The New Downtown Abbey Nanny – a bad stereotype for the industry?
By Matt D,
I’m sometime baffled by how much love people have for Downton Abbey. The sprawling costume drama series, which returns tonight for a fourth run, took everybody by surprise when it first arrived in 2010. It regularly packs in audiences of over eight million while it has been rewarded with a large bounty of awards, mainly from American critics. While I concede that the programme is well-acted and well-produced, it’s done nothing to really prove that it deserves all the hype that it receives. I continued to have those sort of feelings during tonight’s episode, which seemingly focused on the progressive nature of the 1920s but at the same time saw a household who were quite happy to live in the past.
Lady Mary is living in the past, she has retreated into her room and is genuinely disinterested in any suggestion of a life. It appears that Mary has sunk into a depression since the death of her husband Matthew and no wants little to do with anyone in her household. She even rarely spends time with her son George, allowing the ghastly Nanny West to be his main child-minder. As she later explains to Violet, Mary feels that all of the softness that Matthew saw in her has dried up since her death. Meanwhile Branson believes that Mary needs to find something to fill in the gap that Matthew left in her life and suggests she help he and Robert make plans for the future of the estate. Robert on the other feels that his daughter shouldn’t be bothered by such things and should be left in her room to act like an old maid. Branson then asks Carson to talk to Lady Mary, but he finds her to be quite abrasive as she tells him he’s being too forward. It’s only after a heart-to-heart with grandmother Violet that she finally accepts that Matthew has gone and she decides to move on with her life. It’s lucky that her change in character coincided with the Downton shareholders dinner and the sacking of Nanny West.
When she’s not trying to coax Mary out of her depression, Violet also attempts to assist some of the other characters. It seems that Isobel is similarly grieving for Matthew’s loss, but isn’t given as much support as Lady Mary. Isobel has now resigned herself to a life of solitude which, much to Violet’s disgust, involves her eating off a tray. Though Violet tries to encourage her to be a grandmother to George, Isobel doesn’t want to upset the apple cart when it comes to Lady Mary’s feelings. In the end it’s Mrs Hughes who gives Isobel a purpose when she suggests that Mr Grigg, an old music hall friend of Carson’s who’s ended up in the workhouse, come and live with her. At first Isobel doesn’t understand why it should be her who cares for a man that even Mr Carson doesn’t want anything to do with but eventually she comes round to the idea. Violet also attempts to find Matthew’s former valet Molesly a new job by having him help serve during a dinner she’s having with her friend Lady Shackelton. However Violet’s jealous butler Spratt sabotages Molesly’s efforts and Lady Shackelton ends up believing Molsely is wholly incompetent.
There’s more trouble for the servants in the form of the aforementioned Nanny West, who sees herself as a cut above the rest of them. Though most tolerate her attitude, Thomas takes offence to the fact that she feels she can order him about. As Nanny West hasn’t been told about Thomas’ ways, he takes it upon himself to inform Cora that Nanny was leaving the children unattended. While this was a lie, it seems that Nanny was a bit of a snob and was caught by Cora referring to Sybbie as a ‘half-breed’ due to the fact that her father was once the family chauffeur.
With Nanny West out the door, the Granthams find themselves yet another servant down as O’Brien has also left the manor unexpectedly. She is eventually replaced by Edna, the housemaid who was coming on to Branson during last year’s Christmas Special. Edna’s return to Downton, this time as Cora’s lady-in-waiting, will obviously have a massive impact on Branson’s standing in the Grantham family. Meanwhile, the interchangeable younger servants are all getting in a bit of a state over who sent each who Valentine’s Day card. Finally, Lady Edith is all loved up with publisher Michael Gregson, who is attempting to divorce his wife by moving to Germany and declaring her insane. Gregson attempts to get Edith to go with him but she questions whether she can move to the country which had been at war with England for the best part of four years. Gregson may be out of the frame sooner rather than later as Edith’s father believes that his daughter could do a lot better than a lowly newspaper man.
I personally felt that tonight’s episode of Downton Abbey lacked the impact of previous series openers. For example last year’s first episode saw the introduction of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother and the marriage of Mary and Matthew. In fact I found this a rather downbeat start to the series and for the first hour we had a depressing parade of grief, workhouse strife and unemployed valets. It comes to something when Edith has the most uplifting story and her courtship with Gregson definitely provided the only joyous moments of a somewhat dour instalment. Meanwhile, after setting up the fact that the Granthams were trying to modernise the way they did business, this episode seemed incredibly old-fashioned. With the majority of the storylines looking at how to replace a number of servants in the household I felt that we were back to square one in terms of focusing on how a traditional household survived in the roaring twenties. And if it weren’t for Mrs Patmore’s struggles with her electric whisk I would’ve thought we were stuck in the 19th century rather than in 1922.
Downton’s biggest strength is its ensemble cast who are on the whole incredibly impressive. Despite losing strong performers such as Siobhan Finneran and Dan Stevens, Downton continues to thrive in terms of its performances. Michelle Dockery was great tonight at portraying Lady Mary’s grief, even if her staring off into the distance got a little tiresome. Maggie Smith was incredibly well-utilised in this episode as we saw her comedic prowess during the segments with Molesly and her dramatic skills in full force during her heart-to-heart with Mary. Jim Carter was similarly great as Carson, especially in his scenes opposite Lady Mary while Penelope Wilton shone as we saw Isobel grieving for her son. Elsewhere Rob-James Collier regularly steals the show as the devious Thomas, the character’s only problem now is that he’s lost his partner-in-crime now that O’Brien has departed. Downton Abbey has always been lavishly designed and this episode was no different, with the scenes featuring Edith in London being a particular visual highlight. I just hope that the visual splendour of the series will be used to show the changing face of the country now that the 1920s have well and truly started.
I’m sure fans of Downton Abbey are excited to have it back, but I personally found this first episode to be a little bit downbeat. Though I’m sure some of it was necessary in order for us to see the progression of the Lady Mary character, I could’ve done with a few happier moments. That being said Downton is still an enjoyable watch due to its lavish production values and great ensemble cast. Ultimately though I just can’t see how the programme continues to justify the hype around it but then maybe that’s just me.