Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Downton Abbey, Part One (The Servants)

Downton Abbey is so broad and epic in scope that I just couldn't squeeze a review of all of the characters and plot lines found in Part One into one blog post. (There are worse problems I could have, I know. LOL!) My first review of Part One focused on the Crawleys, the wealthy family who calls Downton Abbey their home, and the succession crisis they face when the heir is lost when the Titanic sinks. As a refresher, here is the portion of the Part One summary that focuses on the plot points specific to the servants who keep Downton running:
As the drama unfolds among the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, changes are happening amidst the servants as well. John Bates has arrived as a new valet for Robert, but he has a pronounced limp, potentially making him unfit to perform his duties. Also, Bates seems to have some previous link to Robert, and a murky past. And, someone else in the servant's quarters is darkly entangled with the fortunes of the family he serves.

Thus far my favorite "downstairs" character is John Bates, played by the wonderful, marvelous actor Brendan Coyle. Coyle really excels at playing middle class characters (for lack of a better term) who are hard-working, good men, full of heart and nobility. One of Coyle's most famous roles is probably as mill worker Nicholas Higgins in North and South (Oh those scenes with Richard Armitage! I loved their unlikely friendship!). He's also appeared in Lark Rise to Candleford and the Masterpiece Mystery series Jericho (sadly playing a villain in the latter!). Bates is going to be a fascinating character. He suffered a debilitating injury in the Boer War, and thanks to the Earl's willingness to take him on as a valet he is fiercely loyal and heart-breakingly long-suffering. Because of his preferential status with the Earl, despite the fact that his war wound limits some of the duties he can perform, Bates's presence causes instant division below stairs. 

Bates has one ally in the form of Anna, the head housemaid played by Joanne Froggatt. Longtime blog readers may remember my rants against Froggatt when she appeared in the final season of Robin Hood, but I'm happy to report that so far I love Froggatt's character in Downton Abbey. Not only does Anna have the good sense to develop feelings for Bates, but Froggatt portrays her character with a real warmth and appealing vulnerability. I hope, I do so hope that whatever secrets lie hidden in Bates's past don't prevent a romance with Anna from developing below stairs, because Coyle and Froggatt have the makings of an adorable on-screen couple.

Mr. Carson

Mrs. Hughes
It would be easy to assume that Downton Abbey's servants would care little for the social machinations of the aristocrats they serve. But during this time period, servants often felt a fierce loyalty towards the families they served - often for their entire adult lives - and there was as much competition for primacy of place among the servants as among their upper-class counterparts. This quality is perhaps best embodied by Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper. Carson has been in service at Downton since his youth, longs for the way things were prior to the entailment issue, and he places a high emphasis on order and tradition. The Crawleys, though they would never recognize it, are his family, a sacrifice he has determined is worth an price to his personal life. Carter should be quite familiar to Masterpiece fans - he played Captain Brown in both series of Cranford. Mrs. Hughes embodies everything I'd imagine a housekeeper of the period to be - she's highly competent, moral, and seems fair. She and Carson share a fascinating exchange when she essentially asks him if he believes a life in service is "worth it." Though she would most likely never admit to possessing doubts, it's a telling moment that hints at the resolve and sacrifice necessary to rise through the ranks in service at a great estate like Downton.

Among the serving members of Downton's household, there's bound to be "troublemakers" - servants who are either bitter and dissatisfied with their lot, power-hungry, or outright mean. Chief among the latter is Lady Cora's maid O'Brien, played by Siobhan Finneran. O'Brien is, I suppose, the equivalent of an Edwardian "career woman." She sacrified all to rise through the ranks and achieve the coveted post of ladies' maid to a countess. She'll flatter her mistresses as needed in order to get her way, and drop poisonous barbs disguised as concerns into the ears of any and all who will listen. There were moments in Part One when I thought Finneran was quite chilling her performance was so convincing. O'Brien is fast becoming one of those filmic villains you love to hate. *wink*

Her main ally is Thomas, the first footman played by Rob James-Collier. Thomas's chief faults appear to be pride and self-importance, and he's bitterly resentful of losing the valet position to Bates, a lame war veteran. Thomas and O'Briens schemes to cast Bates as an incompetent had my blood boiling at various points throughout Part One, proving the world below stairs is every bit as cutthroat and intrigue-filled as the world above. Thomas's naked ambition masks the fact that he is a closet homosexual, who had a brief fling with a duke. Whether this fling involved genuine emotional attachment on his part or was a calculated power grab is not specified, but the crushing emotion Thomas exhibits in the scene when the duke rejects him hints at the forces that have molded Thomas into the cold, hard servant he is today. Personally I could've done without "the scene" between the duke and Thomas, and I do hope the series doesn't get more explicit than what was shown in Part One. I do think Thomas's character and the secrets he keeps may perhaps turn into one of Downton Abbey's strongest examples of the price of secrecy and lies - of course only time will tell if I'm correct. :)

Mrs. Patmore

The balance of Downton's staff is peopled with other characters who, while they may not have the main plot lines in Part One, are every bit as colorful and fascinating as their fellow servants. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is played by Lesley Nichol. She is an absolute delight - outgoing and high strung, the woman appears to be a veritable whirlwind of activity. Nichol's face wasn't familiar to me, but when I looked her up on the IMDB I was delighted to discover that she played Mrs. Beaver in the old 1988 production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I grew up watching on TV. The brunt of Mrs. Patmore's *ahem* stress is directed towards Daisy the scullery maid, played by Sophie McShera. Poor Daisy is well-meaning but quite the scatterbrain, a humorous but sympathetic character. I feel so bad for her because she's naively developing a crush on Thomas, and after the scene with the duke it's abundantly clear that crush is gong to go nowhere. So far she's completely blind to the fact that William, the second footman, has a crush on her. William is a bit of a goofball, but he seems like a sweet guy - he just seems a little too willing to be a doormat for the likes of Thomas. William is played by actor Thomas Howes, and this is poised to be a breakout role for him. I'm anxious to see where his character goes throughout this series. Finally, Gwen the housemaid, played by Rose Leslie is introduced. Her character gets relatively little screentime in Part One, but it's clear she's ambitious and has secrets that I look forward to discovering in the subsequent installments of Downton.

