BBC One’s classic literature season has been attempting to keep us entertained since we reluctantly stumbled into September, but nothing beats ITV’s Downton Abbey, which returned last night for its sixth and final series.

Julian Fellowes’ upstairs/downstairs drama has long been the perfect antidote to those Sunday night blues and by golly it’s good to be back. Kicking off with a foxhunt, naturally, we’re eased back into the world of the Crawleys where a scandal is never far away. While Lady Edith somehow managed to avert the shame of having a child out of wedlock last series, it’s now Lady Mary’s turn to dodge social disgrace. Again.

Mary has come a long way since the first series but she doesn’t seem to have learnt from the whole Kemal Pamuk debacle (who could forget that?). This first episode finds the eldest Crawley daughter being blackmailed by a hotel maid who witnessed Mary’s secret weekend away with Tony Gillingham (yes, I’d quite forgotten about him too).

Mary’s no fool and refuses to give in to the demands of a woman who has the audacity to saunter into Downton and issue ultimatums. “You’re not the first person who’s tried to blackmail me”, Mary quips, and no doubt she won’t be the last. Unfortunately the maid runs straight to Lord Grantham, who proceeds to sign a cheque (£50 rather than the demanded £1000) and issue the devious maid with a threat of his own. Episode one’s lesson? Don’t mess with Robert Crawley.downton-abbey-series-6-01Mary’s troubles upstairs are nothing compared to Anna and Bates’ ongoing turmoil from the Mr. Green murder investigation. Thankfully we won’t have to endure what has been one of the most dragged out storylines in Downton history, as a woman confesses to the crime, finally giving the couple closure.

This revelation brings the whole family downstairs to the servant’s quarters, where the wealthy and the working class come together for a shared celebration. With Edith whipping out Rose’s gramophone for a boogie and Robert rummaging in the fridge for leftovers, the social hierarchy that’s always been such a huge part of Downton suddenly seems a faraway concept. Leave it to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess to remind us that it does still exist.

Violet is on top form in this episode, bantering with her butler, Spratt, and playing mind tricks with her vitriolic lady’s maid, Denker. As always though, it’s her sparring with best friend/rival Isobel that garners the best wisecracks: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?” Oh Violet, I’ve missed you.

There’s even more humour to be found in the scenes between Carson and Mrs Patmore, who’s tasked with asking Carson what he wants from his marriage to Mrs Hughes – a purely platonic companionship or a real marriage, under the sheets action and all. Poor Hughes is worried about having to perform ‘wifely duties’ when she marries Carson but doesn’t have the nerve to talk to him about it herself. What follows is a hilariously awkward conversation, but one that Carson recovers from admirably, delivering a heartwarming speech that makes even Patmore a little swoony.downton-abbey-series-6-03If there’s one thing to take away from last night’s episode – aside from the fact that all episodes should be an hour and a half long – it’s the feeling that times are changing in Downton; the world is moving forward and the upper class must move with it or risk getting left behind. This is going to be a recurring theme for the rest of the series as Lord Grantham has to tighten the purse strings and the workers downstairs face the prospect of unemployment.

As we wait for next week’s episode, we’re left with a bundle of questions to mull over. Will Edith make the move to London with Marigold? Can Mary ever find a man worthy of her impossible standards? When will Daisy learn to keep her trap shut? More importantly though, will Anna and Bates ever get the happy ever after they so clearly deserve? Fellowes is bound to have some tricks up his sleeve for the final series, so we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out.

★★★★

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