Downton Abbey back on form in time for Christmas
After a second series that occasionally tested viewers’ credulity, the Christmas special of Downton Abbey, ITV1's hit period drama, is an absolute cracker.
Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Judging by a sneak preview of the forthcoming Christmas special, Downton Abbey has returned to form.
The first series of Julian Fellowes’s costume drama, first shown on ITV1 in autumn 2010, was an unadulterated success, receiving critical plaudits and sky-high ratings.
The second series, a year later, may have gained another two million viewers, but many feared Fellowes had written it too fast. There were clunky lines and some daft plotting – culminating in our being asked to believe that it was not the Spanish flu that really killed the drippy Lavinia Swire, but a broken heart after she realised her fiancé Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was in love with his cousin Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).
It is therefore a pleasure to report that, with the two-hour feature episode that will be shown on Christmas Day from 9pm, Fellowes has delivered a deliciously nuanced, wonderfully performed piece that will get you weeping in all the right places and is bound to be the triumph of the festive schedules.
Only once did I wince at an implausible plotline – involving a message from a Ouija board. The ending is so tremendously moving it is hard to believe that the entire country won’t be snivelling into their post-prandial brandies.
Of course, that plotline couldn’t possibly be given away. What I can tell you is that in this episode we follow the inhabitants of Downton Abbey – the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who wait on them – from Christmas Eve 1919 to shortly after New Year, 1920.
Christmas begins with the switching on of the lights on the tree that adorns Downton’s grand hall. There’s a gasp from the assembled crowd — only the very rich could afford electric fairy lights back then. Events then turn to focus on Lady Mary’s relationship with her fiancé, the dastardly Sir Richard Carlisle. He is quite prepared to blackmail his betrothed by threatening to publish the story of a past misdemeanour in his newspaper, should she look like throwing him over. Judging by her constant scowl, that’s exactly what Lady Mary wants to do.
The fact that past love Matthew Crawley keeps hanging about at her elbow, reminding her of his altogether better looks, isn’t helping either. Even though we discover that Matthew isn’t much cop at shooting pheasants, it doesn’t look likely to put Mary off.
The episode also sees the trial of Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), Downton’s noble valet, who at the end of series two was had up by the police for the apparent murder of his ghastly wife Vera. Servants are called to testify for the prosecution, an experience the good housekeeper Mrs Hughes finds heart-wrenching, and Lord Grantham himself speaks for the defence, hoping that the clout of his social position will swing the jury in Bates’s favour.
Then there’s the awe-inducing presence of Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
If anything, she’s further honed her technique of twitching her head from side to side like some affronted bird of paradise every time she encounters a whiff of vulgar behaviour. Her put-downs are even better and she delivers a corker at the end. A final mention goes to the gowns. Sumptuous from the word go, there’s now a hint of the dropped waistlines and shorter skirts of the 1920s, which suits the sylphlike figures of Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) and her daughters Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary particularly well.
However, we may have to wait until into the third series – promised on our screens in late 2012 – before the Dowager Countess wears a hem above the ankle.