Thursday 22 February 2018

The TV Guide: Leaving Downton

Downton Abbey returns to ITV on Sunday
Downton Abbey returns to ITV on Sunday

Downton Abbey is back, for the sixth and last time. Hugh Bonneville will delight us for one last time as the genial, well-meaning, instinctively courteous Earl of Grantham, a man who puts duty before pleasure, family before self, and honour before everything. And indeed, true to form, he seems to be ready to go gentle in that good night: "Neither you nor I can hold back time," he says to Carson, his mirror image below stairs. Ever reasonable, ever commendably-stiff-of-upper-lip, the Earl cannot find it in himself to rail and curse, even when faced with what looks like his own extinction. This is going by the trailer for the new series, which seems to show an awful lot of goodbyes. And yes, there are spoilers ahead.

The final series will unroll throughout the late 1920s and the decline of the British aristocracy. It will, says Hugh Bonneville, have "a flavour of the end of an era". The first series was set in the early 1900s, beginning with news of the Titanic going down. Since then, various historical events have provided backdrop, usually carefully portrayed - although it seems that Queen Elizabeth, a fan, recently spotted an error - a young British officer wearing medals which had not been awarded when he was supposed to be alive. He was fighting in the First World War, and his medals did not come in until the Second World War. Must Try Harder, consultant historians.

Really though, that says it all about a show that has been wildly popular since day one - the most nominated British show in Emmy history, Downton has 59 nominations to date, with 11 wins. The Americans love it as much, more even, than we do, and there is serious talk of a feature film. But in the meantime, what else looks likely in Season Six?

Will Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, (above centre, with Lily James as Lady Rose, above left, and Catherine Steadman, above right, as Mabel Lane Fox) and one of the break-out stars of the series, having bobbed her hair and launched herself into modern life, give up her sexual independence and marry one of her many suitors?

Will Tom Branson, chauffeur and firebrand revolutionary turned son of the house and agent, finally resolve his unquiet heart once and for all? Will he stay and nestle into the bosom of the aristocracy, or leave and fight the system? And what of Lady Rose and her marriage to Atticus Aldridge, in what is presumably a mounting climate of anti-Semitism? She has left the show, but the character hasn't been killed off, leaving the way open for rumours of a return.

It looks as if something nice happens to Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) at last. Usually the show's whipping boy, she has had trials and indignities heaped upon her, and been made to seem rather moany too, in comparison with the irrepressible spiritedness of her elder sister Lady Mary. But that seems to me unfair - Edith has always had plenty of good qualities, and this might be her time to shine.

Any uneasy truce between Isobel and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, redoubtable as ever) seems over, with scenes of them conducting a skirmish over the future of the hospital released as part of the pre-publicity. "What matters more, health or power?" asks Isobel. "What matters is to have power over the maintenance of our health" responds the Dowager Countess magnificently.

For me, the downstairs bits have always lacked excitement, except for the rather touching interactions between Carson and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) as they struggle to adapt to a world that is squeezing them out. But God, please no more Mr Bates with his dignified silences and wounded badger look.

Unlike so many shows, Downton is leaving (almost) at the top of its form. British drama at its best, British aristocracy at its most picturesque.

Downton Abbey season six starts on ITV next Sunday

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