I am reliably informed that ITV’s global smash hit Downton Abbey, written by Julian Fellowes, returns to UK screens this coming weekend in the form of (is it?) a fifth series.
Reflecting upon the potentially far-reaching implications of the Scotland independence referendum and sundry other political divisions and prejudices within the UK, there seems to me to be a huge irony in the success of Lord Grantham and his merry cast of upstairs and downstairs characters.
All this week political commentators have highlighted the gulf that exists between London and south-east England and the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of not just economic and political power, but practically everything.
It seemed that every stereotypical Scot – whether aged 60 or 16 – was blaming the Tories, the Westminster establishment, the southern toffs, Mrs Thatcher (and indeed, by implication, also the Labour Party now presumably tainted and cut free from its working class roots) for … well … every setback that had befallen those living north of the border since the end of the Second World War.
I’m not singling out the jocks for holding this attitude – the pundits have been drawing attention to the political reality that the North-East, the North-West (and indeed effectively everywhere in England north of Watford) feels neglected and ignored by our political elite – and has done for decades.
And yet the rest of the world – I’m talking here about the United States of America, the Indian sub-continent, China, Australasia, Africa … admittedly not so much Europe because, of course, Europe is closer to home and actually has to deal with us – holds Great Britain in pretty high regard precisely because they believe in it as it supposedly once was.
You know the sort of thing – the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Windsor Castle, the Swinging Sixties, the Beatles, Michael Caine, actor David Tomlinson in his bowler hat playing his George Banks character in Mary Poppins, Winston Churchill, James Bond, Henry VIII, Queen Victoria, John Major’s vision of village cricket greens, sunshine and warm beer, Monty Python, Shakespeare … and yes, even Mrs Thatcher – at her height hand-bagging EU politicians, Argentinian president General Galtieri over the Falklands and generally striding about the world diplomatic stage giving what for – plus, of course, Downton Abbey and … er … Jeremy Clarkson and his Top Gear middle-aged overgrown schoolboy colleagues behaving badly.
I should confess immediately that the above is a huge generalisation – I’m thinking of the global success of the Billy Elliott film and stage show, featuring the class hatred days of Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike and (to the rest of the world) the astonishing fact that, to her own electorate, Mrs Thatcher was and remains very much a ‘marmite’ figure – but I’d maintain that the aspects of Britain that large parts of this planet admire (if not love) are the very ones that at least half the modern population of the UK actually despises and/or resents.
Which brings me back to Downton.
I’m convinced that there exist hundreds of millions of people around the world who hold to the rose-tinted view that most Brits live in castles or stately homes, either as titled lords of the manor … or as respectful, ‘known my place’ butlers or servants.
That said, returning to real life for a moment, the bottom line is that the whole Downton project is just expensively and well-made pap.
I don’t wish to condemn Julian Fellowes with faint praise [after all, he – not I – has written a drama series that has made tens of millions of £s around the world] but, whilst he can come up with situations and lines – whether insightful comments or ‘put down’ sneers – that often delight, just as frequently he can clunk down the corridor of scriptwriting like a drunkard wearing a medieval suit of armour.
At the end of the day Downton is just a soap opera. To wallow in it satisfactorily you have to leave your intellect and logic behind and just curl up on the sofa with half a bottle of red wine coursing through your veins.
Who can forget such plot aberrations as Lady Mary, then probably aged about 19 or 20, rogering a Persian (or was it a Turkish?) diplomat to death in about 1911 … or her eventual husband Matthew Crawley, paralysed as a result of a heroically-obtained First World War wound, suddenly miraculously rising from his wheelchair and saving a falling female character from serious injury … or – my favourite of all – the episode in which a young male relation, who had previously gone down with the Titanic, returned to Downton as a recuperating facially-disfigured WW1 Canadian soldier to seek to reclaim his birthright (the drama of the moment being whether he was actually who he said he was or just an imposter), only suddenly to disappear again forever just before the end of the episode, leaving behind an enigmatic note?
Fellowes made a rod for his own back by not keeping the project in one short time period.
By having Downton’s dramas play out against a series of world events, inevitably the number of inherent absurdities has lengthened. With the daughters all aged between about 17 and 22 at the beginning (1910?), in real Edwardian life they’d all have ‘come out’ and got married before the age of 24. As it is, they hung on – surrounded by romantic intrigues – until about 1920 before they all got married etc., by which time in real life they’d have been 30 or more.
But then that’s the essence of television drama – it’s all tosh and the writer(s) are constantly treading a difficult line between believability and fantasy.
A bit like living life in modern Britain, really.