The Weekend's TV: Downton Abbey, Sun, ITV1
The First World War from Above, Sun, BBC1

The Downton decree: do mention the war

I love the way historical events leave their mark on Downton Abbey.

Imagine a mud-wrestler coming straight from a bout to rummage through the racks in a bridal shop and you'll have a rough image for the subtle and virtually undetectable way in which world events are interwoven with goings-on at the big house. Take the opening of last night's episode – the last of the current series. Gratefully returning to Downton after the London season, Lord Grantham was anxious to know what the local gossip was. "The main topic here is the murder of the Austrian archduke," said Mr Carson. "Mmmm," replied his Lordship gravely, "I'm afraid we haven't heard the last of that." He was presumably aware, having read the script, that events in Sarajevo were going to crop up about every 20 minutes, just in case the audience forgot what was looming. A little later – justifying the audacious modernity of having a telephone installed – Lord Grantham cited the uncertainty of the times: "None of us know what the next few months will bring," he said sombrely. "Because of the Archduke's death?" replied Carson helpfully, understanding that it's crisis point and everyone must do their bit to mention the war.

This sort of thing is no problem for ironic fans of Downton Abbey, who relish its absurdities almost as much as they do its vicarious wallow in Edwardian grandeur. Given that it has an audience of over eight million people, it presumably must have some unironic fans too, though it's hard to imagine how they preserve their innocence in the teeth of the drama's wild improbabilities. This week, Lady Mary's little faux-pas in bonking a Turkish attaché to death during a Downton house party was still sending out ripples – her sourly envious sister, Edith, having grassed her up to the Turkish ambassador, who clearly felt that he wasn't required to be diplomatic about the shenanigans of the British upper classes. Lady Mary is now looking a little foxed as a marriage prospect ("After four seasons, one is less a debutant than a survivor," says her acidic Aunt Rosamund), though it doesn't seem to have deterred Matthew the Decent from pressing his suit.

Below stairs, Downton Abbey's equivalent of Dastardly and Muttley – Thomas the conniving footman and Miss O'Brien – continued to scheme to get poor, noble, mangled Mr Bates sacked from his position as valet. Sadly for them, even the revelation that Mr Bates had been cashiered for stealing the regimental silver didn't appear to seal the deal – partly because they hadn't taken into account the fact that they are working for the most saintly and forebearing toff in England. He held fire on Bates, convinced there was something a bit odd about his conviction and, rather than dismissing his purblind cook Mrs Patmore, sent her off to London to have her cataracts seen to, dispatching Anna along with her so that she could do a bit of amateur detective work about Mr Bates's past.

Meanwhile, Cora announced that she might be producing an heir after all, a development which threw everything into the air until O'Brien malevolently contrived to have her miscarry, after deploying that unfailingly dependable stratagem – leaving a bit of soap on the bathroom floor. The episode, and series one, concluded with a positive fiesta of solecisms – a chauffeur running hurriedly across the lawns to whisper excitedly in Lady Sybil's ear; a butler giving Lady Mary a consoling hug when he finds her weeping; a footman who is kept on despite being found ferreting around in the butler's wallet and who is then allowed to serve his Lordship's guests with a fresh black eye. Thank goodness for the arrival of a telegram, which drained the colour from Lord Grantham's face and led him to stop the string quartet in mid-bar: "I very much regret to announce that we are at war with Germany," he said. It's funny, but I had a kind of premonition that that might be coming.

Over on BBC, Fergal Keane had actually managed to turn up a fresh perspective on that terrible conflict in The First World War from Above, a programme that featured a recently unearthed French film, shot from an airship just after the end of the war. He'd also gone into the Imperial War Museum archives to look at the thousands of aerial photographs taken by the Royal Flying Corps – images which in some cases provided before and after evidence of the terrible impact of the bombardments. The aerial sections, including what looked like a very white-knuckled flight in a Bristol F2B fighter and a tour of battlefield sites in a modern airship, were freshly instructive about the scale of the destruction and the archive film was extraordinary. But, as is often the case, the details that stuck were those you encountered at ground level and through words – such as one soldier's description of the town of Passchendaele after it had been taken, a place where so many men had died that you could barely put a foot down without "standing on corruption". Keane concluded by visiting the daughter of the French airship pilot – who had eventually been tortured and murdered by the Germans in the Second World War. It seemed like an odd kind of wrong turning at first, a diversion into private biography after an account of cataclysmic history, but her reaction, seeing images that almost miraculously restored her father to a kind of life, was very moving. Her painful emotions stood as a kind of proxy for the millions of losses you'd been hearing about.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
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 timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?