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Last Night's TV: Downton Abbey


"Sometimes", said Lady Sybil in the first episode of the new season of Downton Abbey (ITV), "it feels as though all the men I ever danced with are dead".

This lament is not a complaint about the lack of good boyfriend material in early 20th century England, but an acknowledgement that one by one, the country’s finest have been dragged away from home and family to be slaughtered on the green fields of France.

From the opening scene in last night’s return, the First World War was everywhere. The first thing we saw were dead bodies lying in a trench during the Battle of the Somme.

Those early scenes recalled the fourth series of Blackadder as characters moved from the trenches to a makeshift command centre where the talk was of home and the women who lived there.

Back home, all was talk of war as well. There were the men who wanted to fight, but couldn’t, the men who could fight but wouldn’t, the women who wanted to keep them home and the women who wanted them to go.

Two of those turned up in an early scene handing out white feathers to the men they believed were cowards in their midst.

But it wasn’t the war we tuned in for. Downton Abbey didn’t become the biggest television hit of last year and a multi-award winner at last night’s Emmys by allowing itself to be overwhelmed by the outside world.

If the first series was about anything, it was about a society on the verge of change and the ways it both resisted and accommodated that.

The suffragette movement, Irish republicanism, a less accepting view of the master/servant relationship were all themes that raised their heads as England looked forward uncertainly to the new century.

With war, a new England has become irresistible. “Things are changing, for her lot and us”, one of the downstairs characters said, hammering the point home.

Thankfully, for us lot, the viewers, there was more than enough of what we have come to know and love. All the old characters are back, even if some are taking potshots from the Germans in France.

Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham is as earnestly pompous as ever, dressing up in his military finery and believing that he will soon be off to the front to fight for King and country.

His three daughters remain as unlikeably interesting as they always were.

His mother, played by Maggie Smith, one of Downton’s winners at the Emmys, continues to receive all the best lines.

Smith is in danger of becoming a kind of caricature and she could do with another character to share the burden of making us laugh. Almost everything she said in last night’s episode was a carefully scripted one-liner to lighten the mood.

She’s good at it, of course, and who wouldn’t want to see her, face scrunched up in distaste, nose quivering with contempt, as she refers to Lady Sybil – helping out with the war effort – “ladling soup down the throat of some unfortunate”? But she’d be an ever better character if she didn’t have to be the jester all the time.

Downstairs, in the servants’ quarters, there were plenty of familiar faces too, not least of which were Anna and Mr Bates (“I think you should start calling me John” he suggested after a marriage proposal of sorts), who provided us with most of the romance in the first series.

“I never thought I could be as happy as I am at this moment”, Anna said after realising that she was engaged, to which the only response was “oh, oh, there may be trouble ahead”. It was at this point we met Maria Doyle Kennedy.

There were a few nasty characters in the first series, but Doyle Kennedy looks like she will trump their malevolence.

Playing Bates’s estranged wife, from whom he wants a divorce, she made a brief five minute appearance during which she blackmailed him into breaking his engagement, leaving Downton Abbey and giving the marriage another try.

It was a beautifully contemptuous performance from Doyle Kennedy and I hope we’ll be seeing her again. Downton Abbey needs such badness to highlight its own claims for honour, decency and virtue.

In a strange kind of way, Amanda Brunker is being set up as a similar type of malign influence in Celebrity Bainisteior (RTE1), a terrible mess of a programme which returned for a new series last night.

Promos for the show showed Brunker being criticised for being a bit of a flibbertigibbet, too much of a self-centred, style pony to be coaching football players.

But maybe she knows more than she’s letting on, or is being given credit for.

“I’ve never shied away from meeting handsome young men, especially in shorts”, she said, and perhaps she figures that the handsome men, still young and dumb enough to fancy their chances with her, will raise their game for a big-bosomed blonde in short skirts parading up and down the sideline.

It would be great if her team won, although it was hard to assess the opposition thanks to a bizarre decision to focus last night’s first episode on managers from previous years.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that Tony Cascarino may be the only manager who knows less about gaelic football than Brunker, and that Dana’s presence may become problematic for RTE if her team stays in the contest and she becomes a presidential candidate.

That would leave the national broadcaster in possible breach of its requirements to be balanced during an election campaign, a problem to which there could only be one solution.

All the other candidates would have to be invited in to the competition, and the presidency would awarded to the person whose team triumphed in a grand final at Croke Park.

That would sort the men from the boys, the women from the flibbertigibbets. Bring it on.