Downton Abbey is a British period drama television series created and principally written by Julian Fellowes and set in the fictional Downton Abbey, the Yorkshire country house of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, which follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants during the reign of King George V.
The series begins in 1912, when England was teetering on the brink. Apparently placid, still rooted in the traditions of many centuries, it would be less than ten years before the First World War and the Jazz Age had ripped every certainty to shreds.
This is the moment when we enter the world of Downton Abbey, the great house of a great family, where the Granthams and their daughters preside over a household in the charge of Carson, the butler, and Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper.
All these people must, in their different ways, deal with the changes that are coming.
The Downton Abbey estate stands a splendid example of confidence and mettle, its family enduring for generations and its staff a well-oiled machine of propriety. But change is afoot at Downton — change far surpassing the new electric lights and telephone.
Downton is the home of the Crawleys, who have been the Earls of Grantham since 1772. In the drawing rooms and library and beautiful bedrooms, with their tall windows looking across the park, lives the family, but below stairs are other residents, the servants, as fiercely possessive of their ranks as anyone above.
Some of them are loyal to the family and are committed to Downton as a way of life, others are moving through, on the look out for new opportunities or love or just adventure. The difference being that they know so many of the secrets of the family, while the family knows so few of theirs.
A crisis of inheritance threatens to displace the resident Crawley family, in spite of the best efforts of the noble and compassionate Earl, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville); his American heiress wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern); his comically implacable, opinionated mother, Violet (Maggie Smith); and his beautiful, eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), intent on charting her own course.
Reluctantly, the family is forced to welcome its heir apparent, the self-made and proudly modern Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), himself none too happy about the new arrangements.
As Matthew's bristly relationship with Mary begins to crackle with electricity, hope for the future of Downton's dynasty takes shape.
But when petty jealousies and ambitions grow among the family and the staff, scheming and secrets — both delicious and dangerous — threaten to derail the scramble to preserve Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey is a Carnival/Masterpiece co-production and executive produced by Carnival's Managing Director, Gareth Neame, Julian Fellowes and Rebecca Eaton.
The series producer is Liz Trubridge (From Time to Time, A Short Stay in Switzerland), the producer is Nigel Marchant (Fanny Hill, The Philanthropist) and the directors are Brian Percival (Gracie, A Boy Called Dad), Ben Bolt (Doc Martin, Ashes to Ashes) and Brian Kelly (Lilies, Torchwood).
Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
Robert Grantham has lived an uncomplicated life until now. He married his wife, Cora, an American heiress, in 1889, largely for her money and although there is no denying her cash put the estate back on its feet, over time they have grown to love one another deeply.
The marriage contract, as we know, stipulated that her fortune, once invested in the estate, was inseparable from it. Neither Robert nor his wife anticipated that this clause (demanded by his late father) would cause problems, since they both confidently expected to have a son and heir.
The trouble is they didn't. They had three daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil.
Until now, the heir was Robert's cousin, James Crawley, and his son, Patrick. But the news has arrived of their deaths on board the Titanic.
Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern)
Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati. She arrived in England, with her mother, in 1888, at the age of 20, and was engaged to Robert, Viscount Downton, as he then was, by the end of her first season.
She accepted the clause, at the insistence of her father-in-law, assuming she would have a boy. Now that the cousin she did at least know is dead, and the new heir is a distant cousin, she does not believe he would have wished his grand daughters to be robbed of their mother's money, which would instead be given to a complete stranger.
She had anyway counted on a marriage between Patrick and Mary. She thinks Robert should overturn the settlement and the entail, to benefit their children.
Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery)
Clever, good looking, hard. Mary had (just about) accepted that she was not to be, as she had imagined, an heiress, like her mother, while her cousins lived. On the arrival of the news of their deaths, she assumes she will now inherit.
The realisation that she will not enrages her. Particularly when she learns that her father refuses to fight for her rights. She was confident of her cousin, Patrick, and she was holding him in reserve if she couldn't bring her favoured choice, the handsome, young Duke of Crowborough, up to the mark.
