'Tis the season for a final cracker

Show of the week: Downton Abbey Christmas Special, Channel Seven, Sunday, 8.30pm

YES, it's Christmas in July, at least in Australia. Trees are being trimmed, festive foods prepared and gifts presented.

From Down Under, the idea of a snowy-cold Christmas, celebrated mid year, doesn't seem quite right, although we are used to it by now. So many shows imported from Britain and the US feature Yuletide specials that turn up at inappropriate times.

There's no tradition in this country of dedicated Christmas TV productions. It's summer and well beyond the ratings season, so the networks don't go to the effort and expense of showing us how, for example, the Rafter family or the Christies of Tricky Business might gather around the barbie, sizzling snags and downing cold ones as they negotiate their nagging issues.

The innovators at Working Dog - currently entertaining us with the three-minute amuse-bouche on Audrey's Kitchen - tried for years to get a Christmas Day event going on Channel Ten with special editions of The Panel, but it petered out.

In Britain, however, Christmas specials are a significant and well-established drawcard. The annual Doctor Who and EastEnders productions attract big audiences and, last year, this inaugural effort from the producers of Downton Abbey hooked a massive 20 million viewers.

And creator and writer Julian Fellowes didn't disappoint, serving up a meaty, action-packed feast. This movie-length production is no prettily decorated time-filler involving toasts, carolling and lashings of good cheer. Instead, it determinedly advances the posh soap's busy plot and ties up some of the threads left dangling at the end of the drama's second season.

A postwar Christmas Day in 1919 is followed by a shooting party and a servants' ball in the new year for the Crawley family and their staff. Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wife, Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) have resumed their pre-war positions and are back in the swing of dressing for dinner, eating with guests and discreetly wooing eligible suitors.

Mary's prospect, newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glenn), is proving increasingly possessive and abrasive. It appears that the middle-class nouveau riche, no matter how riche, can't seem to cotton on to the genteel customs of the upper class.

There's also a suitor for Robert's sister, Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond), in the dapper but dubious form of Lord Hepworth (Nigel Havers). The Crawley's youngest daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), is absent, having departed the family pile for Ireland with her new husband, formerly the family chauffeur. However, there is a letter bearing important news.

Downstairs, the obstacle-plagued affair between upstanding valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) and stoic ladies' maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) hits a fresh hurdle as Bates faces trial for the murder of his malevolent former wife. But wait, there's more: an Ouija board is exhumed, whiny maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) gets a little defiant, and there's an incident involving the Earl's labrador, Isis, in which the scheming footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) has a hand.

Through it all, the redoubtable Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) narrowly eyes everyone from behind her china teacup and steals the best lines. The special features a big role for parental advice, with both the Earl and Matthew's often annoying and meddlesome mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), stepping in at critical moments with constructive counsel for their elegantly flailing offspring. Even Daisy's wise and benevolent father-in-law provides valuable guidance for the easily swayed maid who's frequently so silly that you just want to echo the cook, Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and sternly send her back to her duties.

This handsomely wrapped and satisfying festive-season treat might appear at the wrong time of year here, but it will keep Downtown fans happy all the way to its snowflake-sprinkled final scene. And devotees of the series be advised: if you haven't already seen it via DVD, you really do need to if you intend to proceed to season three.

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