'Downton Abbey' Review: Has Julian Fellowes Fallen On His Soapy Sword?

Downton Abbey

First Posted: 31/10/11 13:16 Updated: 31/10/11 13:21

Downton Abbey last night saw Sir Richard Carlisle in unusually reflective mood, telling the Earl of Grantham: "When the war is over is over, the first emotion is relief, the second disappointment." Has this become an equally fitting description of curling up on a Sunday evening, in front of ITV's record-breaking period drama?

The first ten minutes last night saw the last of the invalid soldiers being packed off home (all except wide-eyed Matthew, obviously). It had that feeling you get when your party guests have all put on their coats and left - the house seems somewhat emptier and you wonder what to do with yourself for a while.

It was quickly apparent that Sir Julian Fellowes' characters were suffering this same fate, learning to find their footing in a new, unpredictable post-war landscape.

Some people's lots have definitely improved. Upstairs, the middle Grantham sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), has visibly flourished with a permanent pink blush to her cheek, and as younger Lady Sybil remarked, "You’re far nicer." That's what hard work and a kiss or two in the hayloft will do for you.

As for downstairs and delightful Daisy - well widowhood of a man she didn't love positively becomes her. She's finally learning to cook, albeit with mixed results, thanks to some black market goods procured rather close to home.

Then there are those who've gone downhill. Lady Mary is biting the heads off the flowers in the drawing room, becoming more and more resigned and hard-faced with each scene as her loveless marriage to Sir Richard looms. "Perhaps I'm not very ladylike!" she tells her sleazy fiancé. I'm not sure why we’re meant to sympathise with a woman who turned down her great love Matthew in Series One, but it's a great, bitter, star-making turn from actress Michelle Dockery

And then there are those characters who remain reassuringly the same. We saw the black market antics of that would-be opportunist Thomas go horribly awry, along with his slicked-back hair. He was redeemed only by his ineptitude, and nearly lost the goodwill of his stalwart sidekick O'Brien. Her unlikely loyalty to Downton rather than any of its inhabitants is what saves her from completely turning to the dark side, and her continuing affection for Thomas and streaks of niceness between the black put-downs have made her one of the most interesting characters of this series.

Sir Julian has weathered criticism this year that he has surrendered his great epic drama for some cheaper soap opera shots, and it's certainly had its moments. Last week we saw the bandaged stranger claiming to be the returned lord of the manor. Last night, instead, we had our 'permanently-damaged' hero rising out of wheelchair, back on his feet and planning a wedding - all within 10 minutes.

Sir Richard was busy asking all the servants to spy on his intended wife but, far more shockingly, used the word “bastard” in front of the ladies. And everyone's talking kisses, even those characters straight out of Remains of the Day, Carson and Mrs Hughes, or poison. What DID happen to Bates's poisonous wife? I'm thinking she just caught sight of herself in the mirror, but Bates appears more concerned.

In a final piece of melodrama, headstrong Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) made off with the chauffeur Branson. Now, following ones heart may not exist solely in the land of soap opera, but sneaky kisses in the car-shed and a Deputy Dawg car chase to Gretna Green may just have pushed it over the line.

Every drama requires one couple to stay constant throughout - it is one of the requirements of the form. The real giveaway that Sir Julian has surrendered the subtleties of his first series is in the stirrings of the increasingly nonsensical Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), previously the beacon of sobriety in this sea of hormones and heartstrings.

Now, he's absolutely the silliest. "Before the war, I felt my life had value," he tells us, "I should like to feel that again..." Worthy notions indeed, until we see what he really should like to feel, proceeding with ungainly haste to a crockery cupboard clinch with "shocked" housemaid Jane.

It was only when he was later sitting in breakfast-table contemplation and she slowly appeared around the door, feather duster prop at the ready, I realised we're fast approaching whatever is today's equivalent of French and Saunders' spoof treatment. Harry Hill must be wetting his pen.

However, even if has all entered Days of Our Lives territory, Dame Maggie Smith keeps everything on track, so as long as Fellowes continues to give her all the best lines and lets her put the aristocratic boot in when required, everything else is forgiven. Last night, she told us, "Marriage is a long business - there’s no getting out of it for our kind of people." Bit like watching Downton Abbey, really.

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