Spoiler-free review: The sumptuous-looking new Downton Abbey episode, set in the roaring Twenties, recaptures the magic of the glorious first season, says Neil Midgley.
5 out of 5 stars
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith
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Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Photo: Nick Briggs/ Carnival
Not even the highly inventive pen of Julian Fellowes can turn back time at Downton Abbey. But as the much-anticipated fourth series opens – following on from the departure of actor Dan Stevens, and the attendant death of his character, Matthew Crawley, at the end of the 2012 Christmas special – the breakneck pace of progress at Britain's favourite country house has at least slowed down.
It's now 1922, just six months after the car crash. And, as this feature-length opening episode unfolds, there's no sign that we're in for a ride through four full years in one series – as happened with the First World War in series two.
Indeed, as a piece of TV craft, Downton Abbey really does seem to have turned the clock back: this new series much more closely – and welcomely – resembles that glorious first season, which made itself instantly the most popular TV drama in Britain back in 2010.
These are stories about a family, and stories about its servants. There is love both spoken and concealed; there are new allegiances, new rivalries upstairs and down, old scores to settle, the reappearance of an old flame. Even the dowager countess, still played to withering perfection by Dame Maggie Smith, has a surprising new cause to champion. The spice and intrigue comes from picking out the glorious detail of English country life in the early Twenties – not from the appearance of deformed foreign cousins, spines broken in the war, and miraculous medical recoveries.