The venerable British costume drama—embodied in such classics as Upstairs, Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited, and Pride and Prejudice—gets an intelligent, cheeky reinvention with the addictive Downton Abbey, the brainchild of Julian Fellowes, who won a best original screenplay Oscar for 2001’s similarly themed Gosford Park. Downton Abbey, airing over the next four weeks in 90-minute episodes, launches this Sunday evening as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Classic’s landmark 40th season.
Like classic 1970’s mainstay Upstairs, Downstairs—which ran from 1971-1975, and returns to American television in April, also on Masterpiece—Downton Abbey offers a lavish take on the period drama, depicting the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants at an English stately home just prior to World War I. When the sinking of the Titanic takes the lives of the next two heirs to a vast estate, the Crawley family is left with a dilemma as the next in line to inherit is a distant cousin, a middle-class solicitor whom none of them know.
The result is akin to porn for costume drama fans, intoxicating and alluring as it shines a light on the final days of the rigid British class structure of the early 20th century.
When it aired this past fall in the U.K., Downton Abbey was an instant ratings phenomenon, regularly topping more than 11 million viewers in each installment, making it the second-highest rated period drama since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited, and reigniting the population’s love for a genre that had more or less fallen by the wayside in recent years. The Daily Telegraph's Ceri Radford hailed it as “sumptuous [and] instantly riveting,” while Simon Heffer described it as “what television should be.”
Interestingly, there have even been some raised hackles about Downton’s success, since it arrived before the upcoming launch of rival Upstairs, Downstairs, which moves the original series’ plot forward in time to 1936. Upstairs creator Jean Marsh lashed out at Downton recently for the timing of the latter’s launch, saying, “It might be a coincidence and I might be the queen of Belgium.” Hugh Bonneville’s response via Twitter? “I thought Jean Marsh was bigger than that—running down Downton while bigging up Upstairs? Downton never downed Up when upping Down.” And the rivalry keeps gaining steam: Upstairs Downstairs didn’t quite reach Downton-sized ratings in its three airings during the post-Christmas week, attracting an average of roughly 7 million viewers and reviews that were merely warm rather than incandescent. (The two shows could face a showdown this autumn if BBC and ITV decide to challenge one another.)
Downton is so hot it has The Daily Mail making up gossip items to fuel the fire. The tabloid recently claimed that two hours had been cut from PBS’ U.S. broadcast of Downton Abbey for fear U.S. viewers wouldn’t understand a complex plot. Absolutely untrue, unless you consider the two hours of commercials excised.
“This is Britain, which was saying, ‘We are not moving, or if we’re moving, it’s very slowly and what has existed for 400 years is going to maintain,’” said Hugh Bonneville.
Despite any bad blood between Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, the two shows do share a commonality in that, unlike an adaptation of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel, there’s an aura of unpredictability. The result is a gripping drama where anything is possible, even as the real threat of war looms over the futures of both the wealthy and those in service. Season 2 of Downton, already commissioned by ITV in the U.K., is set to air later this year and will pick up the plot amid World War I, while a third series would, according to Fellowes, likely take place during the Roaring Twenties.
The recently ennobled Fellowes—best known as actor (he played Earl Kilwillie on BBC’s Monarch of the Glen), author (including Snobs and Past Imperfect), and screenwriter ( Young Victoria)—who previously tapped into the aristocratic set with his screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, initially wasn’t sure about “revisiting Gosford territory” for television.
“I was a bit nervous, because in a way you were asking lightning to strike in the same place twice,” said Fellowes, speaking to The Daily Beast a few weeks before his Introduction to the House of Lords. “But then I started to think of the freedoms of television, that you don’t have to get everything into 100 minutes, that you’ve got all this time to develop these characters and take them in different directions. That seemed rather luxurious.”
What follows is an often jaw-dropping exploration of Edwardian life, a sprawling story that pulls together 18 characters—including Dame Maggie Smith's deliciously sour Dowager Countess Violet—on both sides of the economic divide, focusing equally on the well-heeled Crawleys, their middle-class relations, and the regimented platoon of servants who keep the estate running. Fellowes said that The West Wing—with its multitude of characters and overlapping plotlines—was a major inspiration.
The tensions in the house cut both ways: what happens upstairs affects those below and vice-versa. Petty jealousies, star-crossed romances, and fateful intrigues occur with equal regularity both upstairs and down; envious sisters betray one another, servants play games for power. There’s equality to the focus as well as the human dramas at play here.
But no matter how well-oiled a machine the great house might be, there’s a palpable sense of change coming to the estate and to England as a whole. The first warnings of war are whipping through Europe, a telephone is installed at Downton Abbey, and discussions of political reform and women’s and unions’ rights are occurring in the drawing rooms and servants’ quarters.
“ Downton is a symbol of Britain, really,” said Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham. “It is the window of change that is coming. It is modernity knocking at the door… This was at a time when America was absolutely booming. ‘Come over to America and make your gold coins and you will thrive. The American Dream is here.’ This is Britain, which was saying, ‘We are not moving, or if we’re moving, it’s very slowly and what has existed for 400 years is going to maintain.’ Little do they know, it’s all about to change.”
The arrival of heir Matthew Crawley ( Dan Stevens) and mother Isobel ( Penelope Wilton) leads to bitter conflict, as Robert and American wife Cora ( Elizabeth McGovern) attempt to push Matthew and their eldest daughter Lady Mary ( Michelle Dockery) into matrimony. There is friction between the modern-minded Matthew and the stubborn Lady Mary—but while Mary sees him with disdain, Robert sees this young man as a potential savior of Downton.
“Robert’s journey is a subtle one from a man who’s completely dominated by his mother to a man who finds a son in Matthew Crawley,” said Bonneville. “Matthew has more modern views and he gradually espouses them. It’s like turning an oil tanker around very slowly.”
Those societal changes aren’t enacted against the backdrop of Parliament, but rather play out within the walls of the great house: a politically minded daughter ( Jessica Brown-Findlay) strives for equality; a housemaid ( Rose Leslie) dreams of being an office secretary; a war-wounded soldier turned valet ( Brendan Coyle) conceals a dark past; a housekeeper ( Phyllis Logan) debates a marriage proposal; a butler ( Kevin Doyle) is at loss when his services aren’t required; an heir (Stevens) chafes initially against the responsibility and the expectations thrust upon him.
“It’s not a piece that’s explicitly about the makings of World War I or the implications of the Titanic on England,” said Stevens. “It’s focused on this community, this organism that is this estate, and all the people that feed it and live off of it and rely on it and love it and nurture it.”
Fellowes brought his vast knowledge of the English country set and a storehouse of real-life stories from the great houses of Britain to draw from. One particularly scandalous incident in the first season—too juicy to be spoiled here—was drawn from fact, discovered in the personal diary of a friend’s great-aunt. (It takes place in the second episode and there’s no missing the shocking salaciousness of it.)
“Julian knows this world very well,” said Stevens. “He has a real taste for amusing gossip and stories about his family and friends of his family that he’s incorporated cheekily and subtly into his scripts.”
But Downton isn’t a tightly buttoned costume drama in the vein of a literary adaptation, said Stevens.
“Unlike with a Jane Austen novel or a Bram Stoker novel or a Charles Dickens adaptation, there are things you can put into an original screenplay, written today but set in 1913, that you would never find in a Victorian novel. You would never find the kind of sexual scandals that are imagined in Downton… There’s so much in a Victorian novel that is repressed and unsaid that you can actually make quite explicit these days.”
That modern vantage point could account for how much Downton Abbey has been embraced by the public, hungry for a period drama that connects to our own lives, becoming, as Bonneville said, “a by-word for a more certain time.”
“I think Julian observes a Britain under great stress and strain, even though it doesn’t know it yet,” he said. “I think these are the times we live in now.”
Despite Downton Abbey’s period trappings, it holds up a mirror to our own modern world, making the struggles of the show’s diverse characters—heartbreak and loss, passion and pleasure, fear and the quest for freedom—both accessible and relatable.
“I don't think human beings change all that much,” said Fellowes. “Their circumstances change, governments change, economic situation changes, different things become customary. But the fundamental impulses of love and greed and sex and envy and the desire to do good and the desire to be charitable and the desire for knowledge and the desire to better yourself, that's all going as healthily in 2010 as it was in 1910. So although these people are living with a different set of rules… the emotional impulse that is driving their lives is the same as ours.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.