Busy, Busy, Busy: “Downton Abbey”

While directing Gosford Park Robert Altman told his actors to forget about following Julian Fellowes’ script word for word; after getting in whatever plot points had to be mentioned, Altman encouraged them to simply behave in character while his camera floated around the set and his hidden mikes cherry-picked the best dialog. It worked like a charm. The peerless cast, fluent in body language, wound up telling much of the story through sheer physical attitude: important pieces of the characters played by Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas, for instance, could be gleaned just from the singular way each of them handled a cigarette.

Now Fellowes has been let off his chain with Downton Abbey, the upstairs-downstairs drama he created for ITV. Basically an extended version of  Gosford Park (minus the pomo tilt of Stephen Fry’s police detective), it’s the most expensive British TV series ever and a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Set in “the stately home”—a fooking castle, it bloody well is!—of the Earl of Grantham, his wife, and their three unmarried daughters, the first season kicks off with the (offscreen) sinking of the Titanic and stops at the outbreak of World War I; in between it’s mainly concerned with the advent of two newcomers whose arrivals wreak different kinds of havoc with the Earl’s family and their stable of domestics.

Downton Abbey is everything you expect of a Masterpiece presentation—it’s fundamentally intelligent, well-acted, often gorgeous. But it was also a downhill experience for me. The decision to make Britain’s insane old entailment system of inheritance a pivotal element in the story was a brilliant one, and the first episode or two are full of quiet observations showing how painfully constricted life was—on the most relative basis, natch—for both classes. Mostly, though, Fellowes treats running-times like a racetrack along which he whips his characters, for in a near reversal of Altman’s strategy he foregrounds enough backstories, revelations, exposures, and challenges to choke Charles Dickens. It’s not enough for the oldest daughter to take a handsome young Turk into her bed, but he must drop dead in it as well—and then the stupidest of the maids must spot the woman and her mother spiriting the man’s corpse away. Meanwhile, the mysterious new valet is coping simultaneously with his bum leg, a backstabbing footman, an amorous housemaid, and a lurid scandal in his past—no wonder he keeps wandering off into corners for a good cry. There are also the two daughters who sabotage each other in ugly ways, a Bolshie chauffeur, a maid yearning to become a secretary, a treacherous lady’s maid, a labor riot, a stolen bottle of wine, an attempted murder, a miscarriage and—I kid thee not—a missing snuff-box and a rigged flower show. All this, and more, in less than seven hours of programming.

I say, old boy! Steady on! Leave something for the Battle of the Somme, why don’t you?

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