Former British Prime-Minister Ramsay MacDonald has a lot to answer for. Labour’s first-ever Prime Minister may have, in reality, lacked the confidence to bring about radical reform but upstairs and downstairs at Downton Abbey (ITV) he was making his presence felt when we returned to the series, now set in 1924.
“Our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” opined the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) over tea in the drawing room. Meanwhile footman James (Ed Speleers) was positively thrilled by the whiff of revolution. “When did we last have a Prime Minister who understood the working class?” he asked.
Certainly, by the end of the episode James was doing his best to break down class boundaries, caught in flagrante delicto with the deliciously predatory Lady Anstruther (Anna Chancellor) as a fire threatened to tear through Downton.
The liaison between aristocrat and servant was one of several frisky moments which added zest to this feature-length opening episode, hinting that, finally, the cast-iron garters of Victorian England were being discarded. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) confessed how Lady Cunard’s daughter’s filthy talk at a party in London almost caused her to faint. The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) engaged in some remarkably frank banter about what men really want, and Lady Mary, perhaps emboldened by Lady Cunard’s daughter, enjoyed a risqué hunting metaphor with potential suitor Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) which proved the perfect platform for Dockery’s eyebrows to curve into a splendidly ironic arch.
This enjoyable dash of sauce was combined with much that was reassuringly familiar. We have now got to know the majority of characters over four years and seeing them again felt rather like greeting old friends, indulgently forgiving all their faults and foibles. Carson (Jim Carter) is still hidebound by tradition. Daisy (Sophie McShera) is still a nervous bundle of insecurity. Thomas (Robert James-Collier) still thrives on Machiavellian intent.
We were also treated to some lovely, piquant cameos. Chancellor’s middle-aged vamp (“You’re a very naughty boy”) stayed just the right side of parody, and Harriet Walter, returning to the role of Lady Shackleton, somehow managed to sparkle by doing very little. Just with a beady stare or an ironic smile, Walter threatened to upstage the un-upstageable Maggie Smith.
There was a promising new character, too. Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis), a school teacher and potential love interest for Branson (Allen Leech) who was briefly glimpsed at the end of the last series, proved to be a socialist serpent in the nest, questioning the point of the proposed war memorial and thus prompting a near-apoplectic Earl of Grantham to christen her “the Boudica of the North Riding”. In fact, that moment confirmed my suspicion that the best scenes in the series always take place around the dinner table.
There are still faults with Downton Abbey. Some of the dialogue should really have been left on the cutting room floor - “Tom, come with me. You know where the sandbags are kept!” Also, the large ensemble is beginning to feel unwieldy, and consequently, it seemed as if we barely saw the luckless Bates (Brendan Coyle) or Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
But it is such an enjoyable confection that these criticisms feel niggardly. We tune in week after week because, rather like Carson, Fellowes runs this household with a brisk orderliness and we know exactly what we’re getting. A social revolution may be afoot in the outside world, but I doubt the insurgents will tear down the wrought-iron gates of Downton Abbey very soon.
Downton Abbey, back on our screens tonight, is big in China. Huge, in fact. According to a report in a UK newspaper this week, its popularity has fuelled an unprecedented demand among the country’s ruling elite for the services of British butlers.