The nation loves Julian Fellowes' ambitious drama series, Downton Abbey. Yet all is not well down in the Yorkshire countryside. Jan Moir expressed it so well in her Daily Mail article this week that we couldn't resist borrowing it ...
Clunking cliches, panto villains, bonkers storylines ... lawks! My beloved Downton is losing the plot ...
By Jan Moir
There is a scene in the latest series of Downton Abbey where Violet, the Dowager Countess Grantham, tartly observes that, one way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story missing. As usual, the old dear is right. We all know what exactly she means; nudge, nudge, wink, wink, taps side of nose, mentioning no names but all beady eyes on the upstart, Miss Lavinia Swire. Not to mention the trembling Lady Mary, who still has that difficult, despoiling Turkish incident lurking in her own recent past. Not a delight. Not at all. Ahem.
Yet I can’t help thinking that over recent weeks, the same trenchant thought also applies to the entire second Downton Abbey series itself. For increasingly, the millions of viewers who love the series, turn on the television each Sunday night and also feel that half the story is missing.
For what in the name of starched camiknicks is actually going on in Downton Abbey? It is becoming impossible to keep pace with events. Who is he? Why is she in the kitchen? Where is the pet labrador? We may be barely out of the steam-age in Downton, but time flies at a supersonic pace around the stately home, events are telescoped and conflated, leaving only rattling teacups and confusion in their wake.
Not only is it already 1918, it is also episode five of series two. Yes, a great deal has happened since the Titanic went down in the very first episode, as indeed did pregnant Cora a few episodes later, slipping on the bar of soap placed in her way by the devious maid O’Brien.
Yes, it was pure soapotage. And from these two incidents — one of great historical significance and the other about some boat that crashed in the sea — an entire drama series has boomed and flourished.
Until now. Downton is still unmissable and pretty darned wonderful but ... the gaffes and inconsistencies are becoming impossible to ignore. Very little makes sense. For example, one minute, nascent land girl Lady Edith is seen smooching with the farmer, thighs braced against the tractor fender, head thrown back with sexual awakening, all reason flown out of the barn window. The next she is back at the breakfast table, meekly eating her boiled eggs, still a virgin, with no mention of Farmer Horny Hands ever again.
All manner of stuff such as this is going on. There is a new maid called Ethel, who was made pregnant by Major Bryant. Eh? Who are these people? In lickety-split time, Ethel had her baby, which is now growing like a genetically modified pumpkin. Next week it will be the size of a shed — and she still hasn’t spoken to the major about his little kiddy. Saintly Mrs Hughes has made overtures on Ethel’s behalf, but nothing has come of it. ‘The last thing I wish to be is rude,’ he told her. ‘But in this case, I really must be left to my own devices.’
There is also quite a lot of clunking dialogue, a new development from the smooth progression of the first Downton series. Quite often, the lines are actually more like semaphore signals than actual dialogue. For example, Sir Richard Carlisle, the newspaper magnate, is always striding around shouting: ‘I am a bold and modern man. Do you not like me, because I am a bold and modern man?’ And so on. Julian Fellowes, Downton’s creator, should just give him a sandwich board and be done with the shouting.
Meanwhile, Branson the chippy chauffeur — is there ever any other kind? — is really more of town crier than a character. His job is to nurse his grievances and his love for Lady Sybil, while shouting out world events to give background context to the Downton Abbey drama. ‘HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THE EASTER RISING?’ he will say, to uninterested Sybil. A little later something else stirs his communist soul. ‘HAVE YOU HEARD THE TSAR OF RUSSIA IS DEAD?’ he booms, or words to that effect.
And then, of course, there is the unlikely Earl of Grantham himself. As played by Hugh Bonneville, he’s more like a soft-hearted social worker who deals dope on the side, rather than a member of the aristocracy. The kindness and largesse he extends to his staff is surely an anachronism. So philanthropic!
Was it my imagination or was a lingering look across the coal scuttles exchanged between him and a new maid — another one! — this week. If so, that might take his lower order philanthropy to its logical conclusion. The beast.
Worst of all, perhaps, is that some of the villains have just become too ridiculously villainous. They are like stock characters in a pantomime. Oh no they’re not. Oh yes, I am afraid they are. O’Brien, in particular, is a terrible turn. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had a metal hook rather than a left hand, or that her downstairs collaborator Thomas had cloven feet.
And despite her entrenched wickedness, some of the things she does just do not make sense, even for such a bitter witch. Would she really have written a letter to Mr Bates’s wife, a letter that threatened to cause the destruction of the Crawley family, ruin their fortune and thus threaten her very own livelihood? For what purpose? It just doesn’t make sense.
It seemed as if even she was beginning to have second thoughts about it last week. ‘Oh, I wish I’d not written that letter to Bates’s wife,’ she cried, in another clunking Plot Alert semaphore aside.
Speaking of which, step forward the evil Mrs Vera Bates herself, fox furs swagged around her shoulders, now enmeshed in Blackmail Plot Part Two. The reasons why she hates her noble husband so much have never been fully explained, but so what. Mrs Bates popped up again this week, by walking straight into the Downton Abbey kitchen. How on earth did she get there? It’s not a branch of Boots, for God’s sake. It’s not the walk-in counter at Nandos. For a start, there is about a five-mile drive from the gates to the big house, yet Mrs Bates just appeared by the soup tureen, as if she had borrowed the teleportational machine from Star Trek to get there. Beam me up, Batesy. No sorry, wrong show.
Elsewhere, personalities slalom from nice to nasty and back again for no good reasons whatsoever. Characters old and new suddenly appear in scenes like jacks in the box. Important events clatter by like the destinations on a railway board. What? Who? Is Matthew still lost? No, here he is back from the trenches, stippled with mud and blood and conscious enough to spit out a good line about being an impotent cripple stinking of sick. Where’s the little stuffed wabbit Lady Mary gave him? Oh good, there it is.
In short order, Matthew then sends Lavinia packing because he could never be a proper husband to her, wink wink. Not until he makes a 100 per cent recovery in the middle of next week, of course.
In the meantime, I still love Downton Abbey. Of course I do! I adore the fact that a mysterious, scarred stranger appears next week and asks: ‘Don’t you recognise me?’ If you have to ask that question, the answer is no.
In the meantime, I do worry that Julian Fellowes is not as fearful of clichés as he should be — and is producing just a bit too much soapotage of his own.
The GOS says: I save most of my puzzlement for the character of Lady Cora.
She drifts around in a benign, new-age hippy haze most of the time, but seems able to snap out of it well enough when there are sick soldiers to be cared for and organised (only officers, of course). She cherishes her maid O'Brien, apparently unable to divine that the woman is patently an evil bitch who spends most of her time plotting, muttering malicious comments only just under her breath, and leaving bars of soap on the floor in the hope that her mistress will take a fall and kill herself.
I mean to say, surely even the most detached aristocrat could tell that someone whose eyes are that close together can't possibly be a good thing? For goodness' sake, the woman lurks, and all Lady Cora can do is smile her little secret, enigmatic smirk.
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