Starring: Stephen Dillane, Lesley Manville, Hugh Bonneville
Long before Downton Abbey was so much as a glimmer in Julian Fellowes’ eye, there was The Cazalets. Based on the novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, this series charts the goings on of an extended family from 1937 into the early years of WWII – although their private lives are so complicated, it’s a wonder they even notice there’s a war on.
There are a few differences to Downton. For starters, the Cazalets are in trade, not aristos, and the storylines are a tad racier. Sister Rachel’s a closet lesbian, brother Edward (Stephen Dillane having a high old time) is a philandering cad. There’s bed-hopping, unwanted pregnancies, a bit of incest. But you get the same beguiling parade of pretty frocks, nice old cars and scrumptious-looking meals. The series captures the gossipy charm of the novels, flashing through the seasons in a stream of summer hols and Christmas festivities in the rambling family homestead.
It also features a clutch of good roles for women. Lesley Manville is at her brittle best as Edwards’ wife Villy, who takes to the sauce after finding herself stuck with an unwanted pregnancy as a result of Edward’s vigour in bed. Joanna Page is very endearing as Zoe, a shallow blonde who marries wet, ineffectual brother Rupe for his money – bad mistake, as he has his heart set on being a penniless painter – and then winds p being a war widow. And Emma Griffiths Malin has one of the best story arc as Louise, Edward’s daughter, who has to grow up suddenly when she discovers what a rotter her dad is.
Although it was only made in 2001, The Cazalets already shows its age slightly – some of the supporting players are a touch winsome, there’s a dull plot strand to do with a cousin who’s a conchie (he’s ever wetter than Rupe), and, at least on this slightly grainy DVD transfer, the series can’t match the high-def gloss of Downton Abbey. Most disappointingly of all, the saga comes to an abrupt stop after only six episodes, when it’s hardly had a chance to get going. All the same, Downton fans will love it and feel right at home – after all, you get Hugh Bonneville in an early rehearsal for his role as his Lordship, and there’s even a Labrador (well, a retriever)…