11 January 2011

Downton Abbey Episode I (The Gossip Edition)

Summary: "It's 1912, and life in the Edwardian country house of Downton Abbey is idyllic and bustling for the Crawley family, aided by their cadre of servants. Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American heiress wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) along with Robert's mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) have lived largely uncomplicated lives.
But the sinking of the Titanic hits home in an unexpected and dramatic way — Lord Grantham's heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick have perished. It's personally agonizing (momentarily) for daughter Mary who was supposed to marry Patrick. On a grander scale, suddenly all the predictable succession plans have gone terribly awry, and unheard of questions now loom large — Who will be the new heir to the earldom? And what will happen to this distinguished estate, now in jeopardy? Mary's grief is short lived as she sets her sights on another suitor, the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox). 
As the drama unfolds among the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, changes are happening amidst the servants as well. John Bates (Brendan Coyle) has arrived as a new valet for Robert, but he has a pronounced limp, potentially making him unfit to perform his duties. Also, Bates seems to have some previous link to Robert, and a murky past. And, someone else in the servant's quarters is darkly entangled with the fortunes of the family he serves.
Despite much angling and consternation, the course of action emerges — a new heir presumptive will soon arrive at Downton. As Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the heir presumptive, and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) arrive, the emotions of the onlookers range from anxiety to outright antagonism. But in crisis there may be opportunity, and Matthew is considered as a suitor for Mary. Yet, nothing is quite as
it seems in the changing landscape and shifting fortunes of Downton Abbey."
Summary from
PBS: Masterpiece Classics

Comments (spoilers):

Downton Abbey - Episode 1 (the gossip edition)
Daisy, scullery maid
MotH beings the episode trying to decipher the Morse code being sent across to towns all over England following the wreck of the Titanic. That must have been devastating to so many families.
Just some thoughts on Episode 1 (the gossip edition). It must be great fun to film in such locations. I bet the insurance is expensive and I can see the curators of the site or volunteers watching over every little piece of furniture. I must not be into the story yet if these are the things that are coming to my mind. The levels of the servants is interesting to try and sort out. Thankfully, I've read enough history and historical fiction to be able to make heads-and-tails of who is who and who reports to whom, who reports to the family and it will be interesting to follow who allies themselves with each other, both the servants and the family.
The time period for Episode 1 (c.1912-1913) is really a time of flux. There are automobiles, but there are still horse-drawn carts. There is electricity, but not every one trusts it yet. Servants still iron the paper to set the ink, but mail comes more than once a day and the telegraph provides quick information of important events.
There is a good bit of humor in Downton Abbey (at least so far). I've already taken a liking to Daisy, the scullery maid. She's the bottom rung of the ladder and is so innocent and wants so much to do a good job. That said, she is often the point of a joke - such as, "You're trying to build a fine, not invent one." That made me laugh.
Robert, Earl of Grantham
The first appearance of Robert, Earl of Grantham, shows him with a lovely yellow Labrador Retreiever. Such a small gesture as including the dog coming down stairs with him tells you a good deal about Robert. He's a country gentleman (in addition to being Earl), he's likely a hunter, and his dog stays with him in the house. As Robert is seated at breakfast he hears about the sinking of the Titanic and realizes that his heir and spare are aboard and likely dead. It also sinks in that while Mr. Carson says that the women and children would be saved, Robert knows that's only the women and children of first class, but what about the "poor devils below decks." Another illustration that he is a decent caring man. So why is Bates' limp such a big deal? I'm not sure I understand yet but I guess we'll get more details.
Violet, Dowager Countess
Characters are starting to be introduced. Initial thoughts: Mary (eldest daughter) is a hateful creature and it's probably Patrick's good fortune that he ended up in the cold Atlantic rather than married to the cold Mary. Violet (Dowager Countess) - now, she's a piece of work. I'm going to like her - no matter what. I can't imagine anyone else in the role.
Bates, obviously, knows the Earl from their days in the Boer Wars, but there are not a lot of details forthcoming.
I find it interesting how much gossips takes place between the family and servants and they almost seem divided into camps. I find that rather surprising. Was that typical? It does not seem likely, but perhaps it's a well kept secret.
O'Brien, Lady's maid
O'Brien, the priggish Lady's maid trips Bates in front of the the visiting Duke of Crowborough. The Duke is there to dangle for Mary thinking that the entail will be broken (he can have her for all I'm concerned), but I want Bates to beat O'Brien with his cane -- hateful hateful creature.
Primegeniture is a huge character in this story. It impacts so many things and the lives of so many people. Violet and Cora both want to break the entail so Mary can inherit. Cora's (American) money is bound into the estate and all of this was done by Robert's father. While there is plenty of criticism to go around for the entail, not one yet blames the late Earl for this situation. Striving to keep the estate together is of primary importance to Robert.
Thomas, first footman
Time to speak about good-for-nothing Thomas, first footman (and general tool). He thinks he's above his station. He connived his way into the life of the Duke of Crowborough in a sexual way when he thought that would advance him and he resents Mr. Bates for taking his place when he was temporary valet to the Earl. He constantly insinuates that Mr. Bates does not pull his weight and that Mr. Bates makes Mr. Carson look bad - something that Carson appears to believe. He's sides with O'Brien (they deserve each other) in trying to cause trouble. Another one I can't wait to see get their come-uppance. 

