Wednesday, 11 May 2011

My Newest Favourite Thing: Downton Abbey

As the nights draw in and the temperatures plummet, it makes sense to snuggle up to a warm fire and some period drama on television. As I don't watch reality TV or trite American sitcoms, there isn't much for me on terrestrial TV (and now the Premier League has all but concluded, even SKY is looking rather drab), so I anticipated the arrival of Downton Abbey with excitment. Sad, I know, but it was very aggressively marketed with swooning maidens, scheming footmen and a choir singing Every Breath You Take at a thrillingly trippy tempo.

Created, written, and executive-produced by Julian Fellowes, the corset capers have all the typical hallmarks of the genre. Upstairs Downstairs meets Gosford Park (even with some of the same actors), holding hands and skipping merrily through the gamut of impeccable manners, class distinctions, lavish locations, sumptuous costumes, simple housemaids, plotting butlers, and all manner of skulduggery in tails.

The time is April 1912 and the Edwardian era is ending. When the date scrolled onto the screen, Him Outdoors said, 'Titanic's about to go down', and so it did. (I don't want to give the impression that he was instrumental in this maritime disaster, or that he prefixed his pronouncement with 'Lo' - it's fairly standard knowledge, after all), resulting in loss of life and complications of inheritence.

Lord of the manor/ Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville - scrupulously charming) is in a bit of pickle as he only has three daughters and, therefore, no heir, so it looks as though the estate might be farmed out. Shark-finned, sharp-suited suitors arrive instantly until they realise there is another contender; some long-lost relation from (shudder) Manchester.

Naturally the rich American wife/ Countess of Grantham  (Elizabeth McGovern - a breath of fresh air without being a traumatic tornado) wants to keep it in the family, as does the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith - divine delivery as ever). With nothing in common apart from the desire to prevent Downton from falling into the hands of 'a man who can barely hold his knife properly' these two team up to take on all-comers and also-rans. I'm guessing they'll prove pretty formidable.

Meanwhile alliances and divisions are being brokered and dissolved beneath stairs as well. Added to the drama is the fun of playing spot-the-former-street-actor: Liam Connor (Rob James-Collier) is the roguishly handsome Thomas the footman, while Joanne Froggart's character of Anna the housemaid (these people don't have surnames you see) is much more sympathetic than her conniving counterpart of Zoe Tattersall.

Of course things will never be the same up at the Big House, but the changes will be exquisitely captured on the small screen. From tracking shots down corridors to the intricate details of ironing the newspapers, it will look fantastic. It may feature obvious villains, crude characterisation, semaphored plot and heavy-handed exposition, but it is aimed at the ADD generation, and produced for ITV rather than BBC. Despite that, it is all wrapped up in a cloak of faux-gentility and classic acting, and I love it.

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