I am sooooo addicted to Masterpiece Theatre’s well, masterpiece, “Downton Abbey”! I was wondering when I was going to have the time and space to write about it, but now, with only one more episode left, the Second Season Finale, there’s no time left to start throwing superlatives at it! But don’t worry, at least its last show will ALSO be two hours long, like tonight’s was.
With all the Oscar excitement happening every other minute, I have barely had a chance to catch my blogger’s breath to spend the time and give the respect to “Downton Abbey” that it deserves for being the magnificent achievement in series television that it is. It’s overwhelming. As all great art should be.
I have NEVER been so swept up by a British TV series in decades! Decades! Of course, it reminds one of “Upstairs, Downstairs” which I love as well. It’s all about the VERY rich Crawley(what a dreadful name) family, and their three marriage-aged daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Edith, and Lady Sybil AND their servants.
The difference between “Upstairs, Downstairs” was that it was set very firmly at 25 Eaton Place, a town house, in the grandest of styles, in London itself. It was about life in a CITY house, with servants. And lots of stairs.
“Downton Abbey” is set in an overwhelmingly majestic mansion that is nearly a castle in Yorkshire. DEFINITELY the country. And there’s a lot of stairs there, too, but with grand stair-cases.
And presiding over all of Downton’s magnificence, is the brilliant Dame Maggie Smith, always a personal favorite of mine, since, well, since forever.
I had the great good fortune to have seen her onstage in her youth(and mine) do Margery Pinchwife in “The Country Wife” ( with the divine and busty Patricia Routledge as Lady Fidget, who yes, was hilarious, and yes, couldn’t stop fidgeting!) And she was equally at home as Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” which she did under the direction of the late great Ingmar Bergman, which I saw her do in the West End.
Maggie was overpowering and as excellent in serious roles, though she is today mainly known for her great comedy. And certainly her Dowager Countess of Grantham, the grandest of grande dames, is the grandmother of the Crawley brood. She seems simply hilarious, but as World War I broke out in the Second Season, Dame Maggie began to be able to show that her Dowager Countess had real metal as well as smarts AND heart. It’s a magnificent, career-capping performance that matches the majesty of Highcleere Castle,(yes, it really IS a castle) that is standing in as the fictional Downton Abbey.
Everyone in the series matches Dame Maggie. They HAVE to! All the many characters REALLY engage you and keep you watching no matter what. Particular favorites of mine are the two eldest Crawley daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael).
Michelle Dockery, who is new to me (as are much of the cast except of course, Dame Maggie and American actress Maureen McGovern, as the mother of Crawley girls and Lady Grantham’s daughter-in-law) is SUCH a discovery as a new British leading lady. She has much of the weight of the series love story to carry and she does it with tremendous power, as she high-lights all of the many facets of Lady Mary’s VERY complicated character. You love her. You hate her. You want her to be happy, then you don’t want that at all. Then you love her again.
The same can be said of the less-seen Lady Edith, who is just as conflicted. Laura Carmichael looks a little like Maggie Smith when she was young, and you can see her being the grand-daughter who takes after her granny. Although as the plain, middle-sister sandwiched between two beauties Lady Mary and Lady Sybil, she has a very hard time of it. Especially in Series One, where her constant sparring and betrayal of Lady Mary, formed much of the drama pre-war in “Downton Abbey,” which they all just refer to as Downton. As if it were a person in their lives.
And one of the great glories of this superb series is Downton really is a tangible presence in all its’ characters’ lives. They can’t live with it, and they can’t live without it. And they are all living in a world that very shortly will be gone with the wind. Literally. As World War I changes everything.
In Series Two, I was not ready for my beloved British servants/masters series to turn into a war-time drama, but dear readers, dear cineastes, the War only lasts for part of Series Two. Enough to take away one of the most memorable characters, but I decided not to spoil any of this once-in-a-lifetime viewing pleasure, so I won’t put any spoilers here.
But suffice it to say, I will have A LOT MORE to say about this wonderful, unbelievable triumph of great writing, Julian Fellowes, who was the author of “Gosford Park” and great acting and directing. Down to the smallest part all the roles are perfectly cast, and “Downton Abbey” ends its Second Series on next Sunday on PBS. It’s another two-hour episode, and it never flags. It never gets tired. And it’s always enthralling.
So my greatest rave would be two words SEE IT! Next Sunday! At 9pm! The Sunday BEFORE the Oscars!
But more good news is that they are going to have a Series Three which starts in 1920! And Shirley MacLaine is joining the cast as Lady Cora(Maureen McGovern’s mother) and the Crawley girls’ American grandmother. That should be a hoot and a half!
My favoritie line of THIS evening’s episode ~ Maggie Smith to her grand-daughter Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith “Edith, don’t be depressive! It’s soo middle class!”