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
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice