Every now and then, a costume drama comes along that’s so daringly unconventional as to make us re-examine our whole idea of what the form can achieve. ITV’s Doctor Thorne, though, isn’t one of them. Instead, Julian Fellowes’s adaptation of Anthony Trollope observes the usual rules with almost pathological fidelity. Extras dance gamely in ballrooms, scheming matriarchs stand in the way of sweet young lovers and characters express deep fury with the words, ‘Good day to you, madam.’ In the first scene, we even had a handy refresher on the genre’s use of hats as a social signifier. (Basically, toppers for the toffs, peaks for the proles.)
The title role is played by Tom Hollander, now in competition against himself on Sunday evenings, where his slightly odd turn as a gay henchman continues in BBC1’s The Night Manager. For ITV, he’s returned to more Rev-like form, with Thorne a decent bloke trying to do his best in a world far less nice than he is. He has, for example, acted as a father to the toothsome Mary, the illegitimate daughter of his late brother — a man attacked and accidently killed by a peak-capped prole 20 years before. Not only that, but he’s become a sort of friend and financial adviser to the prole in question, Roger Scatcherd. Having served ten years for manslaughter, Scatcherd is now a wealthy railway magnate, but still enough of a ruffian to spend his days swigging from a brandy bottle while cackling.
In his spare time, Thorne is also trying to help his neighbours, the Greshams, whose large estate is now mostly in hock to Scatcherd and who therefore need their children to marry money. Unfortunately, their son and heir Frank is in love with Mary — a woman whose fondest wish is to be able to afford a bonnet.