The highly anticipated US premiere of Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic begins on Sunday, January 9th at 9:00 pm on PBS. This new Edwardian-era four-part period drama took UK audiences by storm when it aired last September in Great Britain. What? A period drama was a television sensation pulling in over 7 million viewers an episode? Ha! We are more than slightly amused since the BBC, the premier producer of bonnet dramas for decades, proclaimed the demise of period dramaless than two years ago. After years of making their name on Dickens, Austen and Bronte television dramas, they announced that they would be taking a new tack toward contemporary fare. With Downton Abbey’s (co-produced by their rival ITV) resounding success and the subsequent national obsession with the new series, you can eat my bonnet BBC.
Created and written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and directed by no less than three: Brian Percival (North and South 2004), Ben Bolt (Ashes to Ashes), and Brian Kelly (Monarch of the Glen) veteran filmmakers, the story is set at the grand manor house, Downton Abbey, the home of Lord Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville – Miss Austen Regrets & Lost in Austen), his American wife Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern – A Room with a View), and his three unmarried daughters, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery – Return to Cranford), Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay). When his cousin, the heir to his title and estate, dies in the RMS Titanic sinking in 1912, the household is thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. Because of English primogeniture laws, his eldest daughter Mary cannot inherit the estate. It must go instead to his next male heir, a third cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens – Sense and Sensibility), a young lawyer who is not keen to accept his birthright or aristocratic ways. If Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith – Harry Potter) has anything to say about it, and she most assuredly does, the entail of succession must be broken and Mary allowed to inherit the estate.
If the upstairs inhabitant’s lives in this stately home are disrupted, so are their downstairs servants. The house is run by the capable housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the dedicated butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter – Cranford), and dozens of underlings to facilitate the smooth running of this enormous household. When Mr. Carson proclaims “Downton is a great house and the Crawley’s are a great family.” we are intrigued. What qualifies this proud statement? Will they indeed equal the servant’s accolades? On the day they receive the tragic news of the loss of Lord Grantham’s cousin James Crawley and his son Patrick, a new valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) arrives for service to his Lordship. His cane and pronounced limp place questions with the servants if he can fulfill his duties. Head housemaid Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and His Lordship seem to be the only friends in his corner as others plot for his dismissal.
Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Classic airs Sundays, January 9th through January 30th, 2011 at 9 pm ET on PBS. (check your local listings) The series received extensive press when it was broadcast in the UK and you can find cast interviews, list of characters and everything you could possibly want to know about the production at Enchanted Serenity of Period Films. The production values are absolutely stunning. The lady’s costumes and hats alone will make you swoon, and Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which is the fictional Downton Abbey is the epitome of English country estate grandeur. Wow!
There has been some recent scuttlebutt about PBS downsizing Downton by cutting down the 8 hour UK airing time to 6. It is not true. You can read an excellent explanation by at Televisionary. There have been only minor cuts and the running times are very similar.
Episode 1 – Sunday, January 9th, 9 to 10:30 pm
When the Titanic goes down, Lord Grantham loses his immediate heirs, and his daughter Mary loses her fiancé, throwing Downton Abbey and its servants into turmoil. The new heir turns out to be Matthew, a handsome lawyer with novel ideas about country life.
Episode 2 – Sunday, January 16th, 9 to 10:30 pm
Mary entertains three suitors, including a Turkish diplomat whose boldness leads to a surprising event. Downstairs, the shocking former life of Carson, the butler, is unmasked, and Bates risks his health to remain a valet.
Episode 3 – Sunday, January 23rd, 9 to 10:30 pm
Growing into his role as heir, Matthew brings out the bitter rivalry between sisters Mary and Edith. Servants Thomas and O’Brien scheme against Bates, while head housemaid Anna is increasingly attracted to him. Lady Violet’s winning streak in the flower show is threatened.
Episode 4 – Sunday, January 30th, 9 to 10:30 pm
The heir crisis at Downton Abbey takes an unexpected turn. Meanwhile, rumors fly about Mary’s virtue. Her sister Sybil takes a risk in her secret political life. Anna unearths Bates’ mysterious past. And O’Brien and Thomas plot their exit strategy.
Downton Abbey Characters/Cast
Robert, Earl of Grantham – Hugh Bonneville
Cora, Countess of Grantham – Elizabeth McGovern
Lady Mary Crawley – Michelle Dockery
Lady Edith Crawley – Laura Carmichael
Lady Sybil Crawley – Jessica Brown-Findlay
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham – Maggie Smith
Isobel Crawley – Penelope Wilton
Matthew Crawley – Dan Stevens
Lady Rosamund Painswick – Samantha Bond
Duke of Crowborough – Charlie Cox
Sir Anthony Strallan – Robert Bathurst
The Honourable, Evelyn Napier – Brendan Patrick
David Robb – Dr. Clarkson
Mr. Carson – Jim Carter
Mrs. Hughes – Phyllis Logan
John Bates – Brendan Coyle
Mrs. Patmore – Lesley Nicol
O’Brien – Siobhan Finneran
Anna Smith – Joanne Froggatt
William Mason – Thomas Howes
Thomas – Rob James-Collier
Gwen Dawson – Rose Leslie
Daisy – Sophie McShera
Molesley – Kevin Doyle
Tom Branson – Allen Leech
Images courtesy © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2010 for MASTERPIECE; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com