Suddenly, as the first decade of the new millennium was drawing to a close, our ears pricked up. A new series was in the works, a period drama, written by a name that was vaguely familiar, Jonathan Fellowes. Where had we heard it before? Ah, yes, Jonathan Fellowes, now Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, wrote the screenplay for the Oscar winning period movie Gosford Park (2001), set in an English country estate in 1932. Now, this new series sounded really promising. So we waited, and when the series began we were not disappointed. Downton Abbey, set in England pre-, during and after World War I, had us glued to our seats. We couldn’t wait for the next episode (or, if we only heard about it later, we just downloaded all the episodes and sat for hours watching them one after the other).
Downton Abbey, a fictional estate set in Yorkshire, centers on the aristocratic Crawley family, the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three marriageable daughters, and the numerous servants at their beck and call. Maggie Smith plays the imperious Grande Dame, mother of the earl. We love the period costumes, the airs and graces of this noble family, and the intrigues and tragedies of the people below stairs. World War I brings its own dramas and losses, as well as great change to Downton Abbey and its inhabitants. And, of course, there is high romance, tantalizingly within reach but frustrated due to a chain of misunderstandings and injured pride.
In addition, we were treated to a revival of the classic Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), featuring a new family and a new era, the 1930s prior to the outbreak of World War II. The house is the same and even one of the staff, Rose (Jean Marsh), returns as housekeeper. Unfortunately, Marsh (78) was taken ill before the start of the second, full-length series (the first was only a mini-series) and made only a couple of cameo appearances. While the current Upstairs, Downstairs falls somewhat short of its predecessor (maybe, that’s just nostalgia making things look rosier), there are several dramatic scenes and interesting characters.
What is common to all these series over the decades is the re-creation of a period, preferably one we haven’t lived in, where there are masters and servants, fine costumes, beautiful homes, and simmering romance. While the two recent drama series have gone some way to recouping British’s reputation as the unparalleled creator of TV drama series, it is doubtful whether we will ever again see a succession of memorable productions like those we enjoyed during the last decades of the twentieth century.