It seems, now that period dramas are being released left right and centre, that each series – from Poldark to Belgravia and Outlander – is shown with a strong public interest and receives dozens of awards for acting, soundtrack, costuming and more.
The opening sequence of Downton Abbey is full of drama and intrigue; as we follow John Bates on the train towards his new place of employment, we also see the town itself waking to drastic news. Frantic early morning deliveries next, and a newspaper headline that sends staff into shock, to the subsequent mourning of all of the inhabitants. Then, of course, we are told the date: April 1912. The sinking of the RMS Titanic, and the consequences of which will set about the actions for most of the series.
With the death of Robert Crawley’s heir apparent to the Earldom of Grantham now missing and presumed dead, planning must take place. What will they do? Who is this new heir that they have never met before?
A well-rounded pilot episode will introduce all of the primary characters, motivations and overarching significant events. In a way, Downton Abbey is able to do this within the first fifteen minutes. Viewers already know that the show will look at both the Grantham’s family and the employees in their employment; we know that Thomas is scheming and that the new heir to the Earldom, Matthew, is an unknown factor into this upheaval of a balanced world, who may bring a glimmer of fresh air into the life of the Earl.
Main plots, sub arcs, and overarching trouble all meld together splendidly; the actions of one may impair that of the others. We know that the trio of daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil, may not always see eye-to-eye. Mary, driven by her desire to maintain and save the estate but is focused on status and her outward perception (how she is shown to the world, and her social standing). Compare that to Edith, who is more overlooked, and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findley) who is the youngest but the most modern of the trio. Later called “the sweetest soul under this roof”, her compassion comes through with mediating the pair, and not being drawn into teasing those less fortunate.
The episode also introduces Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, whose sass and wild quips are to be one of the most beloved elements of the entire show going forward. Other well-known actors litter the screen: as well as Smith we are treated to Hugh Bonneville as Robert, Earl of Grantham, Game of Thrones actress Rose Leslie as maidservant Gwen, and Michelle Dockerty as Lady Mary.
A swelling soundtrack punctuates sweeping shots of both the exterior and interior of Highclere Castle assures that Downton Abbey has defined the period drama genre. Historical consultants and its creator made sure that minuscule details made the setting believable and enticing; the discussion on mourning periods is something that might not be as well-known.
With six series of episodes, a grand finale and a theatrical release movie following this hour-long episode, the magic spun by the pilot of Downton Abbey continues to captivate.
Downton Abbey is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in the UK. You can watch the season 1 trailer below.