Downton Abbey is a television series jointly made by UK and USA production firms (Carnival Films, UK and WGBH Boston, USA). It was first shown on ITV1 (UK) on September 26th, 2010, and on PBS (USA) January 9th, 2011. To date there have been two series of the program, of seven and eight episodes respectively, and a Christmas special. The third series is currently in production and is scheduled to air in September 2012.
The program is set in the fictional Downton Abbey in Yorkshire, England and follows the lives of the aristocrat the Earl of Grantham, his family and his servants from 1912 up to (to date) 1919. Much of the drama is related to the incident viewers learn of at the start of the first series, the death of the heir to the Abbey and the title in the sinking of the Titanic, which makes a remote cousin the heir.
Downton Abbey was created by Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame, with Fellowes writing most of the episodes. Fellowes is a former actor and Oscar winning screenwriter (Gosford Park) and the writer of two novels. Fellowes was made a life peer in 2011 (Lord Fellowes of West Stafford), and he sits as a Tory in the House of Lords. Much of Downton Abbey’s plot revolves around the fact that women cannot inherit some aristocratic titles; Fellowes has said that he wants this rule changed, as his wife Emma would have become a countess (through her descent from Earl Kitchener) if it had been.
Gareth Neame is an award winning TV executive and producer and is the managing director of Carnival films, makers of Downton Abbey. The series was his original idea which he then asked Fellowes to write. He has been the executive producer for every episode of the show.
Shelagh Stephenson co-wrote S1E4 with Fellowes, and Tina Pepler co-wrote S1E6. All other episodes were written by Fellowes alone. The show has had seven different directors.
The mansion shown as Downton Abbey in the series is, in fact, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the home of the Earl of Carnarvon. There has been a house on the site since the eighth century, but the current building dates from the 1840s. Its architect was Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament in London. The house is used for exterior shots and the shots of the family quarters, although the servants’ rooms are filmed in a studio. The outdoor scenes in Downton village are filmed in Bampton in Oxfordshire, where the village library stands in for the Downton cottage hospital.
The program was extremely successful from the outset, both in terms of viewing figures and critical reception. On ITV in the UK, the series began with around 9 million viewers, which rose to nearly 12 million for subsequent episodes. Critics were almost universally positive about the show, with collated results showing it had a 92% approval rating. This earned the show a Guinness World Record for the best reviewed TV show in the world.
Critics particularly praised the show’s high production values and the acting of the ensemble cast, with the performance of Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess being singled out particularly.
The second series achieved approximately the same viewing figures as the first, but it did not receive such universal acclaim from the critics. Many critics suggested that Fellowes had tried to pack too many plotlines into the episodes which did not allow the development evident in the first series. They also criticized the plots as having become too outlandish and “slapstick”.
In the USA, both series of the show have been well received. PBS achieved audiences of around four million for its screenings. While this doesn’t match the ratings of top networked US shows, it represents a doubling of PBS’ normal primetime audience. Critics have generally been positive, with the New York Daily News writing that the show is “soap of the highest order.” As in the UK, Dame Maggie Smith has been much admired for her performance.
Cultural commentators have expressed reservations about the show and its popularity. The chief criticism is that the show promotes a false, cosy idea of Britishness which never actually existed, and that it glories in class divisions. Some commentators have doubted whether any early 20th century aristocratic family would have treated its servants as well as is portrayed in the series.
Another criticism of the show is that it is essentially derivative, following the success of Brideshead Revisited in the 1980s (a lavish costume drama following the lives of an aristocratic family living in a huge mansion) and Upstairs Downstairs, a 1970s ITV series (now revived by the BBC in an attempt to emulate Downton Abbey’s success) which alternated between the lives of servants and their aristocratic masters. Some critics have also lamented that so much has been invested in “safe” period costume drama instead of modern drama. None of these criticisms seems to have had any serious effect on the show’s popularity.
The Labour Party leader, Ed Milliband, used the show in Parliament to attack David Cameron’s government in his response to the government’s budget in March 2012. Capitalizing on the perceived upper class, out of touch nature of the Cabinet, he said of the show, “We all think it’s a drama, they think it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary!” (Some commentators noted that the joke had already been made by others, most notably comedian Sarah Millican)
The show has been nominated for, and won, a large number of awards. The most notable of these are: BAFTA Craft 2010 (Best Writing /Sound), Broadcasting Press Awards 2010 (Best Drama/Writing), Primetime Emmy Awards 2011 (all for miniseries or a movie: Directing (Brian Percival)/Writing/Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith)/Cinematography/Costume and Outstanding Miniseries or Movie), Golden Globe Awards 2012 (Best Miniseries or TV Movie).
The show has been sold to over one hundred countries throughout the world.