First Night

Preview: Downton Abbey, Series 4 - Sparks fly as Julian Fellowes' global phenomenon enters Roaring Twenties

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When the widow Lady Mary examines the prospects for her younger sister's latest suitor, in the opening episode of Downton Abbey's fourth series, she sighs: "He's not bad looking and he's still alive, which puts him two steps ahead of most men of our generation."

It's an apt observation. Not only is Michelle Dockery's character grieving the loss of her true love, Matthew, in a fatal car crash prompted by actor Dan Stevens' desire to leave the show, but the rate of attrition at Downton will soon leave the Earl of Grantham free to claim a single resident's discount on the estate's council tax.

Matthew's demise, following the death of Lady Sybil, has sunk the whole household into a funk. But the ITV drama is now much more than a series - it's a global phenomenon with 120 million viewers and 39 Emmy nominations in the bag, so writer Julian Fellowes doesnt allow the depressive mood to linger.

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Downton has entered the Roaring Twenties. Following the depredations of the Great War and its aftermath, a little hedonism has been allowed to creep in.

New arrivals include a dangerously charming American jazz singer. Lady Mary is invited to remove her black widow's gown by three handsome suitors. An unexpected cameo by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, singing for her supper as the real-life Dame Nellie Melba, adds to the giddy atmosphere.

The producers adopt an "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mantra. Dame Maggie Smith, up for a hat-trick of Emmys next month, continues to deliver imperious put-downs as the Dowager Countess.

Plotlines are elaborated with Fellowes' ruthless, if formulaic, efficiency. The exposition-heavy dialogue steadfastly refuses to sing, the direction is stolid and most viewers will spot the story "twists" several scenes ahead.

One new arrival does cause sparks to fly. An electric mixer, a discovery introduced into the kitchen by assistance cook Daisy, has Mrs Patmore in a tizzy as she forsees how mechanised tools will removing her dominion over mealtimes.

Introducing the episode at a London screening, Steve November, ITV director of drama, said the broadcaster was now entering the "post-Downton era", causing palpitations for Gareth Neame, the series executive producer, who asked him if the phenomenon had just been very publicly cancelled.

He needn't have worried. Star actors may come and go but Downton - about to launch its own official fashion, beauty and homeware merchandise collection - is built on stronger economic foundations than the fading English aristocracy it depicts.

Downton Abbey returns on ITV next month

Matt Milne as Alfred, Ed Speleers as Jimmy, Jim Carter as Mr Carson and Rob James-Collier as Thomas. Matt Milne as Alfred, Ed Speleers as Jimmy, Jim Carter as Mr Carson and Rob James-Collier as Thomas.  

Gary Carr is Jack Ross. He joins in episode 4. Ross is a charming, suave and charismatic jazz singer from Chicago. He sings at the Lotus jazz club in London which is visited one night by Lady Mary, the vivacious Lady Rose, Branson and Lady Rosamund. Gary Carr is Jack Ross. He joins in episode 4

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith  

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