The centrepiece of the festive television schedule this year was period drama Downton Abbey, Richard Berry brings us his thoughts on the festive special.
A whole two hours was devoted to this year’s Downton Abbey, advert breaks and all. With The X Factor’s dominance apparently coming to an end as viewing figures dwindle and yet another Christmas number one goes begging, ITV has placed all of its eggs in Julian Fellowes’ basket. The pressure to deliver was on.
Usually the most interesting aspect of watching Downton Abbey is spotting which Upstairs, Downstairs storylines Fellowes has decided to lift this week. First we had the death of a family member on the Titanic, then a feminist daughter, a pregnant maid and an attack of Spanish flu. Each featured, also, in the 1970s master/servant drama that very much provides the template for Downton.
For the Christmas special, however, much more was expected. That expectation stemmed, in part, from the lacklustre way the second series of the show developed. Against the promising backdrop of the first world war, Downton struggled to rise above the level of soap opera, albeit a very expensively made one. The war itself made little impression on the show, except perhaps for the costume department. Almost every male character volunteered for the army, but somehow managed to spend most of the war in England – Lord Grantham had a domestic posting and Thomas a self-imposed injury, while Matthew and Wiliam were sent on a recruitment drive in the north, and were coveniently both wounded by the same shell having hardly stepped foot off the boat back in France.
It was hoped that the special could produce the missing excitement. It certainly should have, as the two main storylines from the previous series came to conclusions. In the first, elder daughter Mary and the would-be Earl Matthew finally got engaged – not so much a “will they/won’t they” as a “I wish they’d get on with it” romantic plot. Meanwhile, valet Bates was found guilty of murdering his wife, following some comically inept appearances in the witness box from his fellow Downton residents, each one of which seemed to add greater weight to the evidence against him. Not least Lord Grantham, who all-but admitted Bates had revealed his murderous plans to him one evening while helping him into a dinner jacket.
Both plots were letdowns. Bates’ initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment long before we had sight of the hangman’s noose. The pulse did race slightly when Matthew punched love rival Richard Carlisle in the face in defence of Mary’s honour. However, Fellowes’ caricature of Richard as the vulgar, ‘new money’ interloper has been so heavy-handed that he has started to win the audience’s sympathy, and it was disappointing to see him thwarted.
In any case, the chief reason given for Matthew and Mary’s estrangement has been so limp, it didn’t make for gripping viewing. Matthew’s former fiancée Livinia died in the aforementioned Spanish flu outbreak, and he felt it would offend her memory to now marry the woman she had always suspected Matthew really loved all along. That’s the thing – Matthew really did love Mary all along, and Livinia effectively told him to marry her with her last breath. The suggestion Matthew was going to deny himself happiness with Mary for such a strange reason was baffling.
Matthew’s stance reflects another major weakness of the show. People who lose a loved one may well feel a sense of guilt that induces such odd behaviour. But in all other respects Matthew is a sane, well-adjusted person, and his misplaced guilt should have been a fleeting phenomenon. In a normal soap opera, it would have been dealt with in a week. In Downton, we are supposed to believe Matthew maintained this act of self-denial for months since Livinia’s death. Here, the show suffers from Fellowes making another fluffed attempt to ape Upstairs, Downstairs, by setting each episode of the series many months apart. When Upstairs, Downstairs did this, the show created a genuine sense of time passing, of the world moving on. In contrast nothing ever happens at Downton Abbey in between episodes – the second series and subsequent special spanned three years, but felt much more like three weeks.
With the lack of intrigue in the two major storylines, it’s a wonder Fellowes managed to spin the episode out for a full two hours. He did it with a handful of inane minor plots. Kitchen maid Daisy continued to brood about having married William on his death bed despite not loving him – just as she had for the previous three episodes – and in the end decided to do not very much about it. Footman Thomas – who used to harbour ambitions of leaving Downton and leading the life of a master criminal – for some reason devoted the episode to an attempt to gain promotion to the post of valet, which mainly involved hiding a dog in a shed. Most pointlessly of all, Nigel Havers arrived at the house as suitor to Lord Grantham’s sister Rosamund, and was discovered getting it on with her maid – by which point I think even Rosamund had lost interest.
But none of this was as infuriating as what was not shown in the special. That is, Fellowes continued to indulge his habit of cutting away from the action on the verge of an important scene, and cut in again just as it concludes. He did it at the end of the second series, when daughter Sybil was about to announce her decision to marry chauffer Branson. He did it again here, when Cora was about to tell Lord Grantham about Mary’s sexual encounter with the Turkish diplomat Pamuk. Yes, these are somewhat predictable scenes, where we all know what is going to be said and how everyone will react. But that makes them all the more important, because it is in the subtleties of the saying and the reacting that writers and actors together build their characters. We can only assume Fellowes is suffering from that great plague afflicting the creatively-minded, the laziness of success.
Viewing figures for the episode suggest audiences were less than impressed. Downton trailed Eastenders, Coronation Street and Doctor Who in the Christmas Day ratings. If this decline is going to be reversed, and Downton Abbey is to reclaim any sense of being an artistically worthwhile endeavour, it is surely time for Fellowes to hand it on to someone who still cares.