In other words, in the first episode Mary Crawley goes from a win-win situation to a lose-lose one.
Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael)
Edith resents Mary. She is less good looking and less sought after, but no less ambitious. She doesn't care that the settlement will not be overturned, since she would not have inherited either way. If anything, she is pleased that Mary will not be able to lord it over her.
Their rivalry is fuelled by the fact that she genuinely loved the dead heir, Patrick, but no one took her feelings seriously.
She is anyway in a half-permanent rage that the interests of her beautiful sister are always placed above hers in any family plan. Soon she will be curious about the new heir, and will eventually attempt to use him to be revenged on Mary.
Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay)
Sybil is the family rebel. She is fiercely political, devoted to the cause of votes for women, and generally angered by injustice everywhere. She exasperates both parents.
She will go through the motions, when it comes to Society, but her goals all lie beyond what they consider the proper field. She is detached from most of the family quarrels about inheritance as she doesn't care about it.
Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)
Matthew is a third cousin, once removed, of Lord Grantham. His father was a doctor, which is amazing to Lord Grantham and offensive to his wife. Matthew himself has qualified as a solicitor and is already practising in Manchester.
Now, he finds himself heir to an earldom and a large estate and he is invited to move there and to become part of the local community. He eventually agrees but only if he can continue to work.
Cora Grantham is partly infuriated by this interloper and partly determined that he will marry one of her daughters, so her attitude to him is completely schizophrenic.
As for the girls, Mary sees him as a possible fall-back position, Edith as a possible instrument of revenge and Sybil as part of a dying system.
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith)
Robert's mother. She is immensely proud, immensely loyal to her son and immensely insufferable to her American daughter-in-law, whom she regards as an interloper, a living compromise the family has had to make.
She was born the daughter of a baronet, which Cora does not believe entitles Violet to carry on as if she were a Plantagenet, especially as she brought virtually no money with her. In other words, both women think themselves the superior of the other.
Publicly, Violet supports the arrangements made by her late husband. But in reality, once Patrick is dead, she favours her grand daughter, Mary, over some distant stranger. This paves the way for an unholy alliance between the two Countesses, as they plot against Robert to overturn the arrangements.
When the cross-breed heir arrives, with his middle class mama, she finds the situation intolerable, even if she, like Cora, sees one solution in Matthew's marrying Mary.
Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton)
Isobel is Matthew's widowed mother. She is the daughter of a doctor (her husband studied under her father) and she comes from the professional middle class.
She embodies an entirely different set of values to those of the main family, being far better educated than either Violet or Cora, and before long she is at loggerheads with Violet.
She is intensely proud of her son and not because he has turned out to be the heir to a great name. If anything, she thinks he is throwing away a brilliant career.
She agrees to come and manage her son's house on the estate, but she has mixed feelings about the whole set up.
Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond)
Lady Rosamund is Robert's only sibling. She did not marry a great aristocrat and has no country seat, but the late Marmaduke Painswick, a banker, was immensely rich, so she has a good deal of freedom of movement.
She has two children, Lavinia, who is married to a landed colonel in the Grenadiers, and Cyril who does something slightly nefarious in the Far East. She is devoted to Robert, but she feels it her duty to speak her mind on every possible occasion.
Her interference in her nieces' decisions has a potentially disastrous result.
Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)
The butler. Carson is in charge of the pantry, wine cellar and dining room, the male staff report to him. Butlers were usually expected to be bachelors without the distractions and temptations of a family of their own.
Carson has worked at Downton since he was a boy. He is endlessly nostalgic for the way things were, and consequently, during the series, he more or less becomes an agent for the Dowager Countess and is potentially disloyal to her American successor.
His instinct will be to support Lady Mary, whom he genuinely loves as a surrogate daughter, against her interloping cousin.
Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan)
The housekeeper. 50. Responsible for the house and its appearance, the Housekeeper is in charge of the female servants.
