Shiny Shelf


Downton Abbey

By Mags L Halliday on 06 October 2010

‘Downton Abbey’ is haunted by the past. Not within the drama, but at a meta level.

After years of ITV Drama relying on modern crime series and Agatha Christie adaptations, it’s about time they did a big costume drama series again.

ITV brought us ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘The Forsyte Saga’ and ‘The Grand’: they’ve got form. ‘Downton Abbey’ is the first attempt at large-scale original costume drama in a good while.

The Julian Fellowes’ script draws on the same tensions as ‘Gosford Park’, the beautiful swan of upper class life and the frantically pedaling legs of its servants that maintain that serene progress. An ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ dichotomy, if you will. The logo, with a sunlight house above and its murky reflection below, makes this clear.

There are two main problems: the size of the house and the stiffness of the characters. It’s never a good sign when you think all the characters sound like Julian Fellowes, even the tweenie.

The opening sequence, in which the camera picks up, follows and then discards servants as they prepare the house for the day is beautifully shot. In part this is purely because Highclere Castle, where much of the series was shot, is so sumptuous.

I should say “one of the opening sequences’ as ‘Downton Abbey’ also struggles with where to begin. It starts the house being prepared, the family waking and the news being heard that the Titanic has sunk, taking with it the fiancé of the eldest daughter (who also happened to be the heir to the estate). It’s a good start, dating the period precisely albeit with clumsy references to electricity and the like).

But then we start all over again, with the arrival of Bates, the Earl of Grantham’s new valet. This clumsily sets up the politics of downstairs rather than letting it emerge more organically. The butler is snobby and devoted to the house, the cook is buxom, the first housemaid is kind. Upstairs, meanwhile, Maggie Smith is producing a performance as the Dowager Duchess that is only a small handbag short of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell.

And, amongst these clichés of the genre, the first footman is a scheming gay. I’m really not sure whether that’s an indicator that it’s OK to have villains who also happen to be gay, or if it’s lazy stereotyping. In the context of the rest of the opening episode, I fear the latter.

And then there’s my second overall problem: the size of the house. It’s 1912. At that point a house the size of Downton Abbey would have had half a dozen tweenies not to mention proper kitchen maids and more than two footmen. The servants dining scene indicates Daisy is the only tweenie – it’s just not plausible. After the first World War, the number would have been drastically reduced, but not in 1912.

A TV series is naturally more limited in scale than a movie – the volumes of non-speaking extras is more restricted. ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ got around this by being set in a town house, not a great country house, so staff numbers would have been less.

‘Downtown Abbey’ tries to do ‘Gosford Park’ on an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ budget and it doesn’t always work.


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