First Night: Downton Abbey, ITV1 (4/5), 9pm
Spooks BBC1, 9pm (2/5)

One series showed its age – and it wasn't the period drama

The second series of Downton Abbey began with a bang – a shell exploding over a British trench as the gallant Matthew helped dimmer television viewers to understand dramatic contrast: "I think of my life at Downton and it feels like another world," he said, as the shrapnel spattered around him.

Several newspapers had suggested that 9pm last night marked the opening shot of similar attritional collision – with the first episode of the final series of Spooks going head to head against the return of ITV's country-house drama. "Clash of the Night," said the Radio Times, "Showdown!" shouted others. But, as is often the case with generals, headline writers were fighting the last war.

In an age of catch-up television and digital recorders, viewers aren't forced to choose between programmes, only which one they're going to watch first. And since Downton Abbey was longer by half an hour (leaving just enough time for Spooks to upload to iPlayer), it wasn't hard to work out which of the programmes will claim early victory when the overnights come in.

Downton Abbey had a following wind. Spooks is in its 10th series, while Downton Abbey returns to an audience still in the first flush of infatuation.

We know the characters fairly well and, after a lay-off, are eager for more. Julian Fellowes was savvy enough to ink in their profiles in this first episode, with lines reminding us of their essence. "Keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans that they will not beat us in the end," said Mr Carson as he checked silverware. It seemed unlikely that German agents would be monitoring fish knives at Downton for signs of crumbling morale, but that's Mr Carson; the done thing is his bulwark against chaos.

Fellowes' main task was to undo some of the knots that he had tied up in the last series.

Mr Bates limped out at the station to ask Anna to marry him – a sweet pay-off of long-deferred gratification. But then his villainous wife turned up, threatening to expose Lady Mary's fatal tryst with the Turkish diplomat unless he returned to her. Naturally Mr Bates – integrity in tails – cannot tell His Lordship why he's resigned, provoking an aristocratic hissy fit: "I cannot remember being more disappointed in any man," barked Lord Grantham, faced with the appalling prospect of doing up his own buttons.

Sly Thomas, who discovered the Medical Corps wasn't the cushy number he'd hoped for, deliberately copped a Blighty by holding a lighter over the trench. One assumes he'll soon be back at Downton helping O'Brien to torment new tweenie, Ethel. I don't think fans will have felt let down.

This week, John le Carré offered a disobliging four-letter review of Spooks, beginning with "C" and ending with "p". I wouldn't go that far, but I share his bafflement at the high regard this drama enjoys, given its disregard for the realities of intelligence work.

"There's no chance of identifying him at that distance," murmurs a member of a surveillance team, as they try to work out who's killed one of Harry's former agents. Oh, you naive boy. You've forgotten the Motion Analysis Filter, which can check every pedestrian inside a mile radius in a matter of seconds.

Maddeningly Spooks isn't even true to its own account of the world, let alone the one the rest of us inhabit. At one moment, a senior Russian minister was described as virtually unfollowable because of his wily knowledge of tradecraft. At the next, one of Harry's boys was sauntering past the boot of his car to clip on a tracker, in full view of the target and his security men.

The attempts to make it topical were not too persuasive, either. "Bin Laden's death wasn't quite the panacea we'd hoped for," said the Home Secretary. If you can suspend disbelief to the point where you can imagine a senior politician saying something so ingenuous, be my guest.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?