Once again I have to stress that the editing and writing for this series is brilliantly done (bravo, Julian Fellowes!). The way script and scenes cut back and forth between the Crawleys and their servants is seamlessly, resulting in a fast-paced, thoroughly engaging viewing experience. It drives home like no other movie I can think of at the moment the intricate balance and connection between wealthy families and the servants who make their lifestyle possible. The entailment issue that throws the Crawley family into turmoil does not exist in some sort of aristocratic vacuum. Anything that impacts the Crawleys matters deeply, to some degree or another, to each member of their household - and the servants are not shy about taking sides or forming their own alliances. The result is riveting television. I cannot WAIT for Part Two this weekend!


Deborah said...

yes i LOVED watching part one. although it's irking me knowing that the PBS version has been edited from the original British version. I agree about what you said about the Thomas/Duke scene and in the future because that might make it difficult for me to recommend it to my parents. but other than that LOVED it and can't wait til next sunday!

Kaye Dacus said...

Deborah, only 35 minutes were edited from the 7-hour run time---and it was edited by the producers of the show, not by PBS. My understanding is that the minutes that were edited out took out some extraneous or repeated information the producers realized wasn't necessary (and to make sure the series fit in the run-time PBS had allotted for it).

(You can read the statement from Masterpiece's executive producer here: http://enchantedserenityperiodfilms.blogspot.com/2011/01/downton-abbey-has-not-been-dumbed-down.html)

Unknown said...

@Deborah - That whole Daily Mail article irritated the you-know-what out of me. And just so you know, I was watching Part One of Downton WITH my parents, and the Thomas/Duke scene was a little awkward! :P But I do hope that in future installments that or any other storyline doesn't get more or unnecessarily explicit.

@Kaye - Thanks for posting the link to Eaton's statement here! I have got to say though that it still annoys me to no end that Masterpiece productions are edited AT ALL. This is especially damaging to the mysteries in my opinion as the 8-12 minutes that are left on the cutting room floor ALWAYS help the story make more sense on the DVD release. Looking forward to seeing the UK version on DVD for comparison purposes. :)

Heidenkind said...

Bates and Anna are totes in love.

Amber Holcomb said...


Your reviews are so deep and thoughtful! :) There are so many characters in this series--which sure makes for an intriguing story! I really love Bates and Anna, as well. :)

Also, thank you so much for linking to my review!


Charity said...

Fortunately, the homosexual kiss is the only really "awkward" moment in the series -- it is implied that two people spend the night together, but it's not explicit (just some kissing on top of the covers). I really don't see the point of having that element in the series at all, since it goes NOWHERE.

Overall, it's a marvelous piece of work, possibly my favorite miniseries in quite some time (it's almost edging out "Bleak House" for me, and that's darn near impossible to do).

Phylly3 said...

Great review! This series is fabulous! :)

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - Yep. :)

@Amber S. - Aww, thanks girl, that is so sweet of you to say! And you are welcome, happy to see you reviewing more Masterpiece productions! :)

@Charity - Thanks for the feedback, I'd forgotten you've already been able to see Downton! Much appreciated! And I am glad I'm not the only one who is tempted to pre-empt Bleak House with Downton for #1 fav miniseries... :)

@phylly3 - Thanks! Happy to hear you are enjoying this series too!

Ruth @ Bookish Ruth said...

I KNEW IT! I knew Bates was going to be your favorite character among the servants, mainly because he's my favorite as well. I do hope that he and Anna get together. They seem wonderfully suited for one another. I'm so in love with this series and we've only seen two parts so far! I can't wait to see what's to come.

Unknown said...

@Ruth - LOL, liking ANYONE as much as Bates would be pretty shocking on my part, wouldn't it? :) I can't believe we're halfway through the series already! Hopefully I'll get a Part Two review up tomorrow.

Lori said...

What a lovely blog! I am just finishing part 1 and love, love, love this series! I also adored Cranford and find I can really lose myself in these English dramas. My great grandmother (whom I did not know) worked for a time on an Estate in England and had a daughter out of wedlock (we found out after her death)due to a relationship with one of the family members. So, this kind of intrigue really appeals to me.

I have a question. When Bates goes to leave (with that horrible Duke) he says goodbye to Robert and calls him something I could not catch. Whatever he said prompts Robert to pull him out of the car. Did you catch the word?

I know this will be a favorite for me and I'm already hopelessly in love with Bates. I think Elizabeth McGovern's part is fabulous too. There are so many brilliant actors I couldn't single any one out.

So happy to have discovered your blog. Nice to be able to find people that enjoy this kind of story. My husband and daughter watched a little with me, but aren't as enthused as I.

Unknown said...

@Lori - Thank you so much for stopping by my blog & commenting! There is little better IMO than "losing" myself in a fabulous BBC drama series like Downton Abbey! :) The family connection you shared must've made Downton extraordinarily fascinating for you!!!

I am going to have to go back and rewatch Part One to catch the comment you are referencing - unfortunately I can't remember what it might be right off. I will definitely try to remember & come back & let you know!

I do hope that you will feel free to come back and share your thoughts as you progress with the series - I am always thrilled to meet BBC fans & discuss these productions! :)