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Downton Abbey return attracts audience of nine million

image captionDownton Abbey is in the running for 16 Primetime Emmy Awards this weekend

The return of hit costume drama Downton Abbey was watched by an average of nine million people.

The extended opening episode of the third series attracted a 36% share of the total Sunday night audience.

Featuring the arrival of Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine as the Downton ladies' American grandmother, figures for the ITV1 programme peaked at 9.3 million five minutes into the show.

The weekend's second edition of The X Factor averaged 9.7 million viewers.

The talent show's final instalment of auditions, before the action moves to bootcamp next weekend, beat Saturday night's average audience of 9 million.

Airing just before Downton Abbey, Sunday's X Factor audience peaked at 10.8 million, giving the show its best figures of the year so far.

Downton Abbey's second series opener in September 2011 achieved the slightly higher average audience of 9.3 million.

media captionBBC News spoke to members of the cast about their successes in the US

Last year's festive special attracted the biggest audience on Christmas Day, with 11.59 million viewers beating EastEnders' figure of 11.33 million.

Critics gave the return of the show, written by Julian Fellowes and starring Hugh Bonneville, overwhelmingly favourable reviews.

"This felt like a programme back to its best, the one we fell in love with back in 2010. " said The Telegraph.

"The script was tight; the detail was there."

The review also paid tribute to the "Hollywood glamour" MacLaine brought to the role of Cora's mother, as "a masterclass in how to command an audience".

After series two left some critics and fans disappointed, The Mirror said the show was "back on form".

It also claimed the tension between MacLaine's character Martha and the Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith, "has all the potential to be the early 20th Century equivalent of Alexis and Krystle from Dynasty wrestling in a fountain.

"Just as long as they're in full, fur-coated regalia while they do it, we can die happy," it continued.

'Blissfully undemanding'

Giving the episode four stars out of a possible five, The Times asked the question: "Which heart does not guiltily swell at the return of this blissfully undemanding nonsense?"

After Lady Mary and cousin Matthew's troubled and two series-long courtship, the episode begins with wedding preparations, which The Huffington Post was glad to report did not run smoothly after having the "potential to be a bit sugarly boring".

"They spiced things up with enough flirty chat to make a viewer blush, and a nice bit of pre-wedding conflict over yet another surprise fortune for Matthew," it wrote.

"He's lucky, that one, never seems to walk out of his front door without banging into a bag of surprise bequeathed booty."

The Guardian picked up on "a theme of disappointment", adding: "It's seductive, because it's so well done, but you never really get the sense that it's going anywhere, or telling you anything."

It claimed the real winner was BBC Two period drama Parade's End, "which looks even classier, and whose conclusion on Friday I'm now looking forward to even more".

This Sunday, 23 September, sees Downton Abbey in the running for several Primetime Emmy Awards in the US. It won two prizes at the Creative Emmys - which reward behind-the-scenes talent - this weekend.

It will battle Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire for the big prize of best drama.

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