Sorry not to have updated this blog lately, but I’ve been busy at work once again! Anyway, this is really to say that I’m still here, and have been enjoying the latest smash hit costume drama, Downton Abbey. It has been drawing audiences of around 11 million in England and Wales alone, after the controversial decision by STV not to screen the show in Scotland.
It’s odd now to think that about a year ago it was being predicted that costume drama would disappear from British TV, and from ITV in particular, as a result of budget constraints. Sadly, it does still seem that TV adaptations of older literary classics are an endangered species, with very few such productions planned in the near future – the BBC is working on The Sisters, based on DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, and a new version of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, with a script by Andrew Davies, and that’s about it at the moment. I thought someone was bound to commission a major Dickens adaptation for 2012 to tie in with his bicentenary, but have heard nothing on that front yet – though I’m hoping! (A Tale of Two Cities would probably be my choice, if anyone is wondering.)
However, while Dickens, Austen etc may have disappeared from our TV schedules for the time being, there have been plenty of original new costume dramas in recent months - with the most successful of the bunch undoubtedly being Downton Abbey, a family saga set above and below stairs in an Edwardian country house, scripted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park fame. The show has come in for a fair amount of adverse criticism, some of it for soapy storylines, but some also centred on incredibly minor things like a double yellow line apparently being seen for a millisecond in one episode! However, the series continued to draw an enormous audience and a second season has now been commissioned.
To be honest, I think I’d have to watch the whole mini-series again to begin to write a proper review, and I’m not sure I’ll have the time to do that at the moment. However, I do want to say that the whole cast did a great job, from Dame Maggie Smith as the impossibly superior Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham to Hugh Bonneville as her son, the Earl of Grantham, Elizabeth McGovern as his American wife, Cora, Michelle Dockery as their eldest daughter, Lady Mary, Dan Stevens as the heir to the estate, cousin Matthew Crawley and Penelope Wilton as his mother, who soon becomes Violet’s main rival.
Below stairs, everybody’s favourite is Brendan Coyle as John Bates, the valet with a bad leg as the result of a war wound, but Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter are great too as housekeeper Mrs Hughes and butler Mr Carson. I’d like more explanation about the motivation of the two scheming villains below stairs, footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and his partner in crime, ladies’ maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), who are both unreasonably determined to get Bates the sack – but maybe more explanations will come in the second season, and the performances of both are excellent anyway.
A central plot element, with the estate looking set to go to a cousin because of an entail which means the family’s daughters can’t inherit, is similar to the initial set-up of Pride and Prejudice, as other commentators have pointed out. There have also been similarities with other works mentioned in the press, such as an incident at a flower show which is similar to a scene in the movie of Mrs Miniver. However, what really struck me was not so much these similarities as the differences from classic adaptations – because, with no novel to refer back to, Fellowes is able to create his own story and explore whatever interests him, in particular putting a far greater focus on the lives of the servants than most 19th or early 20th-century novels would. It does sometimes seem as if the relationships between the classes are freer and easier in this series than would actually have been the case, for instance with the aristocratic family taking an interest in one of the housemaids who wants to train as a secretary – but there are still moments when the social gulf between the classes is seen all too clearly, most of all at points when any of the servants fear that they could be summarily dismissed.
The first series begins with the news of the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the outbreak of the First World War, meaning the world of Downton Abbey will have changed dramatically by the time the second series begins, and it is likely that far more of the story will move outside the walls of the great house. I’m looking forward to it.
Just to add that I have cable TV and so was lucky enough to be able to see the series with no adverts via the “catch up” service – so it played seamlessly, like a BBC drama. I gather that many viewers were annoyed by having ads every few minutes, which broke the flow and kept on bringing them back to the present day with a bump. Anyway, if you were put off by all the ads, it might be worth giving it a second try on DVD.