On and on it goes, Downton Abbey. So it should. For its creator, Julian Fellowes – Baron Fellowes of West Stafford to you since David Cameron elevated him in 2011 – is a big believer in the hereditary principle, after all. Downton Abbey ran for six series on television between 2010 and 2015, covering the years from 1912 to 1925, becoming by far the most successful costume drama since Brideshead Revisited, 30 years earlier.
In 2019, the Downton Abbey film took the story forward to 1927, as the King and Queen come to stay at Downton for a night, putting the servants into a frenzy of excitement, dashed when they learn the royals are bringing their own staff, but revived when they manage to serve their monarch after all.
Now here’s Downton Abbey: A New Era, moving on to 1928. With typical largesse, Fellowes has created not one but two main plotlines this time, and dovetailed them together (he attributes his success in maintaining the many strands of Downton to studying the multiple narratives in Robert Altman’s films, before writing the Oscar-winning script of Gosford Park for him).
A film company comes to Downton to make a silent movie there, provoking consternation upstairs and down. “Rough and vulgar actors eating at the table when the King of England once sat!” exclaims Carson the butler (Jim Carter). “This smacks of the worst excesses of the French Revolution!” But although Carson might rather be dead than countenance such an outrage, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is persuaded to allow the filming, since it will pay for a new roof, much needed, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) shows him, by taking him to the attics to see the drips.
[See also: How Nicolas Cage embraced self-parody]
How will the family endure the intrusion though? Plot number two comes to the rescue. Violet, the Dowager Countess, (Maggie Smith) reveals that she has just been left a corking villa on the Riviera by a French aristocrat with whom she had a brief dalliance in 1864. A large party of the family, plus Carson, sets off to investigate the property, avoiding the film production. A Place in the Sun with knobs on, then, and no budget issues either. Much fun is had with Carson’s splendid insularity (“Thank you, M’sieur, but we English are never too hot to wear the correct attire”, he says, nearly dead from heatstroke). And there’s no end of vicarious luxury: another grand house, more fabby outfits, fine meals, so much of the appeal of Downton always having been such proxy indulgence. It’s hardly even a montage sequence, practically a tableau.
Meanwhile, back at the Abbey, where Lady Mary and the Dowager are holding the fort, the film production has come to a halt, since the talkies have just arrived and no one wants silent films any more. Downton to the rescue! Lady Mary has the brilliant idea of converting the silent film into a talking one! And bumbling former footman Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) has unsuspected talents as a scriptwriter.
There’s still a problem, though. Suave, secretly gay leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) delivers his lines perfectly – but the star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) turns out to be a foul-mouthed gorblimey commoner. Noblesse oblige though – and Lady Mary voices her part for her exquisitely, saving the day. And when the extras go on strike, why, the servants stand in, dressing up as lords and ladies and dining at the high table, for that delicious frisson of transgression.
Downton is, of course, very much angled at the export market (half of the first film’s box office take of $194m was in the US and Canada) and it continues to show the lesser breeds just what a superb creation our class system was at its height, even more truly relished by the treasures at the bottom of it than by the good sorts at the top they were fortunate enough to serve.
For those of us already familiar with this good news, however, the great allure of the Downton sequel is, once again, Maggie Smith. In the past, Dame Maggie has been rather disobliging about her role, saying that this and her turn in Harry Potter weren’t really acting at all, that she’d never watched the series and she couldn’t see the point of a Downton film (“I think it’s squeezing it dry, I don’t know what it could possibly be”, etc). She has even said what she wanted most was “a death scene”.
But if she visibly disdains the part she’s playing here that only enhances the impact of her appalling snubs, casual put-downs, and unrepentant brutalities. When, watching the film-within-the-film being made, she says “I’d rather earn my living down a mine”, you can only believe her. Such a star.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future