30 September, 2010

What the Papers Say: "Downton Abbey"



Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

"There's a shrill blast from a steam train's whistle, a puff of smoke, a name – Hugh Bonneville – across the screen. I think I know what kind of beast we're dealing with here. Ah, here's the magnificent gothic country pile, great fir trees, lawns, a gravel drive, kedgeree and ironed newspapers for breakfast, more big names – Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern. It is conceived and written by Julian "Gosford Park" Fellowes. Downton Abbey (ITV1, Sunday) is essentially Gosford Park, in instalments, for television.

It's set a little earlier – we start off in April 1912. The Titanic has just gone down, taking with her two male heirs to Lord Grantham's title and estate. Heir loss – it is a problem back then. Girls don't count for anything – can't even vote, let alone inherit property. A few other things haven't happened yet, some bad (world war), others wicked (jazz). It is, in a word, Edwardian, even though Edward VII himself went down a couple of years before.

Like Gosford Park, Downton Abbey is another study by Fellowes of the English class system. And again it's as complicated below stairs as it is above. The difference between a valet and a footman is as important as the difference between a duchess and a countess. Carson (Jim Carter) the toady butler, and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) the severe housekeeper, are at least as much in charge of the place as Lord and Lady Grantham (Bonneville and McGovern). Certainly they are more aware of what's going on; maybe they are better prepared for the change that's surely coming.

I can't get too excited about some of the class stuff. It's clearly important to them whether it's acceptable for a duke to be served by a maid (apparently not), but frankly I don't give a damn. Likewise about the entail – the complex legal settlement that determines who's entitled to whose money and which title when so-and-so dies. But it's central to what's going on. Still, it is possible to ignore a lot of that, because there's plenty of other stuff happening – warring sisters, scheming footmen, plotting, bitching, back-stabbing and bounty hunting. There's even a gay duke and an upstairs-downstairs relationship (does social position determine sexual position, I wonder?). And hanging over it all is the feeling that things aren't going to be as they are for much longer. Momentous stuff is going to happen, both in Downton Abbey and the world outside.

It's beautifully made – handsome, artfully crafted and acted. Smith, who plays the formidable and disdainful Dowager Countess (whatever one of those is), has a lovely way of delivering words, always spaced to perfection. This is going to be a treat if you like a lavish period drama of a Sunday evening. Is it really on ITV1? It feels just a little bit too, well, classy."

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Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent

"According to Stephen Hawking's Universe, time travel into the past simply isn't possible, though any television commissioner knows it can be done, if you're prepared to spend enough money.

Cough up for the steam train pulling into a rural halt, the vintage Roller and the telegram boy's uniform and before you know it, it's April 1912. And from the very beginning of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes' new upstairs-downstairs drama for ITV, we know that something momentous is heading towards the big house. The postmistress draws in a sharp breath and the second footman – ironing the morning papers so that his Lordship won't sully his fingers with smudgy ink – is having trouble believing the banner headline. The Titanic has gone down – a general tragedy that becomes sharply particular when his Lordship discovers that his careful arrangements to keep the estate in the family have just been holed below the waterline. His nominated heir and the son who was about to marry into the family are among the missing. "It's such a shame," says a tweeny. "It's worse than a shame," replies the housekeeper. "It's a complication."

It's a bit of a Titanic itself, Downton Abbey – glossy, ostentatiously luxurious and boasting a glittering passenger list of upmarket acting talent. It's also very far from unsinkable, though it's too early to say whether the commissioning editors are going to regret their investment. They certainly know that the essential design is seaworthy – because of the success of Upstairs, Downstairs – and they've employed a designer with an established track record to tweak it for contemporary tastes – Julian Fellowes, who won a scriptwriting Oscar for Gosford Park, the Robert Altman film about a murder investigation in a Thirties country house. Unfortunately, they haven't quite realised that with drama it may actually be the over-zealous safety measures that send the vessel down.

Take marmalade as a case in point. In Gosford Park, Maggie Smith (playing exactly the kind of fearsome dowager she reprieves here) had a fine moment when she lifted a jar up for inspection at breakfast and uttered the withering line: "Bought marmalade? Oh dear, I call that very feeble." Behind that remark lay a whole stack of social assumptions, none of which was explained. You just had to work it out for yourself. In Downton Abbey, on the other hand, no such chances are taken. It's full of people asking helpful questions so that oddities can be clarified (the reason for ironing the morning papers, for example) and the plotting is equally semaphored, sometimes to a risible extent. The scene in which the cook set up a potentially fatal confusion between brass polish and chopped egg for the kedgeree was unfortunately reminiscent of that Mitchell and Webb sketch about the laborious mishaps in bad sitcoms.

It doesn't have to be another Gosford Park to work, of course – and there are plenty of things to enjoy here – not least Downton Abbey itself (played here by Highclere Castle in Berkshire). Brian Percival, the director, showed off nicely at the beginning with a long tracking shot through the downstairs rooms, flitting from flunky to flunky as the vast machine of an Edwardian aristocrat seat cranked itself into operation for the new day. And there is promise in the scenes between Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the Earl's rich American wife, and Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, women who have little in common but their strong aversion to handing the family fortune over to a stranger from – they can hardly bring themselves to utter the word – Manchester.

It's possible that some of the faults of the first episode – the melodramatic simplicity of the antagonisms and the crudity of the characterisation, with its hissable villains and vulnerable heroes, were symptoms of opening-night nerves, a clumsy anxiety to get the audience on board. Possible too that the narrative loops that Fellowes already has in place – romantic longings and romantic possibilities – will tighten around an audience so that they can't wriggle free. But on this evidence, ITV will have to keep their fingers crossed for a bit longer yet. One signal difference between Downton Abbey and the Titanic is that there's no shortage of lifeboats available for those who want to abandon ship, and it can be done at the push of a button"

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Class and calamity at Julian Fellowes's Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: behind the scenes

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Official site




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