Anna, head housemaid
In contrast, Anna, head housemaid, is a hard worker, good at her job, and sweet tempered. She is so kind to Bates and not afraid to smart off to O'Brien so I'm looking forward to seeing her character progress.

Now to one of my, so far, favorite hateful characters - Lady Edith. She's not nice and I like her because she's not shy about taking it straight to Lady Mary - she's nosy, resentful and I think, going to be lots of fun.
Mr. Bates, valet

So Bates is being let go by the Earl. It just isn't working due to Mr. Bates inability to help in certain areas that a valet usually did assist (serving at table, carrying luggage, etc.) and Thomas makes sure Mr. Carson knows it. Mr. Bates is truly upset and so is Anna - who is just so nice to Mr. Bates. Mr. Bates accepts the Earl's decision and leaves receiving the Earl's best of luck and Mr. Bates returns, "Good luck to you my lord." What does that mean? Mr. Bates seems so kind, contentious, and is a good valet, but that one comment makes the Earl change his mind and makes Bates stay. Why? What don't we know?
Matthew & Isobel Crawley
Cora, Countess of Grantham
We are also introduced to the next heir, Matthew Crawley and his mother Isobel Crawley. He's not please with this change, but his mother appears to be. She has good sense and excellent manners. He's independent, speaks his mind, and is the 20th centry that is to come, where Robert is the 19th century that was. Can I say that there will either be a cat fight between Violet and Isobel or they will end up as friends, of a sort. Either way, could be interesting. I enjoy that Isobel Crawley really understands her son. That he "pretends to be nicer that the rest of us." He retorts, "Perhaps, I am." And he may well be, but then again, this kind of environment can make you mercenary. When Matthew Crawley tells the butler that his job is silly for a grown man, it is painful but illustrative of his 20th century notions and his value for what he perceives as real work.
I'll close on one telling scene: Cora is trying to tell Lady Mary not to eliminate Matthew Crawley because while she wants the entail broken, she cannot guarantee it. Mary calls Cora, her mother, an American*, like it's an insult. Mary has a lot to learn.
If the entire episode can be encapulated in only one question  it is asked by Violet... "What is a weekend?"
My over all feel for the episode is one of beauty, but also of deception and gossip.

*No wonder this was popular in the UK.

NPR had a great interview with Julian Fellows - NPR Interview with Julian Fellows


  1. I think Hugh Bonneville is brilliant in his role as Lord Grantham. He conveys so much empathy just by his tone of voice, and don't you know he loves his wife just by the way he looks at her? Brendan Doyle is also fantastic, doing most of his acting with his eyes. I love Penelope Wilton and Dan Stevens' eyes. What's not to like about Downton Abbey?

    P.S. I liked the bit with the dog as well.

  2. Hey Mary -- I'm with you - Hugh Bonneville is just lovely and conveys so much, but is funny too ("lump it"). I'm really pleased that my husband really enjoyed the first episode and is looking forward to the other episodes.

    I'm a sucker for puppies (and the people that love them).

    Take care -

  3. DA is such a pleasure. I love your commentary, though I doubted from the start if Violet and Isobel would ever, ever be friends. They tolerate each other for family sake, but really are at ends with each other. It is fun to watch. I know. I am sick.


  4. Laurel Ann - Thanks for your comment -- and Mary -- thank you as well. I'm slow to respond because I do not expect much readership - I mean Miss Austen, Beer, Gardening, Cooking, Ms. Heyer and other random postings... thanks again though.
    I do think Violet and Isobel will be "friends" of a sort. And I do think Maggie Smith has some of the best lines ever - what a performance! She's amazing. I could gush on and on, but shall not. I don't really want to post my last comments yet (for IV), but take my time with them and re-watch the episode again. Hate to have to wait so long for season 2, but very glad there is a season 2.



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