Ahead of the last ever episode on Christmas Day, Jenny Shelton looks back on six series of secrets, scandal and syllabubs.
A feather duster. A tinkling bell. A Labrador’s arse. For six years, the opening credits to Downton Abbey have stood as a reassuring marker in the nation’s routine: an invitation to settle down with a cup of tea and round off the weekend (those are the days people don’t work, Dowager) with some wonderful, often nonsensical, well-dressed drama.
Since the offstage demise of heir to the estate Patrick Crawley on the Titanic, we’ve stood by the family and their downstairs skivvies through heartache, death, murder trials, secret babies, secret wives, a brief fire (remember that?) and the implementation of the telephone (“Carson the butler speaking!”).
This Christmas the family issue their final invitation to the Abbey. If we’re honest, even stalwart fans will concede it’s high time Downton looked out the dust sheets and put the silver into storage. The storylines were getting painfully weak (did anyone care who ran the hospital?), the characters a little cliched (the Dowager must be at least 110 by now) and no one wants to see the day a greying Master George hands the keys of his now-crumbling pile over to the National Trust.
All the same, Sunday nights will never be quite the same, and it feels right to give the old girl her due send-off. Downton Abbey, these were your most memorable, most brilliant, most bonkers moments…
The dead diplomat
Let’s start with the storyline that cemented Downton as a future classic from series one. When Lady Mary went all gooey for the beautiful Mr Pamuk, no one could blame her. But none of us expected him to die, mid-coitus, in her bed, then get hauled along the landing, helped by Lady Cora and an ever-obliging Anna. As for the Dowager, she was astounded by such a shocking lack of manners. “No Englishman,” she declared, “would dream of dying in someone else’s house.”
The First World War went by in a flash in season two, resulting in Thomas losing a finger, Daisy guilt-marrying a dying William and Edith learning to drive a tractor. Worse luck, Matthew lost the use of his legs and, crucially (not to mention embarrassingly!), his ability to produce an heir. But not for long. Soon he was feeling ‘a tingling’, then leaping from his chair to reveal healthy pins after all. Jolly good!
Series two yielded another gem of a storyline. Remember the mysterious soldier with the bandaged face who claimed to be Patrick Crawley back from the dead?
Nobody believed him but Edith (who fell in love with him, of course), and nobody listens to her, so he shuffled off mysteriously into the sunset, without us ever really knowing the truth.
Only girl in the world
There wasn’t a dry eye in the county when, during a concert for the troops, Matthew suddenly arrived home as ‘The Crawley Sisters’ were mid-song. Lord Grantham was visibly moved, grasping his hand with a hearty “My dear boy. My very dear boy!”, but not as delighted as Mary, who he joined for a duet of If You Were the Only Girl in the World. Encore!
Everyone loves a good will-they-won’t-they, and these two certainly kept us on our toes. After their first chilly encounter, Lady M’s snobbishness thawed and they shared their first kiss over a plate of sandwiches. But her doubts became his and soon the engagement was off: cue Mary having a little weep on Carson’s shoulder.
When Matthew arrived back from war, shockingly engaged to a “little blonde piece”, Maz cursed her rotten luck. But Spanish flu intervened, the pair had a cosy dance and Matthew’s snowy second proposal was everything we could have wished for in a Christmas special.
After failing to impress Matthew with her tour of local churches, an unsuccessful affair with a farmer and accepting that the bandaged man probably wasn’t her lost love back from the deep, Edith set her sights on the rather sweet but bumbling Sir Anthony Strallan in series three.
Unfortunately, his being twice her age weighed heavy on the old boy’s conscience and he backed out at the last minute, leaving her at the altar. It was one of the few times we’ve felt genuinely sorry for Edith, and her return to the house, festooned for celebrations that would never take place, was heartbreaking.
