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Acid reign

22 September 2012

9:00 AM

22 September 2012

9:00 AM

You won’t believe me when I tell you this but I swear it’s the truth: until this week, I had never watched Downton Abbey(Sunday, ITV). Some old-fashioned notion about not respecting myself the morning after? A curious primness preventing me from just gritting my teeth and getting it over with? Yes to both — and yes to a touch of anti-bandwagon mulishness (which has, no doubt, kept me from so many of life’s little treats).

My lack of experience might have counted against my enjoyment of Sunday night’s episode — the first of a third series — were it not for the skill of Julian Fellowes who, like the perfect host, makes it his business to welcome one and all to the party at whatever inconvenient time they might turn up expecting to be entertained. Late arrivals are not chastised for their rudeness or their poor timekeeping but are found a chair, introduced to everyone, put at their ease and made to feel at home. Within a few moments I felt as well acquainted with both upstairs and downstairs as if I had been visiting Downton Abbey all my life.

It was all so relaxing, in fact, that I nearly nodded off with my head in the soup. There wasn’t much going on, was there? A lot of discussion: things that had happened were talked about, usually at meals, and other meals were taken up by discussing what might happen in the future. The kitchen was more fun than the dining-room, as it usually is, because the servants had more to do, more to complain about and were allowed to move their arms and legs quite freely. The slick-haired valet and crotchety miss of a maid showed potential: he is scheming, she is resentful and both are overworked — their combined forces might start a revolution, or at least a storm in a teacup.

Upstairs it was really a question of waiting for the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) to say something — her acid drops of dialogue were proof that the air was breathable. Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), arriving from America with so much fanfare and luggage, turned out to have no more snap than a toothless Pomeranian but ‘Give her a chance!’ I hear you cry, so I will. The controversial ex-chauffeur was, in the event, something much worse than a traitor or a villain: a crashing bore. His drunkenness was explained by a Mickey Finn, but his insufferable self-regard had no such excuse. His fair-headed sister-in-law, Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), had a waspish air about her — she claimed to be bored by wedding talk, which gave me hope — but then an apologetic male crush panted into view and she completely took leave of her senses, wittering to her maid about a new hairstyle. As for Mary and Matthew, that romance has all the vivacity of wet cement. It’s clearly been going on much too long; what they need is a third party to spark things up. With any luck, by episode four Mary will be in the throes of a torrid affair (and, yes, of course I’ll still be watching in four weeks’ time: this is me enjoying myself).

Every period drama colours its own snapshot, and Downton Abbey has been tinted with a palette to suit our taste. What we expect to see is not what actually occurred in the spring of 1920, but what we require from an hour in front of the box on a Sunday night in 2012. Julian Fellowes has written the whole thing to please us; he has succeeded twice and will probably succeed again.

(If you have yet to watch the last episode of Parade’s End [Friday, BBC2], stop reading here.)

Eighteen months separate the final scenes of Parade’s End (which took place on Armistice Day in 1918) from the opening of Downton Abbey (‘Spring, 1920’), but it is the latter which showcases the more old-fashioned world, and the former that tackles the disappointments, muddy inconclusiveness, compromises and cruelties of a modern age. And yet: much to my surprise, Parade’s End — which I’ve never read — had the tied-up conclusion of a contemporary romance. Valentine Wannop (Adalaide Clemens), a bright-eyed suffragette no longer, played house with the man of her dreams, swapping her placard for a teapot and hosting a party at his flat. ‘[Tietjens] will make me his mistress…’ she had boasted to her mother. ‘He will keep some of his principles: he will not divorce his wife.’ Mrs Tietjens, however, had other plans: she would vacate her position, marry General Campion (the brilliant Roger Allam) and thus free up her husband to marry his mistress. A double union, at the end of this mighty, modern drama? I never would have predicted it.

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