Did Downton trigger Brexit? Ok I’m being slightly facetious, but the nostalgic period drama is a UKIPer’s wet dream, and one can easily imagine Mr. Rees Mogg purring like a Cheshire cat as he settles down to watch a show where Englishness predominates, all shoes are shined and the working classes know their place.
Julian Fellowes’ take on the early 20th century British class system is so benign it’s morally suspect, but in fairness he’s always spiced things up by throwing mildly controversial themes into the mix, like PTSD, marital strife, the Anglo-Irish War and the plight of gay men in less enlightened times.
None of this, though, can long derail the sunny harmony that prevails at Downton, a venerable Yorkshire estate presided over by the kindly but slightly exasperated Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). The Earl hunts and eats a lot and peevishly asks “whatever is the matter now” when rows break out between his servants, who are essentially his children, silly, distractible bickerers who live for the occasional words of praise bestowed on them by their employers.
On the TV show, which ran for six seasons between 2011 and 2016, Mr. Fellowes brilliantly juggled a plethora of storylines that explored and sometimes entangled the lives of servants and toffs, and had enough moments of wit and insight to make the soapy melodrama digestible. There were tragedies, a mounting body count, but all the major characters not whacked by Mr. Fellowes return in this sparkling, silly and beautifully coordinated feature film.
It’s 1927, so it is, and the Earl and Countess of Grantham are enjoying a welcome break from familial incident when the postman delivers a bombshell. King George and Queen Mary have been forced by irksome duty to visit rain-sodden Yorkshire, and will grace the Crawleys by stopping at Downton for a night. This news unleashes pandemonium in the servants’ quarters, where head cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) becomes so excited one fears she may at any moment spontaneously combust.
Assistant cook Daisy (the excellent Sophie McShera) is less impressed, and is dubbed ‘Robespierre’ by Mrs Patmore when she loudly declares that the royals are an anachronism. Still, even Daisy is secretly excited by the impending visit, while housekeeper Mrs. Hughes’ (Phyllis Logan) chest expands to bursting point at the prospect of serving her beloved monarch. Veteran butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is dragged out of retirement to help, but the Downton crew are dealt a heavy blow when it emerges that the King and Queen will arrive with their own personal set of underlings.
Mrs. Patmore will be usurped in her own kitchen by a snooty continental with a waxed moustache and one of those floppy chef hats (bloody French), Mrs. Hughes locks horns with a teutonic-looking female who acts as royal housekeeper (bloody Germans), while Mr. Carson is about to be out-buttled by a palace flunkie who styles himself ‘the master of the backstairs’.
Upstairs, meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has been handed the unenviable task of stage-managing the royal visit, which may be sabotaged by her scheming granny. For the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, imperious star of the Downton troupe) has a bone to pick with one of Queen Mary’s attendants, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a childless cousin with a sizable inheritance she is refusing to pass on to Lord Grantham. And son-in-law and former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who’s still knocking about the estate, must stow his socialist and Irish republican sentiments and bow and scrape like the rest of them.
Trouble brewing then, and in fairness Julian Fellowes does a fine job of keeping his various balls in the air, balancing pathos and intrigue with splashes of repartee. Maggie Smith’s comic timing is superb, and she knocks every joke that’s pitched up to her out of the park, Allen Leech handles a bigger workload than usual with breezy charm and David Haig is wonderfully odious as the ‘backstairs’ man.
Some of my colleagues, who are not unintelligent, became muddled during the press screening, and pointed out afterwards that if you haven’t watched the TV show you might be confused as to who everyone is. This is true, but overall Mr. Fellowes was wise not to make too many concessions to new viewers, because this film is very much for the initiated, who will find it a sumptuous treat.
And while it is sickening to watch honest working people bow and scrape before preened and pampered wasters whom time, money, privilege and chance have deemed their superiors, Downton Abbey is such a harmless and charming confection that it becomes possible to suppress one’s inner socialist for the duration.