Are you following the world’s most watched aristocratic family? If you recall, they recently took into their ranks a member of the middle classes. The family, headed by a matriarch, is as dysfunctional as any other. But they do live in a palatial home and have a coterie of servants. Their sense of fashion is unerring. There are worries about the future and about inheritance. A boy, George, has been born. Downton Abbey — now a global phenomenon — caters to our insatiable curiosity about the royal family. The more we see of Queen Elizabeth, Charles, William and Kate at processions, and so forth, the more it leaves us wanting. How do these blue bloods actually live? Downton takes us there. The costume drama has been compared to Upstairs, Downstairs, even to Brideshead Revisited. But it’s actually The Windsors: Behind Closed Doors.
Wily ITV! Back when Downton first appeared on our screens — around the time the royal wedding was announced — the TV channel must have sensed the zeitgeist, the international appetite for a soapy series on the British nobility and its posse of plebs. As it is, the line between the actual royal family and its parallel Downton universe gets increasingly blurred: Flora Ogilvy, 45th in line to the throne, joins the cast this season. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and a jazz singer will also appear, in the manner of entertainers at the Royal Variety Performance. ‘Here’s the little prince, m’lady,’ said Nanny West, as she handed wee George to Lady Mary. Soon we’ll have Carson, Lord Grantham’s butler, attending to Prince Harry. So Downton lets the light in on the magic.
And what a disappointing light it was in the first episode of the new season. A flat fluorescent one that captured too much of the nitty-gritty. It seems the show has decided that, instead of drama, what we want is to know about the practical aspects of running an estate — the rent-raising, sheep-rearing and suchlike. The episode centred on Lady Mary mourning her dead husband, Matthew. But the scenes of her majestic grieving were weirdly interspersed with snippets of Lady Grantham gripped by the mundane anxiety of who would dress her now her maid had upped and left.
Plotlines hung on a matter of paperwork: Lord Grantham and son-in-law Tom discussed death duties, and the one-thirds, halves and five-sixths of property ownership. Carson, in between fretting about upholstery, junked a letter that was retrieved by housekeeper Hughes. Valentine’s Day brought us young people opening and closing envelopes. It’s like finally peeking into the Windsors’ drawing room to find Kate and William sorting their In and Out trays.
The dialogue was pedestrian: ‘We’d better get back or we’ll be late for lunch.’ ‘Shouldn’t you be at your office? Aunt Rosamund is sending her car.’ ‘Put his luncheon on a tray.’ ‘Is there any more gin, sir? We’re running rather low.’ The lines replaced actual action. People hovered in doorways, explaining what they’d done and were about to do, rather than actually doing them. ‘I was fast asleep before you came in and you were still sleeping when I left.’ ‘I’ve run a bath and dug out some clean clothes from the missionary barrel.’
The show was telling, not showing. This was painfully obvious in the scenes with Lady Edith and her writerly paramour, Michael Gregson. Gregson met Edith at King’s Cross station as a surprise. Burns the chauffeur appeared with the car, meaning she could give Gregson a lift. ‘Burns is here with the car,’ said Edith. ‘Can I give you a lift?’ Gregson declined. ‘I’ll take a taxi. It’s the opposite direction,’ he said, before heading in the opposite direction. Later, the couple entered the Criterion restaurant, which usefully bore the sign ‘Criterion’. ‘I love the Criterion,’ announced Edith. She felt so wild to be out with a man, drinking and dining in a smart London restaurant: ‘I feel so wild to be out with a man, drinking and dining in a smart London restaurant.’ Her married boho boyfriend said he’d studied the paperwork on citizenship and the legalese on divorce. He was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for love — to become German. ‘Kiss me,’ ordered Edith. He kissed her. And so on. A newfangled mixer turned up in the kitchens of Downton, but before we’d actually had any fun wondering what this could portend, cook Mrs Patmore had already informed us that this was a symbol of her fears about modernisation making her redundant.
Downton needs to whip up more action, if you ask me. Reams of description is a sign of a show losing its oomph. But what do I know? I’m just a writer, now running out of space. I am writing my last lines now, then I’ll leave. See? There I go.