After being officially confirmed as the best TV show ever by the famed record-keepers at Guinness, it would have been a bit embarrassing for ITV if the new series of Downton Abbey had been rubbish. So it’s a big relief for all concerned that the second outing looks like being even better *gasp* than the first. Indeed this 90-minute opener is so good that I asked one of the web designers to create a special six-starred graphic just for this review. She muttered something about “having real work to do..” and facetiously asked if I needed a new batch of hand-written business cards doing while she was at it, but eventually came back with this little number. Exciting times.
Yes folks, Downton is back, it’s brilliant and because we know all the characters better than O’Brien knows the smoking corner, Julian Fellowes gets down to business immediately. He was too wily to give us a happy ending last time out and there are all sorts of troubled beginnings to tug at the senses here. Two years after soapgate, England is up to its knees in the First World War (“sometimes I feel like all the men I’ve danced with are dead..” laments the lovely Lady Cybil as she tearfully reads a telegram) and it’s in the Somme that we find Matthew Crawley as he prepares for a bit of leave. He’s now engaged to the marvellously-named Lavinia Swire, despite the fact that she’s “nowhere to be seen in ‘Burke’s Peerage and Landed Gentry'” as Carson points out. Matthew rocks up at Downton just as Lady Mary is arriving back from London, which makes for a frightfully awkward situation after they blew it in series one. I say awkward because they both still fancy each other big time. Twisty-turny plotline ahoy!
But they’re not the only ones who have a few bridges to cross and by the end of this 90-minute opener Julian Fellowes has successfully opened up an array of fresh relationship arcs, none more heart-melting than Bates’ tryst with Head Housemaid Anna. Things were looking so rosy that they were talking about opening a small hotel at one stage, but that bonfire was well and truly p*ssed on by Bates’ viper of a wife who digs her heels in and threatens to ruin the Crawleys unless he calls off the divorce. We all know that Bates loves nothing more than dragging his own good-name through the dirt in an act of heroic self-sacrifice, so he resigns and doesn’t bother telling a furious Lord Crawley that rather than letting him down, he’s actually saving his family’s rep. We love Lord Crawley, but he’s pretty rubbish at being angry. My only question is how a lovable bloke like Bates ended up marrying the kind of she-bastard that makes Thomas the footman look like a pussycat.
And the list of characters who are a boozy servant/aristo night out away from happiness continues to grow apace. Will Lady Sybil and that free-thinking Irish lad get it together? (The charming dissident could be my favourite character..) What about Daisy and that other lad? While we’re at it, how about Carson and Mrs Hughes?! If anyone in Downton loves the social rules then it’s those two.
There are many great things about the saviour of ITV drama (the bluster, that music, the comedy, the house itself, the way everything is a bloody outrage) but Maggie Smith steals every scene up against some fierce competition, turning every one of the Dowager Countess’ lines into a soundbyte shell. “It’ll be intimidating for Miss Swire to meet all of us at once..” says Lady Crawley as Matthew’s new bird shows up in the middle of a concert to raise cash for the war effort. “Let’s hope so..” quips Smith.
I simply haven’t got enough room to talk about everything that’s going on here, but what is worth mentioning is that Julian Fellowes could not have selected a better era for his period soap. As many of the cast keep saying, England circa 1916 is a nation which is about to start evolving with startling rapidity, but there are still a range of eye-wateringly fragile social norms that give every last drawing room faux pas earth-shattering consequences. Programmes set in in modern times have few taboos left to set their drama to, but in Downton everything is deliciously scandalous. Whether it’s the best TV show in recorded history is a matter for some debate, but it’s certainly very good. Very good indeed.