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downton abbey series 3It’s been possibly the most hotly anticipated television event of the year, but the third series of hit ITV drama Downton Abbey is finally upon us. For the Crawleys and their staff it’s now the spring of 1920, only a few months after Matthew and Mary’s snowy embrace during last year’s Christmas special, but already great change is on the horizon as the house moves into the Roaring Twenties. Cora’s mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, has arrived from the States and looks ready to butt heads with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Likewise, Lady Sybil has returned from Dublin, bringing her husband (the former chauffeur) and the promise of ‘a Fenian grandchild’ with her.

Downstairs, meanwhile, a very tall new footman has arrived and Thomas has been promoted.

Still, some things never change. Matthew and Mary are getting married (or are they?), Edith is setting her cap at Sir Anthony Strallan, and Downton itself is still standing, apparently untouched by the changes that have shaken its inhabitants.

Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, seems to have got the pacing just right, with a perfect mix of new faces and old favourites. This 90-minute opening episode also established some of the subplots that will continue throughout the series, of which the two most substantial appear to be Robert’s financial difficulties and the wrongfully imprisoned John Bates’ efforts to clear his name. The only real criticism I have of the episode in terms of plot is that it was somewhat upstairs-centric, but I’m sure the balance will return to normal when the other new members of the downstairs cast make their first appearance in the coming weeks.

As ever, the lead actors gave a performance as impressive as I’ve come to expect from them, with a special mention going to Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery for retaining my interest in their characters’ tortuously angst-ridden relationship even after all this time. Allen Leech also responded well to Fellowes’ evident wish to develop his character in new directions, enabling us to see a different side to Tom Branson as he attempts to find his place in the no-man’s-land between upstairs and downstairs and grows closer to fellow ‘outsider’ Matthew in the process.

All in all, this was a splendid opening to the series and appears to represent a return to form after the much-criticised second season. Along with the multitude of Downton fans up and down the country, I’m already looking forward to the next installment.

★★★★

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