The ominous approach of ‘great change’ was frequently deliberated, in hushed tones, both upstairs and down – although these upheavals were largely manifested through the installation of a fridge (no!) and the family coping with maids serving in the dining room (surely not?!).
Coming a close second as most popular topics of conversation in series four, however, were the pigs. The episode in which Lady M took a joyful tumble in the mud with Charles Blake then whipped up some scrambled eggs in the kitchens was classic Downton.
Mary’s dirty weekend
Deciding she didn’t want to agree to spending her life with a man she’d never seen in less than a full three-piece suit, racy Lady M nipped off for a naughty weekend with handsome Tony Gillingham. Alas, the fireworks weren’t there and he was ditched; but it did give us an excellent chance to see Anna asking excruciatingly for a French letter in the chemists.
Beneath all that slicked-back scheming, all villainous under-butler Barrow wants is to be loved. We’ve seen his vulnerability on several occasions, and twice he’s saved the day: rescuing his beloved James from some thugs at the Thirsk Fair, then carrying Edith from the burning Abbey after she chucked a book in the fire. But still no one will hire him. And when Mary brought Master George to see him after his drastic, desperate act in the last series, one admits to having had a lump in one’s throat…
Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes
Not Mary and Matthew, Sybil and Branson or even the Bateses, but these two lovelies win the Standard Issue village prize for most endearing couple. True, their romance was a slow-burner: by series four, all they’d managed was a little hand-holding during a seaside paddle. But in series five, Downton gave us the proposal we’d all been waiting for. And the line: “Of course I will, you old boobie.”
The Red Dinner Party
Lord G gave Neville Chamberlain a night to remember by inviting him to dinner then projectile vomiting blood all over him in series six. What had Mrs Patmore been cooking?
Maggie Smith has never failed to pep up a scene with a snooty one-liner or brilliant back-hander. Remember her surprise on sitting on a swivel chair? (“At my age, one must ration one’s excitement”), not to mention mistaking her first-born for a waiter and chiding Edith for beetling about the estate in a motor car: “You are a Lady, not Toad of Toad Hall!”. We also enjoyed “God knows who the next heir will be. Probably a chimney sweep” and “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”
Now, as we contemplate a future with no Downton, we wonder what advice might she have for us in our grief? “Stop whining and find something to do.” Cheers, Granny.
We know a bouncing bubba is on the Bates’s Christmas list. Our money’s on a baby being born at Mr Mason’s farm, on Christmas Day, surrounded by pigs and cheering villagers – Vicar of Dibley style. Then it’ll probably get arrested, knowing their luck.
Edith’s happy ending
Another character in need of a Christmas miracle is miserable middle sister Edith. Our theories for her are threefold: Will Mary, realising how monstrously she behaved, persuade boring Bertie to take Edith back? Might father-of-her-child Michael Gregson make a surprise return from Nazi Germany (we never did see the body…)? Or will she throw her hat to the ground, spring onto the next train to London and declare she’s shacking up with her pretty editor to live a bohemian life in the Metrop? After six series in the shade of her sisters, we think it’s time for Edith to steal the show…
RIP the Dowager
Sorry, folks: but she must be over 100 by now. We thought the end was nigh when the Queen of Quips went off to the continent in the huff, where English aristocracy were dropping like flies. But she’d only gone to get a puppy, and obviously it’d take more than that to beat this battleaxe: probably a biblical flood, a nuclear holocaust then catching Spratt in one of her dresses singing Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow.
Barrow for Butler
After three further heart attacks and some stern words from his lady wife, Carson is begrudgingly persuaded to wind down and live out his days in a cottage, paving the way for Barrow to get his wish and become butler. Today the Abbey, tomorrow the world!
NOTE: Anyone notice how much Thomas Barrow seems to have in common with Lady Mary? And no matter how dastardly he behaves, the family always keep him on? It would be brilliant beyond belief if, in a shock revelation, he turned out to be Lord G’s lovechild and the true heir. Fan fiction writers, that one’s on me.
Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.