Downton Abbey echoed loudly of Robert Altman’s wonderful film Gosford Park , and no wonder, it was created by that film’s writer, Julian Fellowes . The echoes are good ones. Downton Abbey might actually be viewed as an expansion on the themes of the earlier film, in the way that the lives of the Earl and his family intersect with those of his staff.
The casting is superb, full of familiar BBC drama faces, many beloved, such as Maggie Smith as the indomitable Dowager Duchess (the Earl’s mother). Her son the Earl, played by Hugh Bonneville, I most likely recognized from a recent Poirot, although checking out his resume on imdb confirms he’s been in lots of British shows that I have watched over the years (Vicar of Dibley , Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders, etc.) It’s also great to see Elizabeth McGovern again, who stars as the Earl’s American wife. She has always been a favorite, and still exhibits the same brains-behind-the-beauty that she had as Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime , probably the first time I saw her in a movie. But everyone in the cast is great in this new-to-PBS series. Downton Abbey was originally broadcast in the UK as seven episodes (with commercials), but PBS will be showing it (sans commercial interruption) in four parts. Last Sunday night we watched what were the first two episodes. The show has been so popular in England that it will return for a second series, which we probably won’t get over here until next year, or at least much later than they get to see it across the pond. It might be worthwhile tracking its progress on ITV. Strange, in this age of instant internet gratification, that the television stations, even internationally, haven’t been able to more closely coordinate their content.
But back to the show. The central dilemma of the drama, beginning in 1912, is the end of a way of life. Downton Abbey is a huge mansion that has been in the Crawley family for ages. But one can’t run an estate on nobility alone. Lots of money is required. So the Earl went to America many years ago and secured himself a rich heiress (McGovern). Luckily for the Earl and his new wife, they also fell in love, as she points out, a year into the marriage (“No, sooner than that.” insists the good-hearted Earl). All seems hunky-dory. Except that the Earl and his wife have had only daughters, and the Earl’s father made one of those crazy wills that stipulate that the estate and all its property (including the heiress’s money) is entailed, which means that it can only be inherited as the old geezer stipulates, in this case by a male in the family.
Here we go again, where women may be valued for their money to save an estate, but not inherit it. England had one of the strongest and best monarchs in Elizabeth I, but over three hundred years later is still able to enact such sexist legislation. Both the characters played by McGovern and Maggie Smith are hardly shrinking violets, and immediately team up to start hatching plans to break the entailment. We’ll have to watch and see if they are successful. In the meantime, the Earl’s only male relative, a third cousin, and decidedly not a gentleman but a working lawyer (horrors!) is set to inherit, unless they can break the will or marry him off to their eldest daughter. They’ve got to try and preserve the fortune for her (and for the rest of them) in some way.
There’s lots of pathos, but also humor in the show, not surprisingly supplied by Smith. There is a great scene where the entire family is utterly flabbergasted upon hearing that their cousin the young lawyer plans to continue working rather than “learn the estate.” He tries to assure them that he will have plenty of time to devote to Downton Abbey as well, as there is always the week-end. Smith, in a confused voice, interrupts, “What is a week-end?” How better to concisely express class differences, and who better to do it? I’m looking forward to the next Downton Abbey.