Tuesday 15 March 2011

Carry on Upstairs Downstairs

Last September ITV, the commercial television company in England, began airing Downton Abbey, a new costume drama set in Edwardian England. It was successful enough to warrant a second series, which will be aired later this year.

I so wanted to see it, not just because I love historical dramas but also because the script was written by Julian Fellowes, the English actor, novelist and screen-writer responsible for Gosford Park, a wonderful movie that, amongst other things, explores class relations in the England of the 1930s in a splendidly comic light. Unfortunately I don’t have a telly in my rooms at college, so I missed the debut series. To make good I was given the DVD as a Christmas present.

Now, at last, I’ve seen it…and I rather wish I had not! What a disappointment it is, how ridiculous the script, how absurdly modern the view of Edwardian people and times. I could have excused it if it had the same comic overtones as Gosford Park, but it does not. Oh, sorry, that’s not quite true, because it worked for me on a level of pastiche, so much so that, at first reflection, I thought Fellowes might have written in an intentionally sardonic mood, laughing at those who take this kind of tosh seriously. Oh, yes, it’s tosh alright, a sort of Carry on Upstairs Downstairs

I’m not sure where to begin, so the butler might be the best place. Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the said butler, has a shady past: well, not really - he was once part of a music-hall double act, the Cheerful Charlies; that’s all. Butlers, of course, are the ultimate word in being a gentleman’s gentleman; so when Charles Griggs (Nicky Henson), the other Charlie, turns up he decides to be a right Charlie by attempting a spot of extortion, just to show that Charlie the Butler is no better than he ought to be. He finally enters the grand house, admitted by the front door (really?), wearing a crown derby hat, the sure sign of a cad (it helps to be able to read the signs!) Enter Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and lord of this absurd manor, who promptly pays off this Dick Dastardly! Why not just tell him to fuck off? I would not have been surprised if he had; it would have been quite in keeping with the tone being set!

Lord Grantham has daughters, three of them - Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Finlay). Unfortunately his male heir died in the sinking of the Titanic, an event with which Downton is ushered in, and as the girls can’t inherit the estate in their own right the best thing is to marry the eldest off to some wealthy husband. The duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox) is a possibility, so he is invited to trot along as a house guest. The problem is he is a bit of an Oscar Wilde in sexual preference, not only that but he immediately tries to seduce Thomas (William Mason), a footman. So, it’s bye, bye your gay grace!

Next one Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is found, a distant cousin who turns out to be a frightful middle-class prig, with his even more frightful do-gooding mother (Penelope Wilton), who clashes dreadfully with the old dowager countess (Maggie Smith). Not really the county set, don't ye know.

Poor Lady Mary, faced with the prospect of being married to this tiresome and earnest bore, has a bit of a fling when Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), a lusty Turkish diplomat, turns up in the house, and almost as promptly turns up in her bedroom. There, in the course of the night, the tupping Turk, obviously exhausted by his sexual exertions, shuffles off his mortal coil. Oh, I forgot to mention that he was helped to find the bedroom by a gay servant, one the duke obviously missed, who made the mistake of trying his chances.

Oh, what to do, what to do? Think of the scandal – a naked Turk, a naked dead Turk in her ladyship’s bed! Mummy (Elizabeth McGovern), an unflappable old brick, immediately comes to the rescue, and with the aid of Daisy (Sophie McShera), the scullery maid (the scullery maid!!), carries the said dead naked Turk back to his own bed. All are sworn to secrecy but, alas, Daisy later confides in Lady Edith, the jealous younger sister (what, no Turk?), who promptly writes to the Turkish ambassador, revealing all the facts, the sort of thing that Edwardian sisters did. Don’t worry; Mary gets her own back, putting the kibosh on Edith’s marriage prospects!

I could go on like this, go on about this risible commune, where the upstairs people are equally at home in downstairs worlds, but I’m getting bored with the whole silly farrago. Hugh Bonneville, whose performance is unbelievably wooden, was interviewed recently, saying that people enjoy the series because it reminds them of the simple values of ‘dignity’ and ‘mutual respect’ that used to exist in this country. Oh, not I, Hugh, you dear old thing; it reminds me of something else altogether, like slapstick and farce! No matter; seemingly American folk are also lapping it up, this tale of Never Never Land. :-)


  1. Based upon a recently discovered Marx Brothers script . . .

  2. This made me laugh out loud. Even on re-reading.

    I can't thank you profusely enough for your guidance through the social minefield that is repspectable English society. In particular, I shall be certain henceforth to look askance on anyone I have the misfortune to encounter wearing a crown derby hat.

    I don't have a telly either, but my prejudicial thought would be "if it's on ITV, it'll be not up to much...."

  3. Dominic, I am to please...well, sometimes. :-)

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  5. Rehan, I like Silk very much, any kind of legal soap really.