Downton Abbey 101

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The Cast of Downton Abbey


So you’ve finally started watching Downton Abbey, the show everyone is talking about. That little costume drama that started as one of those period pieces on PBS, in England. Isn’t that an educational Channel or something for really boring British people? Yet magically, the show made it across the water faster than the Mayflower to take the Americas by storm. Downton Abbey has become the most successful British drama since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited… Another must see.

But what is so compelling about Downton Abbey?

The title refers to a British Manor House. And it’s Downton, not DOWNTOWN. It’s British, remember. No drawling or elongated vowels. Downton Abbey is home to the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. The Crawleys live upstairs and the servants live downstairs, but there’s plenty of drama in the drawing room and kitchen. Downton Abbey is every Jane Austen book rolled into one series with its villains, lovers and heroes.

Season One takes place before World War 1, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic, which sets the plot in motion. Season two covers 1916 – 1919, basically the war and it’s aftermath. And the not-to-be missed Downton Abbey Christmas Specials wrap up every season.

Start watching Downton Abbey on a Sunday afternoon when you have no plans because you will end up watching it all at once without changing out of your pyjamas. The Titanic sinks in the first episode. The heirs to Downton Abbey sink with the ship, so a new heir must be found to take over the estate. Lord Grantham has three daughters, none of whom are able to inherit Downton because  of a legal entail that endows the title and estate exclusively to male heirs. That’s about as complicated as it gets. Lord Grantham saved the estate years back by marrying a rich American heiress (a well-aged Elizabeth McGovern). The demise of both heirs in the sinking of the Titanic destroys the family plans. In comes a distant cousin once removed from the Lord of Grantham, Matthew Crawley. He’s a country solicitor, a profession looked down upon from the lofty heights of Downton Abbey. Once the common new heir arrives, drama ensues. He’s in line to inherit everything, including the troubled love life of Lady Mary, the Lord’s oldest daughter.

All this might sound terribly PBS, but rest assured, it’s not boring. There is war, costumes, architecture, but there’s scandal, passion and unrequited love. The tortured characters and their secrets play out like a highbrow soap opera, think Days of Our Lives meet Remains of the Day. Almost everyone has a secret and the secrets are always revealed at the worst possible time. The villains have hearts as black as coal and the honourable are so honourable you want to kick them in the shins. Heartbreak, sumptuous settings and class warfare all equal one giant guilty pleasure, best washed down with a cold bottle of Veuve Clicquot.

The Number One Reason to Watch Downton Abbey: Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

The Countess has got more zingers than a bucket full of lemons and jellyfish. Younger readers will remember the sassy septuagenarian Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter movies. She also won a couple of Oscars in the 70s. As the mouthy matriarch in Downton Abbey, Countess Dowager Violet plays mother to Lord Grantham and overseer of all drama. Her sharp tongue is laugh out loud funny and must be the most fun for the writers. She cuts loose on her country cousins and anyone else who gets in her way. Her average of three zingers per episode make the entire series worth watching.