Uneasy Nostalgia in ‘Downton Abbey’

The Costume Drama is a staple of my formative years, in the dying days of the Sunday teatime serial on British TV. The Costume Drama is often a lazy pejorative, indicating overwrought soap opera in crinolines, but it’s also often a worthy relation of the Merchant Ivory canon, and always, it’s a love I’m reluctant to give up.

Mine is a lasting and satisfying relationship which began shortly after the end of my protracted love affair with ’30s slang and boarding school stories, and right around the time I discovered E.M Forster and began to form romantic attachments to fictional characters, rather than real people. And also around the time I began to use phrases like ‘romantic attachment’ to refer to men and women, not something one might find on a bit of kit from a very special, grown-ups only mail order catalogue that came free in the TV guide.

I’m of the generation of Austenites who, in their heart of hearts, still believe Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy. We’re a select band of viewers, who revere Emma Thompson without question or censure, and can sit through innumerable attacks on Pride and Prejudice, like the silly and rather clever time-slip froth Lost in Austen, and the bland re-imagining Bride and Prejudice.

I watched yet another rehashing of Emma, for the love of the novel and vestigial affection for Romola Garai’s breakout performance of gold-plated selfishness in Daniel Deronda. My tastes are flexible enough to take in every depressing Thomas Hardy and Dickens revival and everything in between; I’ve a copy of Lorna Doone on BBC DVD, to relive the joy of Aiden Gillen’s Patented All Purpose Sneer and the pointless, lingering landscape shots (Look! On location, see?).

Glorious memories all and I look forward, as each year wanes, to the stately, inexorable sailing toward Christmas signalled by the Costume Drama.

I love each and every one, even the stodgy Schools History homage that is Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, currently showing on Channel 4. It’s a massive, engorged black pudding of downtrodden serfs, corrupt churchmen and wicked landowners, all with beautiful teeth and a tendency for expositional speeches. Such shows were seemingly endless and reminiscent of those rare and slightly trippy sick days home from school, spent in front of the TV in the ’80s and ’90s, featuring reading, ‘rithmatic and false beards of questionable quality.

For some years after, I believed that if the more distressing afflictions like Bubonic Plague and Costume Drama Cough (or tuberculosis, as it is better known today) could not be cured, I could at least take comfort in the advanced state of medieval (Georgian/Victorian/Edwardian) dentistry. Indeed, these are well worn stories, if not strictly accurate, told in traditional, linear fashion using familiar faces. But just occasionally, a period drama can be exciting and original – see the bold serialisation of Bleak House, that strips Dickens down to pulpy, plot-driven storytelling, retaining the social outrage, and dropping the sentiment.

A current high point so far is ITV’s Downton Abbey. This is a departure for ITV, best known for reality shows and deranged potboilers; handsome dramas such as this, weighing in at a hefty seven episodes of 96-each, are usually the preserve of the BBC.

In essentials, Downton Abbey is a family saga, notable for its writing pedigree: Julian Fellowes repeating the success of The Young Victoria and his superlative screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. Much has been made of his family background in and around grand houses such as the fictional Downton which informing his writing, but as with Gosford Park, it is the strong cast of characters which lift the tale above the realm of yet another crack at Wuthering Heights.

Downton Abbey‘s tale takes place over two years and opens with news of a death, a loss to the Titanic. Despite the story flowing at the pace of treacle, the caption announcing the arrival of 1914 towards the end of the series comes as something of a shock, given the pace and glowingly filmed external shots which emphasise a lost, dreamlike quality.

The story ostensibly concerns the aristocratic Crawleys, headed by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, played with warmth and authority by Hugh Bonneville (Daniel Deronda, Notting Hill). He spends the series wrestling with the prospect that the house he’s spent a lifetime maintaining may not remain in the hands of his family. Once a young fortune hunter, who married an American heiress (Elizabeth McGovern, The Wings of the Dove, Kick Ass) for the money to keep the place afloat, he gives one the sense of a man who has grown into his role, falling in love with his wife after the fact, and becoming a doting father to daughters on whom the future of Downton rests.

