Long Arcs of Soap
Billed as a behind-the-scenes documentary on “cultural phenomenon” of Downton Abbey, Downton Abbey Revisited seems determined to induce a cynical eye roll or two.
Such awkward and self-congratulatory framing is extended in the documentary’s repeated exhortations to US viewers to support the public television network that brings them the series, even though, in the UK, Downton Abbey airs on ITV, a commercial network that uses product placement. ITV has enjoyed a somewhat unexpected success with Downton Abbey, a success that counters the conventional view that the BBC, funded by licence payers, is better able to commission and produce such large-scale flagship dramas with starry casts. In fact, Downton Abbey is part of a recent change in the British television landscape, as both Sky and ITV are stepping up their drama output, despite budgeting constraints, while the BBC is currently battling to regain licence payer confidence after a number of scandals.
The documentary is pitched at fans of the series and fronted by a safe presence in actress Angela Lansbury. But it’s a tentative effort, even as behind-the-scenes documentaries go, careful to avoid spoilers or any engagement with the variety of responses to the series. It does offer the usual plot teasers and interviews, but these are hardly revealing. Rather, they’re patent calculations on the part of the producers in collaboration with writers Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame.
The latter describes Downton Abbey as an attempt to splice the “slow-burn” ensemble character study of the critically lauded Gosford Park (also written by Fellowes), with the dramatic storylines, and long arcs of soap. As Neames has it, the show also attempts to dispense with the usual reverent tone of the traditional costume drama, the series adapted from classic Victorian novels. These claims to originality made by Downton Abbey’s production team break down, however, when we consider previous efforts to modernize the costume drama: the BBC’s 2005 series Bleak House used the soap format to fashion a taut, exciting thriller with space for character development.
In following formula, Downton Abbey does offer an exceptional cast, which features strong dramatic actors from much loved UK soaps like Coronation Street, as well as established film and theatre doyennes. As good as they may be, these vaunted players also make for lazy descriptors, like “quintessentially British” or “national treasure.”
Such language reminds us that Downton Abbey itself has tended to suffer from flat, stock figures, as well a troubling political conservatism, even if the high production values and some excellent performances make such flaws less offensive to viewer intelligence. Downton Abbey Revisited manages to obliterate such efforts through the insipid narration, which makes it unlikely to win Downton any new viewers. The documentary spends most of its time on synopses of Seasons One and Two, presented with fawning, clichéd turns of phrase that have the unfortunate effect of underlining shortcomings in Downton Abbey‘s characterizations: Carson the butler (Jim Carter) is sketched as “stern but kindhearted,” Thomas the sneering footman (Rob James-Collier) is “scheming.”
As such shortcuts intimate, Downton Abbey Revisited also favors frilly, swooning romance over personal conflict or social history. For an incisive look at the backbreaking reality of domestic service that might provide a model for downtrodden kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) or ladies’ maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), viewers would do better to seek out the excellent series Servants: The True Story of A Life Below Stairs, recently aired by BBC Two, whose presenter’s slighting references to Downton Abbey‘s idealized portrayal of its servant-master relationships aren’t without justification. Instead of historical background, the documentary offers tiny scraps of research and production notes, and some insights from the award-winning costume department.
It also includes more informative interviews with cast members. While these are brief, they also feature an appealing awareness of the occasional improbability of their characters and storylines, in particular contributions from a slightly bemused Hugh Bonneville (who plays Robert Crawley), as well as Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) and Dan Stevens, who basically rejects the documentary’s over-serious assessment of his role as Matthew Crawley as a romantic hero (I counted at least two uses of the phrase “star-crossed” in describing Crawley).
Despite such incisive moments, Downton Abbey Revisited is less a detailed or informative documentary and more an extended version of those patronizing “previously on…” recaps, which imply deficiencies of both recall and intellect in the fans. Both fans and potential new viewers are ill served by this approach, as is Downton Abbey itself.