‘I don’t suppose the war will leave any of us alone by the time it’s done,’ prophesied one of the characters in the new series of Downton Abbey. Oh, dear, I’m sure she’s right. So I wonder which will be the character who comes back with shellshock, which one with no legs, and which one a hero.
For the last, I’m guessing Matthew Crawley, the worthy but slightly dull heir to the worthy but slightly dull Earldom of Grantham. That would be nice: then, after many travails and obstacles, cold, aloof (but really quite hot) Lady Mary will get to realise in the final episode that, yes, of course, he was the man for her all along. At the big wedding the redoubtable Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) will say something very funny and acerbic. And everyone will laugh through their tears of joy and say how Sunday nights just won’t be the same without Downton.
In an alternative, bolder universe, it’s possible they’re showing a Downton which works out differently. Perhaps Crawley gets his penis shot off at Passchendaele, creating serious issues over the inheritance, till the handsome Irish chauffeur offers to stand in for his Lordship on the wedding night, causing serious ructions with Lady Sybil shortly before her hideous and moving death from a fever contracted from one of her patients. But not in this universe, I don’t think. And you can’t really blame Julian Fellowes for this. Comfort and predictability is what people want from their Sunday evening dramas.
Comfort and predictability is what they’re going to get — as you could tell from, say, the Somme scene where the stretcher-bearer is standing taking a breather and talking about how, if there’s a bullet with your name on it, there’s nothing you can do. ‘Oh, dear,’ you think. ‘Any second now he’s going to get shot in the —’ And bang, he’s just been shot through the head.
That particular black joke (repeated countless times in real combat, I’m sure) was done rather better by Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan where a GI removes his helmet to stare in amazement and gratitude at the hole made by the bullet which should have killed him but didn’t. Then gets shot dead by a more successful one.
He has got a lot to answer for, Steven Spielberg — raising the bar for on-screen combat scenes so high that almost everything thereafter (unless it’s one of his own series: Band of Brothers or Pacific) looks pallid and unconvincing. This was certainly the case with the war scenes in Downton. It just looks like a film set with actors scurrying around with mud on their face. There was never any real sense that this was hell on earth. It felt more like a slightly more eventful extension of Downton Abbey: ‘Mister Crawley will be taking tea in the Brown Explosion Room.’ ‘Very good, Carson.’
OK, so Spielberg had lots of money to spend. But surely Downton can’t be that poor after the success of the first series, especially now it’s such a hit in America, too? Maybe it was decided: ‘We’re a domestic drama, not a war drama, so we don’t need to go too far by the way of In Stahlgewittern verisimilitude.’ If so, I think this was a mistake. When Lady Mary asks Matthew Crawley over dinner what it’s like in France and he replies, with a frown, ‘I can’t say’, you really need to feel that this is because he has witnessed inexpressible horror; not — as you do — that the whole damned business is just far too tedious to relate.
But enough nitpicking. Or, actually, never enough nitpicking — for all the many joys offered by Downton, the opportunities it offers for nitpicking are the most pleasurable of all. Apparently, at one point Bates’s evil wife was heard to say ‘sorted’ instead of ‘sorted out’. That would have annoyed me if I’d noticed it: ‘sorted’ surely wasn’t used without ‘out’ until about the 1980s, in phrases like ‘sorted for Es and whizz’. I know they were doing ‘whizz’ in the trenches, but though MDMA had been synthesised by Merck as early as 1912, I don’t believe there are any recorded instances of people being loved up on Ecstasy during the Great War. If they had, the war might have ended a lot earlier than it did.
Anyway, I’m very glad Downton’s back. I’m not sure whether I shall keep on watching, on account of the fact that the wife considers it a waste of life and it’s very hard to keep up with TV series that your wife isn’t interested in. (Otherwise I’d be getting to watch a lot more zombie, sci-fi, vampire and war dramas than I actually do.) But I do hope everyone else will watch it, people on council estates, especially. As Britain goes to hell in a handcart, the knowledge that Downton imparts about how one ought properly to behave may be all that stands between us and the total collapse of civilisation. So, thanks for that, Julian Fellowes.