Monday, November 8, 2010

The twilight of wonders: Downton Abbey is gone...

This morning The Times devoted practically an entire news page to the first season finale of Downton Abbey. A cursory glance at the papers chosen my the other people pressed damply into the same train as me this morning suggests that other dailies have given similar coverage.

I’m a bit sketchy on whether there has been much real news this week. My primary news sources, John Humphrys and Evan Davis, have spent the past few days warming their hands at a brazier outside Broadcasting House and yelling “scab!” at Sandi Toksvig as she scuttles in to present the News Quiz.

Nevertheless, even if not much apart from the odd hurricane, cholera outbreak and Twitterati hissyfit has occurred, a fluffy Sunday night TV drama has to be doing something special to make the news, rather than telly, pages.

The best Sunday night TV is generally a big moving postcard. Picturesque views and unchallenging plotlines have been the foundation for shows as diverse as Heartbeat and The Royal.

But Downton, I’d suggest, has a wider and slightly more upmarket fanbase than ITV’s other ‘Ovaltine for the eyes’ efforts.

So what is Downton doing right?

The setting
Not so much Highclere, which plays the part of Downton as well as any really bloody big posh house could, but the era.

Downton Abbey offered a crash course in the modern world: set in that brief flowering of Edwardian England before the Great War came along and spoiled everything iT started with the sinking of the Titanic, touched on the Suffragettes and early cars and telephones before leaving us poised on the brink of World War One.

The characters
Much of the comment about this show has focused on Dame Maggie Smith's waspish Dowager with her secret heart of gold. There really was something for everyone here though.

All but two of the characters had some redeeming quality. Hugh Bonneville was improbably decent as the noble paterfamilias and Elizabeth McGovern was, unlike the few real-life American heiresses I have encountered, a fine blend of dewy-eyed humility and residual fruitiness.

Their eldest daughter Mary, around whom much of the main plot revolved, was blessed with a Fatal Fanny™ that could take down a Turk almost immediately. That's going to capture anyone's interest.

Next in line Edith was understandably bitter about having failed to inherit her mother’s ravishing looks and consequently dispatched a poison pen message about the Venomous Vagina®. A trifle disloyal you might think but who among us would act differently if we were the slightly dim-looking ginger one between two porcelain-skinned Edwardian hotties?

The third sister, Lady Sybil seemed a little unnecessary in pure plot terms most of the time. She had inherited and amplified her father’s slightly anachronistic social conscience which she demonstrated by getting knocked over at political meetings and helping the domestic staff find less secure employment.

Other than that, and one memorable moment when she came down for dinner dressed in an Erté-inspired clown outfit it’s hard to know what she was for. One for the Dads, though.

Star of the show though was the astoundingly venal Thomas. A real moustache-twirling villain of the old school. albeit, like practically every other chap in the series, without a moustache. Bit of an oversight that. A quick look at any photographs of the period will tell you that it was Movember all year round in those days.

You could tell Thomas was trouble because he smoked. I’m not especially up on Edwardian customs regarding smoking but given how fond our early 20th Century cousins were of wearing special smoking jackets I’m assuming that they were fairly keen on the old gaspers.

Thomas smoked with enthusiasm and passion. He was also strangely considerate, always popping outside for his nicotine fix in a way that modern smokers will immediately recognise. Although I’d suspect the smokers of 1913 might not. His ambition to become Hugh Bonneville’s valet drove him to ever-more dastardly schemes against the suicidally-honourable Bates but by the end of the series all he had achieved was a front-row seat at the most destructive war the world had ever seen.

“There’s a war coming, and war means change” he averred to his accomplice/fellow-smoker/surrogate mother O’Brien. How he worked that out, given that any wars through which his character could have lived had barely touched the intensely stratified society he inhabited, is not for us to know.

All we need to know is this: Upstairs Downton will be back next year. I’m rather hoping it will skip the ghastly unpleasantness of 1914-1918 and will concentrate principally on Bertie Wooster types and flappers passing each other the naughty salt.

Whatever happens, we’ll be watching.


  1. GAH! This just brought back the memories I'd been desperately being trying to suppress of an article in last week's Stylist, about this "new phenomenon" of how popular costume dramas are. Really? It only mentioned Pride and Predudice in passing, presumably because the fact that most 20-somethings and up still rave about it now would completely contradict what it was saying.

    Sadly, the piece doesn't appear to be on the Stylist site, but this sentence is, which just made me scream with laughter: "Got withdrawal symptoms from Downton Abbey, which climaxed tearfully last night?"

  2. I've become addicted to Downton Abbey, so much so that I can't stand all the nitpicking around it: not realistic enough in period details, shocking familiarity between upstairs and downstairs, blah blah blah. You've got to tell me that it's one thousand times better than watching yet another reality show or something after which you have to phone in to vote for the least annoying celebrity.

    Although I did think some of the plot developments in the last one were a bit beyond, I can't wait for next season. I'm hoping the Dowager Countess gets a bit more bitchy and Mary gets her comeuppance.