His chilly, beautiful eldest daughter, Lady Mary, must marry well to prevent Downton passing to her distant cousin and only male heir, in a plot that recalls a certain Austen novel. Unlike Austen, however, Fellowes creates a microcosm which includes the legions of unseen staff which kept the landed gentry free to fret about marriage and manners. A little purloining from the literary canon can be forgiven, judging by the success of Downton with viewers despite dire predictions. Another adaptation of the same small collection of Victorian classics, can’t.

With every performance being one of quality, the standouts include Brendan Coyle, Phyllis Logan, Joanne Froggatt and Jim Carter as head butler Mr. Carson, who loves Lady Mary as a surrogate daughter. Even the villains get a little light and shade; the scheming O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James Collier) are not given pat excuses for their manipulative behaviour, nor are they entirely black-hearted, with affection and contempt of the family upstairs allowed to co-exist in the same personality.

The middle-class interloper, Matthew Crawley, is played by Dan Stevens, an actor whose face seems to alter from ordinary at first glance, to arresting on camera, a trait used to startling, frame-filling effect in the BBC’s gorgeous adaptation of The Line of Beauty. Here, he’s changeable and expressive; Michelle Dockery (The Turn of the Screw, again opposite Dan Stevens) as Lady Mary and Stevens both deliver utterly believable performances as two flawed characters beginning to grow in understanding, whose prickly encounters crackle with potential throughout the series.

Through Matthew, Mary begins to question her cast-iron sense of entitlement, both to her title, the admiration of men, and her position as favourite child. Matthew enters the story as a serious, hard-working and faintly priggish figure, in his uniform of dark suit and bowler hat, determined never to become a mere poor relation. Through Mary, viewers glimpse his playful side.

Downton Abbey is filled with echoes of Gosford Park – the downstairs authoritarian figure with a murky past, the disdainful, unapologetic agitator, who operates with total self interest, the society beauty who begins to wake up to the emptiness of her life, the tentative, straitened love stories above and below stairs. Both depict a complicated network of loyalties; the savage rivalries and caustic slights keep the worlds inhibited by their characters from becoming too rarefied.

Period dramas can and should be much more than nostalgia for a past none of us are old enough to remember, or a mere litmus test of an actor’s facility for plummy vowels. An ocean of suppressed feeling has to be conveyed to the audience through tiny gestures, vocal tics and facial expressions, all without making the action appear stilted.

Nor should they try too hard to make the story relevant to today; the best costume pieces simply allow the audience to see past the National Trust locations and lush period dress to the humanity of the people inside them, characters compelling enough to make modern viewers forget that the plot hinges on nothing more pulse-pounding than the vagaries of English inheritance law. Theirin lies part of the difficulty and pleasure of period drama: their strict rules allow the creation of heightened danger around ordinary concerns. How to create tension around an old-fashioned marriage proposal for viewers living in an age when relationships are infintely flexible?

This might also prove a hindrance in creating engaging, original drama around the same old human concerns of love and money — far easier to harken back to the class-bound conventions of the period piece. Much lampooned and loved, and where large ensemble casts continue to excel, the best period dramas leave no room for showboating or starry turns.

So too Downton Abbey, despite the glittering presence of Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Lady Grantham, doing vinegary, Bracknell-ish imperiousness to hilarious effect while armed with all the best lines. Even she is more complex than she first appears however; portrayal as a doughty, comic dragoon is the dismal fate of many older women in period drama. Ye Lady Grantham is allowed to express fear and love as well as disapproval, her uneasy but affectionate relationship with her daughter-in-law is a joy to watch. Here’s hoping that her development isn’t neglected during series two in favour of having her merely react with bemusement to new-fangled notions such as ‘weekends’.

Elegiac for the last days of a full-blooded aristocracy in England, Downton Abbey is humane and modern in its shades of grey, but decidedly rose-tinted, too. It’s none the worse for that, with sweeping change edging over the threshold and dark hints for the second series at the upheaval to come. It’s no accident, the dowager countess’s quavering, plaintive wish for a simpler world, in today’s climate of uncertainty. It is this which is Downton Abbey’s forgivable flaw — it’s not a subtle allusion to our present reality, but a highly effective one.

RATING 8 / 10