For my lucky UK readers, Downton Abbey, ITV’s new costume drama series, premieres tonight at 9 pm. We Americans shall have to cool our heels until PBS airs the mini-series in January, as part of their celebration of Masterpiece Theater’s 40th anniversary (and we can look forward to the remake of Upstairs, Downstairs, penned by Heidi Thomas [“Cranford”], in April!).
The drama is written and created by Julian Fellowes and stars Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as Robert, Earl of Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern as Robert’s wife, Cora, the Countess of Grantham. They lead an all-star cast, which also includes Penelope Wilton, Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Nicol, Siobhan Finneran, Rob James-Collier, Joanne Froggatt, as well as new and emerging actors, Rose Leslie, Sophie McShera, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay and Thomas Howes. Guest stars include Robert Bathurst, Samantha Bond, Allen Leech, David Robb, Brendan Patrick and Theo James.
Read on for a summary of the first episode
As Daisy the kitchenmaid opens up the house a telegram is delivered. It is 16th April 1912 and the Titanic has gone down, taking with it Lord Grantham’s heir, James Crawley, and his son, Patrick. So who is the new heir? Not just to the earldom but to Downton Abbey, itself, which is entailed to the title. Violet, the Dowager Countess, assumes Robert, the present Earl, will break the entail and make an heiress of his eldest daughter, Mary, but Robert is not so sure. To make matters worse, his wife, Cora, has her own money tied up in the estate, and there is no way to extract it without crippling Downton. Even if Robert could break the entail, or take Cora’s money out of it, would he want to?
Below stairs, a new valet, John Bates, arrives. Bates was Robert’s batman during the Boer War and Robert welcomes him. However, he looks as shocked as the rest of the servants when he sees Bates’s limp. Will this hamper his duties? Cora’s maid, O’Brien, and first footman, Thomas, who wanted Bates’s job, deliberately try to sabotage his first days at work.
Mary was supposed to marry the heir, the late Patrick Crawley, but his death has freed her to move on. She believes her own prospects have changed for the better, and now she angles to catch the young Duke of Crowborough. Her sister, Edith, was in love with Patrick and seethes with resentment towards Mary. The Duke arrives at Downton, ostensibly to present his condolences, but after dinner he requests an interview with Robert, presumably to ask for Mary’s hand. But when he learns that Robert is not
intending to challenge the entail he withdraws his offer, without ever in fact making it. It was Thomas who bought the Duke to Downton, luring him with the prospect of the Grantham money. He and Thomas shared a summer dalliance and Thomas intends to use this to further his own career, blackmailing the Duke with his own letters if he has to. However, the Duke is one step ahead of Thomas who can only watch as the incriminating pages go up in flames.
Meanwhile, Robert informs Bates that his disability is interfering with his work and he will have to go. Bates seems to take the news well, but the Head Housemaid, Anna, hears him crying in his room. However, as Crowborough leaves Robert finds himself unable to let Bates down in this way, and to the amazement of Cora and the servants he asks the valet to stay.
Mary’s fury is matched by Cora’s surprise when they realise Robert has made up his mind and will not challenge the entail. He has discovered the identity of his new heir, a distant cousin, and intends to write to the young man and invite him to Downton.