Monday, 23 April 2012


Me? Watch Downton Abbey? You're joking of course. I'm way too cool to watch some sentimental jingoist nostalgia-trip claptrap.

Regular readers of this blog (hi, you two) know my taste in film and TV: a large helping of cult movies, usually horror ( From Beyond, Evil Dead, Reanimator, Slime City Massacre, and their ilk), science fiction and fantasy taking up the rest: for TV you can add cult borderline-SF series like Chuck and Eureka; okay, I admit to like Rizzoli and Isles but that has a massive lesbian subtext and everyone knows what it's really about; then there's Castle which stars the legendary Nathan Fillion, a cult actor on the same level as Bruce Campbell; I admit to watching The Voice but that's just to keep my wife company -I have to spend some time with her- and at the weekend there were the two knockout shows where Susan and I said which one we thought should go through and found ourselves in agreement almost all the time which means she's either hipper than I realised or I'm not as... 

No, that isn't possible. Let's not go there. (Aside: Reading readers comments on a  piece about the show at a daily newspaper website -all right, it was the Daily Mail, usually a good site to arouse my socialist ire- where some of the readers were calling the judges useless because they didn't pick their favourites. Listen, idiots (that's them not you), these judges know a massive amount about singing and songs than the average punter does which is why they are the judges and you aren't and they can pick up on things, especially after having worked with the singers for hours, that the average punter can't. They may get it wrong, but it'll be for a good reason.) But anyway...

I must have been at a loose end, just not in the mood for any of the backlog of DVDs I have to watch; not even the X-Files Complete Box Set (but for the second movie) where I was up to Season 6 appealed; and lots of people and even respectable critics (i.e. not those who wrote for the tabloids) were saying how good it was and it was cheap and I could always sell it on, so...

I'd got up the the penultimate episode and had come to the conclusion that it was perfectly competent mainstream entertainment when something just clicked and, like Paul on the Road to Damascus and just as powerfully I'm sure, received the revelation that it was brilliant compelling television and one of the best things that ITV has shown in years. I knew then that I'd be ordering Series 2 and after that the Christmas special and indeed I did just that and now I'm counting the days (how long, lord, how long) until Series 3 graces our screens.

It's well made with the attention to detail being impressive. The various storylines are interesting. The magnificent cast create believable involving characters about whom you want to know what happens. Maggie Smith's Dowager gets the best lines and relishes every syllable to come out of her mouth. Joanne Froggat, as the lady's maid involved in a May-September romance with the dignified Valet who has secrets, confirms what I've thought for a while that she has the potential to be a character actress as good as Leslie Sharp and that's impressive.

It would be very easy to talk about the various subplots and the characters and go on and on but I'd rather take a broader view. While talking about the show with my brother in law yesterday, we agreed that one thing which was good about was that it portrayed the attitudes of the time accurately but without overlaying them with a patronising 21st century morality as, apparently, BBC revival of Upstairs Downstairs did (and badly as it's just been cancelled). It plays it as it was which is how it should be. We also agreed, as the discussion widened, that to do otherwise is as pointless as left-wing historians critiquing the British Empire for all its many sins. It was of its time and, for all the brutalities it committed, it was certainly better than the other European colonial powers -France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal. I was reminded of a question posed in Life of Brian: what have the Romans done for us? Apart from roads, aqueducts, etc came the answer. The British killed far less than the various indigenous inhabitants would have done to each other; abolished slavery; provided an industrial base, in particular railways which revolutionised India; established bureaucracy and a judicial system, etc. But I digress, again.

The timeline of the series is cleverly worked out by writer/creator Julian Fellowes, starting in 1912 with the aftermath of the Titanic sinking, here a harbinger of change, the First World War (Series 2), and the aftermath up to 1920. It's a period of great change in which people reassess their lives and their values, some voluntarily, others having it forced upon them. Two daughters of the house represent a paradigm of this. The eldest, unwisely, has sex with a charming handsome Turk, son of a diplomat, who has a heart attack in her bed and carried back to his own. A venal servant spreads the word which threatens her reputation and the secret must be protect at all costs. In other words, Victorian values of a world which is about to be changed. The middle daughter, meanwhile, trains as a nurse in order to perform a useful role in the Great War and falls in love with socialist and Irish chauffeur. Still scandalous but emblematic of the new order that is about to dawn.

There is much more besides. Yes, it is often overly sentimental and romantic and some of the characters tend toward caricature. But the series possesses a great charm and warmth, the result of a skilful script and fine acting. This is popular British drama at its best and I'm not too cool to say so.


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