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What does it say about Britain in 2019 that our two most beloved cultural exports are forelock-tugging period dramas?
Most obviously, that we’d rather look to the past than contemplate the future. Still, there’s no time to worry about that now, because both The Crown and Downton Abbey are making much-anticipated returns.
Drama this sumptuous requires some old-fashioned deference.
Downton Abbey premiere
When we last visited Downton (for the 2015 Christmas Special) the Crawleys were celebrating the dawn of 1926, the marriage (at last!) of Lady Edith and, below stairs, the birth of Anna and Bates’s first child. Amid all the cheering, however, a death knell was faintly audible. What better means to revive the British aristocracy’s flagging fortunes than a royal event?
Thus the movie, out on Friday, skips forward to 1927, when Downton Abbey is preparing to host King George V and Queen Mary. That’s a royal generation earlier than that depicted in The Crown’s first season, so there’s no opportunity for a Jared Harris crossover cameo. Instead the royal couple will be played by Geraldine James and Simon Jones, who played Lord Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited — aka Eighties Downton.
The Crown, out on November 17, is also entering a new era, the second two-season chapter of Peter Morgan’s planned six-season story arch, and that requires an entirely new cast, headed up by Olivia Colman as Elizabeth II. With plots covering a period from 1964 to 1976, we can expect to see the Palace perspective on the Aberfan disaster, the moon landings and Prince Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales.
Does it take a posh man to tell a posh story? If so, Downton showrunner Julian Fellowes has the edge. He’s a Baron and peer and married to a lady-in-waiting of Princess Michael of Kent. Still, Morgan, already an OBE for services to British drama, is surely in the running for an eventual knighthood. Provided any 1999 to 2010 season goes easy on Prince Andrew, of course.
By some estimates, The Crown costs more to run than the real royal household. The Sovereign Grant — that is, the annual payment made by the Government to the monarch — stands at £82.2 million for 2018-19. That’s a modest sum compared with the £97.4 million that Netflix is reported to have spent on The Crown’s first season. Morgan insists that figure would be more accurate for seasons one and two.
Either way, Downton will need to put its best foot forward to meet the royals’ usual standards and, says the LA Times, that’s what happened: “The budget was also higher, which means there are more ambitious sequences, like a royal parade, and the producers brought in Ben Smithard (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) as cinematographer.”
The Dowager Countess, aka Lady Violet Crawley, aka Dame Maggie Smith, isn’t just the obvious inspiration for a smash-hit cabaret act (drag name: Downtown Abbie), she’s also an infallible shade delivery system who can easily output six devastating remarks over a light family breakfast. She shines most, however, when pitted against a worthy foe.
Previous sparring partners include American-in-law, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and best frenemy Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton), but the big screen requires a greater challenge. Enter Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), one of Queen Mary’s ladies-in-waiting and, in that inter-connected way of aristos, also a cousin of Lady Violet’s late husband.
Preview clips suggest the two share some ancient and expertly cured beef. Of course, Princess Margaret is still the royal standard when it comes to diva-ish doings (see the published details of her routine morning “pick-me-up”). Vanessa Kirby made an elegant start in seasons one and two, but it’s exciting to imagine what Helena Bonham Carter will do with the role. After all, Bonham Carter was Oscar-nominated for her performance as Princess Margaret’s mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon aka the Queen Mother, in The King’s Speech.
Our American cousins
The Crown debuted in November 2016, around the same time that Prince Harry released a statement to the press about his new American girlfriend Meghan Markle. By the time the show had bagged best TV series (drama) and best actress (drama) for Claire Foy at the Golden Globes in January 2017, it was official: Americans are hot for the British aristocracy. Indeed this love affair had been going on for quite some time already, at least since the young Robert Crawley, Earl of Downton (Hugh Bonneville) hooked up with a Cincinnati dry-goods heiress (Elizabeth McGovern) in 1888, much to his mother’s horror.
Could it be that Downton Abbey is even more popular over there than it is over here? US celebrity fans range from former FLOTUS Michelle Obama (the White House reportedly requested third series previews on her behalf) to self-professed “Abbey-head” Sean “Diddy” Combs, while the third season finale was the highest-rated show on US television. So never mind what went down in 1773, the only tea parties we want to talk about are the ones catered by Mrs Patmore.
A suitable match
If you though Olivia Colman as a mid-life HRH was casting perfection, wait until you see who The Crown have got playing the star-crossed Charles and Camilla. Josh O’Connor combines heart-throb credentials (God’s Own Country, The Durrells) with appropriately sized ears as the student prince, while Call The Midwife’s plummy Emerald Fennell believes she was born to play the eventual Duchess of Cornwall, commenting, “I absolutely love Camilla and am very grateful that my teenage years have well prepared me for playing a chain-smoking serial snogger with a pudding bowl haircut.”
You might have assumed that Fellowes married off Downton’s last eligible debutantes in the 2015 Christmas special, but you’d be forgetting Branson, the Irish Republican widower of Lady Sybil, and newly installed head butler Thomas Barrow. What was the Twenties Yorkshire equivalent of Tinder, then?
Contrary to the traditional complaint, you absolutely can get the staff these days, especially if the job involves portraying supporting characters in British period dramas. Lady Rose was never the sort to look down on the lower orders but it appears actress Lily James is now too grand for her old Downton chums. She’s the only member of the TV series main cast who won’t be returning for the film.
Even Matthew Goode is squeezing in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo as Henry Talbot, Lady Mary’s husband. The re-casting of his Lord Snowdon role on The Crown (Ben Daniels) must have freed up his schedule.
Bafta-winner Jason Watkins will be joining The Crown as Harold Wilson, helping to explore one of the season’s major plot strands, the Queen’s
relationship with her rumoured favourite PM and while Gillian Anderson won’t turn up until season four, she’s sure to make a fascinating and formidable Margaret Thatcher. Game of Thrones’s Charles Dance is another addition, as Lord Mountbatten. Will he be bringing a touch of Tywin Lannister to Prince Charles’s favourite great-uncle?
The Crown Season 3 begins on Netflix on November 17 and Downton Abbey is released in cinemas on Friday