Shiny Shelf

Downton Abbey

By Eddie Robson on 07 November 2011

After the second episode of the second series of Downton Abbey, some viewers complained that the show was moving too quickly. The narrative jumped five months, going from November 1916 to April 1917, and many were wrong-footed by the rush of time. Yet people seemed to think this was somehow different from the first series. In fact, there was an identical gap between the first two episodes of the first series: it’s just that nobody noticed because the first series didn’t have captions telling you the date at the start of each episode.

In fact, at the end of the first series I said (not on here, just out loud to my wife) that I wished there had been such captions. It began with the sinking of the Titanic (1912) and ended with Britain entering the First World War (you know when that was, yes? Well, just in case: 1914). It wasn’t until the penultimate episode that I realised the war was imminent, because I thought the series had only covered a few months. I didn’t notice any indicators that more time was supposed to have passed, and it felt like the characters’ story covered less than a couple of years.

Presumably I wasn’t the only person who went ‘Wuh?’ at that point because they have slapped those date captions on the second series. However, watching the second series in the knowledge that it spans a three-year period hasn’t made it feel like three years’ worth of events in the characters’ lives. We’re now seven years on from when we met these characters, and to be fair they have all changed in that time, but strangely they don’t feel older. Which is partly because they don’t look older, to be fair – but it does feel like the only reason the series is moving so fast is because writer Julian Fellowes wants to make use of historical events from the period and so he keeps bumping the timeframe up so that he can get to the next one. This makes the plotting feel artificial. Downton is mostly concerned with its multiple ongoing storylines, and the way the series is plotted makes it feel like the household has about three really eventful weeks every year, where lots of things occur simultaneously for no reason, and then sod all happens for months in between.

This has been true of both series, but not only has the second series stretched the timeframe further, it’s tried to do more and lost focus in the process. The first series had a clearer sense of purpose, revolving around the problem of succession. This series has had more characters and more disparate storylines, with certain characters doing dramatic things seemingly because they have nothing better to do (Lord Grantham’s tentative affair, an expression of how useless he’s felt during the war, is especially unconvincing). And even with the extra running time, it has frequently resorted to perfunctory set-ups. Plot developments practically arrive at Downton via telegram, to be read out to the family over dinner. The death of Bates’ wife was signalled four times in episode six. The first signal – Bates’ offhand comment that he wished she was dead – made it clear that (a) she would die imminently, (b) Bates would be arrested for her murder, (c) he would be innocent precisely because the circumstantial evidence is stacked against him. The last part of that hasn’t even happened yet but I’m confident it’s what’ll happen.

That said, the ratings have been even better than the first series, which suggests it does its job. It’s still very nicely made, and performed by excellent actors wearing beautiful clothes. Arguably the Sunday night ITV audience doesn’t want to be surprised. However, to claim that Downton sits alongside previous ITV drama highlights like Brideshead Revisited, or that ITV is beating the BBC at its own game, gives it far too much credit.

Buy the second series of Downton Abbey at Amazon.

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By Eddie Robson

3 Responses

  1. Jonn says:

    Last night a character who had become a plot inconvenience said she felt as if she was in the way, and swiftly expired.

    It’s far more entertaining if you’re looking out for these subtle hints in advance.

  2. David Bishop says:

    Series 2, episode 7 [set in 1919] had Lady Sybil announce she was 21 and could marry whomever she wanted. Does that mean she was meant to be 14 in the first episode, explicitly set in 1912? This means UNIT dating in old school Doctor Who look positively sensible. What an absolute shower!

    Annoyed but nowhere near Tonbridge Wells,


  3. Joff Brown says:

    Yah. I totally agree with your observations there. The element that tends to drag me out is the slightly sloppy use of English – it’s not so much that individual words are 100% wrong (well, mostly), as the tenor of the speech. It always takes me out of the action a bit. I think it’s really the thought-processes behind the words: these always seem rather banal and modern, as if Edwardian life was just like ours, with footmen instead of iPads.
    Oh, and Maggie Smith could have been the world’s most terrifying grandmother – the cruelest of tyrants, the Granny Weatherwax of dowagers, the last and doughtiest of the Old Guard – but instead she’s a sort of Statler and Waldorf to the main action, hardly interfering, occasionally quipping, and causing no trouble whatsoever. (I don’t think her character was written to be some kind of ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed’ mind-controlling mafia don, mind you, but I wish she had been. THEY SHOULD BE TERRIFIED OF HER!)
    And why did they neuter the brooding villain pair by not giving them anything to do? One of them actually got functional control of Downton and didn’t do anything evil; in fact, he seemed to do a pretty good job. Pah.
    I think it’s just a case of too many characters to keep on the boil, really. (It also felt like the plotlines didn’t intersect much – why was someone bringing a baby into a house full of deadly Spanish Flu?)