TV REVIEW: Downton Abbey - Episode One

After what seems like an agonising wait after the awesome Christmas special that saw Matthew and Mary FINALLY get together, Downton Abbey returns to our screens with just the right amount of melodrama for some classic Sunday television.

The last series veered from the sublime to the ridiculous so fast it made your head spin, which is no bad thing but let's face it, that was the most convenient outbreak of Spanish flu there has ever been. With it's Roaring 20s setting, the third series might be a little more grounded in some vague reality. Then again, why let real life get in the way of some bally good melodrama? A whole hour and a half of Downton Abbey packs in a hell of a lot of plot and thankfully Julian Fellowes' script keeps it zipping along at a fair pace. It's not for the first-time viewer though as there isn't really any major exposition to explain how everyone got to where they are apart from a few oblique references.  The first episode kicks off some time after the Christmas special with all of Downton gearing up to possibly the most anticipated marital event since Kate Middleton rocked up to Westminster Cathedral in her lacy finery.

Naturally, the course to the oncoming nuptials does not run smooth. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is called away to London to discover that he's practically lost all of Cora's fortune (Elizabeth McGovern) and Downton is under threat (thus providing the overall narrative anxiety for the series). Meanwhile, a pregnant Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and her husband, former chauffeur Tom Branson, (Allen Leech) return to Downton Abbey to face some awkward dinner conversation about coat-tails and Irish nationalism. Bates (Brendan Coyle) has a new, possibly (read definitely) dangerous cell-mate while Anna (Joanne Froggatt) continues to search for the evidence needed to free him. A new footman has started work leading to more plotting from Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), though for once they are not on the same side. Daisy (Sophie McShera) revolts against Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) whilst Carson (Jim Carter) continues to struggle to maintain order. And I've not even covered half of it.

I should probably warn you in advance of this review that I adore both Matthew and Branson and there may be some slight swooning when discussing their roles in the first episode. I can't help it. One of them has the most amazing blue eyes in the world and the other one has a positively gorgeous Irish accent. Leech in particular excelled here, giving Branson an awkward charm and defiance in the face of the Crawleys. His scene with the Dowager Countess and Mrs Crawley forcing him into a mourning suit was a comic delight whilst his angry drunk Irishman acting was an excellent example of a horrendously awkward situation. The relationship between Matthew and Branson was also a great aspect of this episode with the Crawley heir taking it upon himself to make the former chauffeur feel as welcome as possible in the midst of all the class divides. Stevens and Leech sell the oncoming bromance well and the brother-in-law partnership versus the Crawleys should be an interesting development. It all fits into the wider theme of change that comes with the 20s setting and the various clashes between old and new.

Speaking of clashes, the publicity all centered on the meeting of Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess and Shirley Maclaine's Martha Levinson and it did not disappoint. From the first awkward hallway meeting to the constant attempts to thwart each other over desserts, the two battleaxes are already engaged in a one-liner competition that looks set to go on all series. Smith has long been the fan-favourite for her comedy moments but it is in the more dramatic ones where she really soars; her revelation that it was her money that enabled Branson and Sybil to attend the wedding was understated yet perfectly pitched. If reports are true and Maggie Smith is to leave the series, her presence and acerbic wit will be sorely missed.

Meanwhile, Bates and Anna continue their relationship in the inconvenient location of the slammer. The Bates-Anna romance had me gripped throughout the previous two series, but I can't help thinking that it is starting to run out of steam. Perhaps the circumstances don't help; after all, you can't really have soaring romantic ups-and-downs if one party happens to be stuck in prison, but it all feels a little stale. Now that we know Bates' mysterious past was to do with his psychotic wife who tried to do everything to derail his new relationship and we know that he didn't commit the murder, there's no enigma left to uncover. Also, it's Downton Abbey; everything turns out neatly so therefore we know that, at some point, Bates is going to make it out of prison and return to Downton. There's no tension here anymore, which is a shame because it was previously one of the most gripping narratives.

It's a small gripe though in the scope of the wider episode which finally saw Matthew and Mary get married, despite a couple of hiccups along the way (solved by Branson - did I mention that he's awesome?). It's the moment most people have waited for since halfway through the first series and even those naysayers who disliked the pair must have cheered ever-so-slightly when they got to the church. It was a great end to a fantastic start to the new series and I cannot wait to see what Fellowes and the gang have in store for us. Sunday nights are officially all booked up.

- Becky

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