The Weekend's TV: Downton Abbey, Sun, ITV1
Stephen Hawking's Universe, Sat, Channel 4

Polished act from the aristocrats

According to Stephen Hawking's Universe, time travel into the past simply isn't possible, though any television commissioner knows it can be done, if you're prepared to spend enough money.

Cough up for the steam train pulling into a rural halt, the vintage Roller and the telegram boy's uniform and before you know it, it's April 1912. And from the very beginning of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes' new upstairs-downstairs drama for ITV, we know that something momentous is heading towards the big house. The postmistress draws in a sharp breath and the second footman – ironing the morning papers so that his Lordship won't sully his fingers with smudgy ink – is having trouble believing the banner headline. The Titanic has gone down – a general tragedy that becomes sharply particular when his Lordship discovers that his careful arrangements to keep the estate in the family have just been holed below the waterline. His nominated heir and the son who was about to marry into the family are among the missing. "It's such a shame," says a tweeny. "It's worse than a shame," replies the housekeeper. "It's a complication."

It's a bit of a Titanic itself, Downton Abbey – glossy, ostentatiously luxurious and boasting a glittering passenger list of upmarket acting talent. It's also very far from unsinkable, though it's too early to say whether the commissioning editors are going to regret their investment. They certainly know that the essential design is seaworthy – because of the success of Upstairs, Downstairs – and they've employed a designer with an established track record to tweak it for contemporary tastes – Julian Fellowes, who won a scriptwriting Oscar for Gosford Park, the Robert Altman film about a murder investigation in a Thirties country house. Unfortunately, they haven't quite realised that with drama it may actually be the over-zealous safety measures that send the vessel down.

Take marmalade as a case in point. In Gosford Park, Maggie Smith (playing exactly the kind of fearsome dowager she reprieves here) had a fine moment when she lifted a jar up for inspection at breakfast and uttered the withering line: "Bought marmalade? Oh dear, I call that very feeble." Behind that remark lay a whole stack of social assumptions, none of which was explained. You just had to work it out for yourself. In Downton Abbey, on the other hand, no such chances are taken. It's full of people asking helpful questions so that oddities can be clarified (the reason for ironing the morning papers, for example) and the plotting is equally semaphored, sometimes to a risible extent. The scene in which the cook set up a potentially fatal confusion between brass polish and chopped egg for the kedgeree was unfortunately reminiscent of that Mitchell and Webb sketch about the laborious mishaps in bad sitcoms.

It doesn't have to be another Gosford Park to work, of course – and there are plenty of things to enjoy here – not least Downton Abbey itself (played here by Highclere Castle in Berkshire). Brian Percival, the director, showed off nicely at the beginning with a long tracking shot through the downstairs rooms, flitting from flunky to flunky as the vast machine of an Edwardian aristocrat seat cranked itself into operation for the new day. And there is promise in the scenes between Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the Earl's rich American wife, and Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, women who have little in common but their strong aversion to handing the family fortune over to a stranger from – they can hardly bring themselves to utter the word – Manchester.

It's possible that some of the faults of the first episode – the melodramatic simplicity of the antagonisms and the crudity of the characterisation, with its hissable villains and vulnerable heroes, were symptoms of opening-night nerves, a clumsy anxiety to get the audience on board. Possible too that the narrative loops that Fellowes already has in place – romantic longings and romantic possibilities – will tighten around an audience so that they can't wriggle free. But on this evidence, ITV will have to keep their fingers crossed for a bit longer yet. One signal difference between Downton Abbey and the Titanic is that there's no shortage of lifeboats available for those who want to abandon ship, and it can be done at the push of a button.

There was a weird moment at the beginning of Stephen Hawking's Universe where he – or rather his voice synthesizer – said, "Check it out," a rather slangy invitation to spend just under an hour boggling your mind with speculations about time travel. "Let's indulge in a little science fiction for a moment," he said, which was a bit rich given that what followed was almost nothing but. I don't doubt, of course, that there are several blackboards' worth of scientific formulae to back up Professor Hawking's assertions, but even so their practical application seemed a bit of a stretch. If you want to travel into the future, for example, you can construct a railway circling the globe and then provide a train to run on it that will lap the world seven times a second. For those on board, time slows down (or is stretched out) so dramatically that after a week's travel they will emerge to find that the world has moved on a hundred years. The catch is that only one-way tickets are available. Once in the future your only option is to live there, or leap forward again. I think I'll get there the slow way.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits