Monday, November 5, 2012

Running the Estate on Empty

I've championed Downton Abbey on this blog and in real life to the very best of my ability but just as I needed to accept a few years back that the mighty The Simpsons just wasn't funny any more, it would seem churlish to deny any longer that Downton, which concluded its third series on ITV in the UK last night, has past the point of no return in terms of declining quality. It is increasingly being dismissed by other disillusioned Downtonians with terms such as "pure soap" and "Corrie with costumes." Period dramas are my bread and butter, dear reader, yet I do occasionally stray into other televisual territories (and not just The Simpsons either) and as I sat watching the extended final episode it occurred to me that Downton's problems lie much deeper than having the odd ludicrous storyline. Miss O Brien and Mr Barrow, for example, were once as thick as thieves and she is not altogether without a heart so during this season's campaign against him would she really have been as heartless and vindictive as she was and would the ever-efficient O Brien really have spent so many episodes arching her eyebrows before carrying out her nefarious plan? You wouldn't find such inconsistent characterisation and uneven pacing in the average episode of Coronation Street, I believe. And at least when soap opera characters have murder in mind they use picture frames and frying pans; they don't knead arsenic into pastry.

Series three did have its moments although they weren't those that had been heralded by the publicity people. New characters were basically rehashes of previous ones such as new footmen Alfred who was dopey but meant well (á la the late William) and Jimmy who was vain and had his eye to the main chance (á la his biggest fan Thomas). Shirley MacLaine acquitted herself well as Cora's mother Martha Levinson although her character as written by Julian Fellowes was never really a match for Maggie Smith's indomitable dowager. The wedding of Mary and Matthew was sweet but perfunctory and Fellowes seemed to struggle to know what to do with the newlyweds now that the will-they-won't-they conundrum has been resolved. And Downton was once more at risk of ruin until a series of unlikely incidents involving a will, a letter and Daisy meant that it wasn't anymore in surely the most irritating of this year's storylines. So people call Downton ridiculous and they have every right to although occasionally gold is struck and the viewers glimpse what the series could be if the storytelling wasn't so lazy and predictable. The standout episodes featured the untimely death of Lady Sybil during childbirth and her mother's struggle to come to terms with the tragedy and the part her husband unwittingly played in the sorry affair. The estrangement was subsequently wrapped up far too neatly and Lady Cora returned to simpering and telling O Brien that that was all for the moment, for shame.

If the stories had been more absorbing throughout the series, perhaps the politics of Downton Abbey would not be so worrying. As ever, unruly and ignorant working class characters who simply couldn't be reasoned with needed to be taken in hand by better-educated people with a greater social standing so that the best friend of the late Vera Bates was outsmarted by Lord Grantham's fancy-schmancy lawyer from London just as the Crawley family's connections got the better of Vera herself last series. And for all his abhorrence of the British aristocracy and his convictions that they were emblematic of the worst excesses of the oppressive empire, one-time rebel, now manager of the Downton Abbey estate Branson was wholeheartedly embracing life with the in-laws and excelling at cricket by last night's episode. Allen Leech as Branson did his best to make the contradictions of his character believable and indeed special mention must be given to Hugh Bonneville as well who, I calculated, is tasked with speaking more lines that nobody would ever say in real life ever than anybody else in the cast by a writer who is much more comfortable writing for mature ladies than men of any age. So what does the future hold? Ethel's off to live near her son, good for her. Can I come too, Ethel? I won't do a Mrs Crawley and mention your career as a prostitute at the drop of a hat. I promise. Please let me come. Unlucky-in-love Edith is about to embark on a storyline with a newspaper editor married to a lunatic (pictured with Edith above) that is so cliched I can't bare it. Please Ethel. I'm no Mrs Patmore but I know my way around a kitchen. Please. All the bright young things in the cast are going to do a Jessica Brown Findlay soon and be tempted by exciting and lucrative offers elsewhere and I doubt Maggie will hang around indefinitely either so there'll be little left before long. Please Ethel. For the love of God, let me come. Please.

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