It seems as if Channel Seven’s saturation marketing techniques over the past few weeks worked, at least according to reviewers and ratings.
Filmed on location in one of the Victorian Age’s surviving ostentatious mansions, it really has it all. A fine script, a stellar cast, great acting, beautiful costumes, stunning themes and above all sexual exploits that affect life both upstairs and down.
It was created by actor, writer, film director, sometime screenwriter and Conservative peer the very stylish Julian Fellowes aka Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, who is the current Lord of the Manor of Tattershall in Lincolnshire. The current Lady of the Manor, Mrs Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, is the great great niece of Lord Kitchener, a renowned adversary of Lord Curzon of Kedleston and the benefactor and restorer of Tattershall Castle. So you could say that if anyone knows something about the highjinks that go on ‘upstairs’ and down they would.
At an estimated £1 million per episode, Downton Abbey is the most successful British period drama since Brideshead Revisited of 1981. Its just 30 years since Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews lit up the television screens and confirmed the fact that good writing and great acting always works.
Downton Abbey has some amazing acting performances both upstairs and down. They are led by the Dowager Countess herself, Maggie Smith who is an iconic actor of my generation. Seeing her on stage at London in the comedy Lettice and Lovage a Tony Award winning comedic play written expressly for her by Peter Shaffer the author of the hit stage play Amadeus that became the famous movie, is one of the highlights of my own personal theatrical experiences.
She adds a power punch to this series, Downton Abbey, which is like a memorable meal.
It’s not just about the ingredients and how they fuse together, but also about how it is presented, savoured and enjoyed.
Great acting and great writing will always = success, as it does here. The characters are so beautifully drawn by Fellowes, who constantly displays his insight into the human condition and its many frailties. Pride, prejudice, avarice, greed, lust, envy and gluttony they are all here, but balanced by charity, good works and above all ‘grace’.
The Edwardian era (1901 – 1910), in which it is set is surely one of the most outstandingly visually beautiful periods in England’s history. The whole story is made more poignant because the series is set in that final ‘halcyon period’ (1910 – 13) preceding the beginning of World War 1 when butlers finally met their lord and masters on equal terms, albeit in the terror filled trenches where they either died together, or saved each other’s lives.
Above all Downton Abbey is an education about what constitutes an extended family. Its not just about blood, but also about compassion and caring for all those who surround and support the family.
This is beautifully drawn in the first episode, where at the end the Earl of Grantham, played with just the right amount of firm sensitivity by Hugh Bonneville cannot see his lame Valet John Bates thrown out over a misdemeanor into the harshness of contemporary life where such disabilities were viewed disparagingly. Instead he chooses to draw him back into the safety and security of the family that incorporates both upstairs and down.
Next week the new heir Matthew Crawley who is a lawyer, arrives with his mother Isobel whom he cares for. The delicious verbal clashes between her and the Dowager Countess in the rest of the series provide some of its great writing moments. Not to mention the developing romance with Lady Mary and Matthew. And then there is that lovely Sybil, who daringly designs new harem pants to brighten the long evenings at home in Downton Abbey.
Carolyn McDowall, May 2011 © The Culture Concept Circle