I love the new Masterpiece Theatre series, “Downton Abbey.” It’s a gripping story of fascinating characters and an enthralling depiction of a society undergoing seismic changes.
English society flourished for centuries based on a system that kept property from being dispersed through “entailment” — land was transferred to the oldest male heir. And anyone who’s ever read a Jane Austen book knows that while that system was great for keeping property in the same family for generations, it was tough on families. In this story, Hugh Bonneville (“Notting Hill”) plays the Earl of the title estate in pre-WWI England. Like many nobility of his generation, he married an American heiress to get the cash he needed to run the estate. But unlike most of them, he fell in love with his wife, played by the ravishing Elizabeth McGovern (“Ordinary People”).
And then they had three daughters. Which meant the property would go to the nearest male relative, a cousin. As was often the practice in these families, a marriage was arranged with the earl’s daughter. All seemed resolved. And then, as this show begins, the earl receives some very bad news. The heir and his father were on the Titanic. And that means that the estate will go to a distant relative they scarcely know who seems, to use the language of the era, unsuitable and disobliging. He arrives, filled with modern ideas and bourgeois habits — and bringing his mother.
And in the tradition of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” there is a whole other set of stories going on among the staff, including the arrival of a new valet for the earl and a footman who wanted that job for himself.
The show has already been a big hit in the UK and I am delighted to hear that there is a second season. In tonight’s episode, there is romantic intrigue for Lady Mary, the oldest daughter, and the arrival of a stranger. I’ll be there!