There are three people in this household who all believe they are head of it: Mr Carson, Mrs Patmore and Mrs Hughes. Mrs Hughes is probably right.
She is unsentimental but moral and decent. In fact, as we will see, she is a kind woman but she feels her strength is derived from the fear she inspires. She respects and, to a degree, protects Carson. But she is hard task-master.
Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol)
The cook. Mrs Patmore is in charge of the kitchen and kitchen staff. She does not accept that Mr Carson has jurisdiction over her, nor, most of all, Mrs Hughes, and religiously defends her rights and privileges, against all comers.
John Bates (Brendan Coyle)
The valet. The valet receives orders only from his master. He dresses him, he accompanies him on every journey. An ex-soldier, John Bates was Robert's batman during the Boer War.
He arrives at Downton in the first episode to take the position, but Bates was wounded in the war and it has left him lame, which makes him both defensive and fiercely loyal to Robert for giving him another chance.
His natural ally within the house is Anna, and he is obviously attracted to her. But for some unknown reason he cannot declare himself.
O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran)
The lady's maid. O'Brien's responsibilities are to her mistress. She can be called from doing her mistress's laundry at any moment of the day to help with her hair or her dress.
O'Brien is a watchful, vengeful, malign spinster. She has sacrificed all thoughts of family and hearth to advance in her profession and now she is lady's maid to a countess, in a great house, which should make her happy.
But it does not, because nothing will. She may seem to flatter Lady Grantham or Lady Mary or any of them, but ultimately she will always follow her own interest.
Anna (Joanne Froggatt)
The head housemaid. The highest ranking of the lower female servants. Anna comes from a background of tenant farming and service. She feels she may have missed her chance at marriage.
She is head housemaid but she also maids the daughters of the house. She is clever and resourceful, a thoroughly sympathetic character, which is generally appreciated, if not always by Mary or Edith.
Gwen (Rose Leslie)
The under housemaid. Gwen is essentially an ambitious girl. She works as a housemaid because it is the only profession open to the daughter of a farm worker, but she has big plans.
She is the natural rebel of the female staff, albeit in a quiet way, and this makes her a natural ally of Sybil.
Thomas (Rob James-Collier)
The first footman. Thomas thinks he is a fine fellow and that most of his fellow workers are country bumpkins who know nothing. He is a liar and a petty thief and he is always on the look out for the main chance.
This must mean he is looking to leave Downton, since he wants to be a valet and Mr Bates isn't going anywhere. So he makes up to any rich visitor, to see if there's a position going.
He is also gay and knows one at least of the family's visitors better than might be expected. His natural ally in the house is O'Brien. They are both entirely self-interested, but loyalty, even like to like, is probably beyond him.
William (Thomas Howes)
The second footman. William is a fool. There's no harm in him but he's a fool, and Thomas has no hesitation in using him to do half his own work. William is soft on Daisy but she isn't interested in him as she is quite taken by Thomas. Fruitlessly.
William is very loyal to his parents. He is their only child and his home was a happy one. But his talent is in caring for horses, not serving in a grand dining room.
Daisy (Sophie McShera)
The kitchenmaid. The dogsbody. At the bottom of the heap. Daisy's mother was a true Victorian and Daisy is one of eleven children.
The scullery maid had to clean, scour and scrub hundreds of knives, forks, pots and pans every day. She also had the smallest bedroom, and eats with the cook and the kitchenmaids, away from the other servants.
She is constantly in the firing line with Mrs Patmore and develops feelings for Thomas not realising his true character.
Branson (Allen Leech)
Robert's new spirited, Irish chauffeur, whose political ideologies aspire to a more modern society. Driving Sybil to a political rally he discovers they have a meeting of minds, and with his encouragement Sybil puts her beliefs into practice.
However, Sybil's newfound enthusiasm leads her into danger for which Branson later feels responsible - a sentiment with which Robert certainly agrees.