Monday, 27 September 2010


[7.00 - French Time] ITV1’s lavish period drama Downton Abbey, created and written by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), started yesterday with a 90-minute opener.

Downton Abbey is set in an Edwardian country house in April 1912 and portrays the lives of the Crawley family and the servants who work for them. Robert, Earl of Grantham, and his American wife Cora, learn that Robert's first cousin James Crawley and his son Patrick, Lord Grantham's immediate heirs, died in the sinking of the Titanic (« I thought it was supposed to be unsinkable. ») The historic tragedy triggers a series of consequences for the family. Meanwhile John Bates, the new valet, arrives at Downton Abbey.

Credits must be given to screenwriter, novelist and actor Julian Fellowes, Carnival Films (Poirot) and ITV for this ambitious alternative to the growing legion of television police procedurals. The 1 x 90-minute and 6 x 60-minute drama has a budget around £1m per episode, topped up by Carnival based on estimated international sales. According to Broadcast, ITV is thought to be contributing about £700,000 an hour.

The cast is fantastic: Dame Maggie Smith (Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham), Hugh Bonneville (Robert), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham), Penelope Wilton, Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Brendan Coyle, etc. The production values are gorgeous, starting with Berkshire's Highclere Castle where the cast and crew filmed for four months (with some scenes filmed by a second unit at Ealing Studios).

« I understand most of the ladies were taken off in time.
- You mean the ladies in First class. » (Carson and Robert)

Ironically, Downton Abbey is considered as ITV's answer to the BBC's upcoming revival of Upstairs, Downstairs and the comparison to the original (which ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975) is inevitable. But The Forsyte Saga (1967) didn't forbid Upstairs or The Pallisers (1974), it paved the way for them. And in Julian Fellowes's creation there are shades of The Remains of the Day (1993) and of course Gosford Park (2001).

Downton Abbey is breathtakingly filmed, the music by John Lunn is superb, Fellowes is a goldsmith when it comes to one-liners (« You're building a fire, not invent it. ») and the cast delivers what you expect from actors of such caliber. However the premiere indulges itself into a (very) long story development, switching gear only within the last 15 minutes to convince the viewer that he wants more.

Or more gloomy crime dramas. This not only the future of the Crawley family which is at stake with Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is a Carnival Films/Masterpiece co-production.

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