Downton Abbey: The story so far

As ‘Downton Abbey’ returns to ITV1 (Sunday, 9pm) Alan Tyers a look back at the story so far…

It's back! The Downton Abbey series three cast (Credit: ITV)

Series one begins in 1912 as Robert, Earl of Grantham, receives a telegram informing him that his cousin, his heir, has died on the Titanic. This is bad for Robert, because he has but three daughters, and no son, and hence nobody to whom he can leave Downton Abbey and all the titles, dosh, bells and whistles that go with it.

The heir is now his distant cousin Matthew, who arrives at Downton and shocks all the idle aristos by having an actual job (solicitor). Robert’s domineering Dowager mother is especially appalled. She’s appalled by most things. After initial frostiness that Mathew has arrived to slurp up all the family gravy, romance blossoms between Matthew and Mary, Robert’s eldest daughter. They’re cousins so: ew. But apparently this wasn’t so ew back then.

Prior to things getting serious with Matthew, though, Mary invites a Turkish diplomat back to her bedroom, who is thoughtless enough to die on the job. The scandal is covered up, albeit witnessed by idiotic maid Daisy, but Mary’s bitter and jealous sister Edith spreads a rumour. In revenge, Mary spoils plain Edith’s one chance of romantic happiness. Ah, sisterhood. Oh, there is a third sister, Sybil, who is a champagne socialist, and gets driven to rallies by her hot Irish chauffeur, Branson.

Maid in hell: O'Brien's plotting cost Cora her baby (Credit: ITV)

It looks for a while that Robert’s wife Cora is going to solve the whole succession problem by having a baby boy, but her evil maid O’Brien leaves a bar of soap by Cora’s bath. She slips and miscarries.

Besides the sexy chauffeur and the baby-murdering maid, these rich people obviously need a lot of other servants to help them in their busy schedule of ruining each other’s lives and bonking Turkish attachés to death. Butler Mr Carson is the top dog below stairs, but there’s tension when Robert hires his former Army batman, Bates, to be his valet.

Thomas, an evil footman, is caught stealing and tries to frame Bates, enlisting the help of Daisy, who fancies Thomas but has no gaydar. She inevitably makes a mess of the lie, but this all leads to the revelation that Bates had been in prison for thieving. In fact he only took the rap to save his wife, who was actually the guilty one. Thomas is unmasked, and disgraced, but hey it’s okay because he can go off and join World War One, which has just started.

Matthew had asked Mary to marry him, but she wouldn’t say ‘yes’ right away. He believed this was because she was holding out to see if Cora’s baby would be a boy, which would have de-heired Matthew. In fact, it was to do with her guilt over the Turk, and more importantly because (Downton writer) Julian Fellowes knows how to keep an audience wanting more. Matthew leaves for the War, and that’s the end of series one.

In series two, Matthew gets a) engaged to a woman called Lavinia and b) paralysed from the waist down. He tells Lavinia she should leave him and find someone new but she’s a good egg and sticks with him. Matthew makes a miracle recovery from his paralysis. It’s a hoot. He and Mary realise they still have feelings for each other, but because they are English and aristocratic, decide that he ought to get on with making them all miserable by marrying Lavinia. Conveniently, although obviously not for her, Lavinia dies in the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic.

Downton scandal: Lady Mary brought shame on the family (Credit: ITV)

Meanwhile, Mary had been in her own romantic entanglement with a brutish newspaper proprietor, Sir Richard, who says he will keep her Turk-killing scandal out of the papers if she will marry him. Tough, gross choices.

Downton is turned into a convalescent hospital and there’s a three-way power struggle between Cora, the Dowager and Isobel, who is Matthew’s mother. Poisonous footman Thomas returns, having self-wounded to get out of the War. Dim Daisy is pressured into marrying nice footman William, who later dies of his wounds. Bates begins a romance with head housemaid Anna but then his thieving wife Vera apparently commits suicide. Worse, she makes it look like a murder, framing Bates. She’s a keeper, eh?

The Christmas special saw Bates convicted of murder, but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. It was revealed that Sybil and Branson have got married and pregnant, which is obviously v.v. scandalous. Mary tells gross Sir Richard to publish and be damned, breaks up with him and agrees to marry Matthew, who doesn’t care that she is a ‘not pure’. He doesn’t even care that she covered up the death of a Turkish bloke she’d just sexed. That’s love! Sir Richard vows revenge of the front-page kind.

Season three sees Cora’s mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, arrive to wreak havoc on Matthew and Mary’s wedding preparations and have some great scenes with Dame Maggie Smith. The Roaring Twenties bring changing social standards and potential financial catastrophe for Robert…

Downton Abbey (Sun, 9pm, ITV1)