24 Nov


Julian Fellowes, Oscar-winning creator of ‘Downton Abbey’, is a long term friend.  The Hamilton household has been on tenterhooks since he first told us about his exciting new ITV series.   As soon as we knew the dates, I rushed to put them in the diary and then, every Sunday for seven weeks, our lives revolved around it.

Now it’s over what are we to do on a Sunday evening?   I am old enough to remember when Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ similarly dominated our lives for eleven weeks in 1981.  No video recorders or Sky-Plus then.  It was absolutely imperative not to miss the programmes and a regular group of friends gathered every Wednesday to share another gripping aristocratic saga.  

Nothing quite like ‘Brideshead’ has hit our screens until ‘Downton’ although ‘Cranford’ came close.    Such historical costume dramas succeed because they are about real people of all classes, their personal histories, motives and relationships; their pain, their evil scheming and reluctance or enthusiasm to embrace change from railways and the telephone to the horrors of war.   We subsume ourselves in the characters, imagining ourselves in turn as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Mary or the hapless Daisy – or the Earl of Grantham, Mr Bates and Thomas the malevolent butler.

Despite the multi-generational appeal of the characters, the stiff upper lips and bickering, the undoubted star of the show was the stupendous Highclere Castle.  In reality, built for the Earl of Carnarvon by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, it is piquant that Downton’s’ success has secured an otherwise precarious future.  Only weeks before the series aired, Andrew Lloyd-Webber was circling the current Earl like a vulture surveying its carrion, ready to spend zillions to acquire it.  

Away from Highclere, nitpicking nerds have been delighted to spot the odd anachronism, whether TV aerials or yellow lines!   I didn’t notice them and don’t care anyway.   I did, however, spot one solecism – the use of ‘Istanbul’.   In 1912, it was still Constantinople, a surprising lapse for someone as meticulous as Julian.  A deliberate error, perhaps, to keep pedants on their toes?

‘Downton’ is set on the cusp of great social and political upheavals.  An aristocratic family, already in crisis, is severely jolted by repercussion from the sinking of the Titanic and about to be split asunder by the ‘war to end all wars’.  Suffragettes are on the march and change is in the air as the modern world rushes in like a tsunami.  

 ‘Downton’ transports us to a different era in the perfect escapist entertainment for which autumn Sunday evenings were made.  I’m agog for the next series – and the next.  Meanwhile, I suppose we’ll just have to don fancy dress and play the parts ourselves at home – or get out the ‘Cluedo’ and imagine Colonel Mustard doing his worst in Highclere’s library with the lead piping!’

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