it has nothing to do with class or oppressors versus the oppressed. There’s no agenda here – I say, if you want to send a message, go to Western Union – Daisy’s crisis is as important to her as Lady Mary’s is to Lady Mary.”
The second series opens during the Great War. Downton has been converted to a convalescent home-cum-hospital for injured officers, run by the family physician Dr Clarkson. But will he end up treating Matthew Crawley, heir presumptive to Downton, if as feared he sets off to the Front? Although given Matthew's shocking rejection of Lady Mary, who dithered too long over his proposal, some would be happy to see some form of cosmic retribution.
“Death casts a pall over the bright young things; cutting a swathe through a generation of young men, but also affording fresh opportunities for upper-class young women, hitherto merely expected to marry well, to take on new roles, discover their métier and fulfil their potential,” he says. “The family stays on at Downton, but the influx of injured officers opens them up to events in the wider world.”
Despite a barrage of wheedling, Fellowes refuses to elaborate any further, but it’s enough to whet the most republican of appetites for the next helping of this lavish Sunday evening fare. Fellowes himself would make a diverting subject for a mini-series, with a career – largely, portraying upper-crust types – that fairly rattles along. Born in Cairo, the youngest son of diplomat and Arabist Peregrine Edward Launcelot Fellowes, he was educated at Ampleforth and Cambridge before attending drama school.
The 1970s were a barren patch as the class warriors of theatreland winced at his cut-glass vowels, and work was in short supply. But as fashions changed, so did his luck, even if he was consistently typecast. Thus he appeared as Earl Kilwillie in Monarch of the Glen, a disgraced Cabinet minister in Our Friends in the North and a Duke in the BBC drama Aristocrats. His film credits include Damage with Jeremy Irons and Tomorrow Never Dies with Pierce Brosnan, but it was writing that saw him hit his creative stride.
His privileged background became a help rather than a hindrance and after penning Little Lord Fauntelroy and The Prince and the Pauper for the BBC, he moved on to Gosford Park, a fabulously forensic examination of social nuance above and below stairs. Then came Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt, for which he wrote the original script, Vanity Fair and The Tourist, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
His 2004 novel Snobs (no prizes for guessing the recurrent leitmotif) was a bestseller, followed by Past Imperfect, which covered the debutante season of 1968. And now we have Mr Bates the mysterious valet and Maggie Smith as the imperious Dowager Countess glowering from her family seat at Downton Abbey.
Fellowes dismissively bats away intimations he may have plagiarised plotlines from Little Women and Mrs Miniver, and despite his keen eye for etiquette, he denounces a tabloid story that once claimed he cast aspersions on people’s manners and gave guests “black marks” for the unforgivable infraction of tipping their soup bowls towards themselves or folding their napkins after dinner.
“I couldn’t care less if someone holds their knife like a pencil, I’m not that sort of person,” he insists, rather improbably, as he comes across as exactly that sort of person, and ought not to pretend otherwise. Besides, not long ago he barked in outrage at a fellow member of the audience who had the temerity to cough during a performance of – what else? – Posh, at the Royal Court.
Married, in 1990 to Emma Kitchener, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and a descendant of the 1st Earl Kitchener, the couple, who divide their time between a manor house in Dorset and a Chelsea pied-à-terre, have a son, Peregrine, who is embarking on a career as a film director, against his father’s advice.
“I want him to find a proper job in the City and make a fortune,” sighs Fellowes. “But then that’s what my father told me and I ignored him, so what can I expect?”
Fellowes took up his seat as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford earlier this year, sitting, needless to say on the Tory benches, which is for the best as his wistful evocations of the Empire and an age when Great Britain truly was Great, might not play so well on the other side of the chamber.
“I hope I can be useful, speaking out on behalf of the arts,” he says. “When people are feeling insecure about their jobs and there are cuts to be made, it’s hard to put up an argument that the film industry needs funding. But we can’t allow this side of our national life to wither and die – it’s part of the Government’s role to keep it alive.”
And so it is Fellowes’s role to continue breathing life into lugubrious Carson the butler and gung-ho Lady Sybil with her notions about universal suffrage. Let Fellowes smile benignly (while bristling with suppressed indignation) when Middle England quibbles over vocabulary and protocol. He may have written the script, but Downton belongs to us all.
'Downton Abbey’ returns for a second series in the autumn.