TV | The Dangers of Downton Abbey

Christmas is a time for peace, love and difficult conversations with family about why you’re still single, or your decision to pursue a degree in the arts. Yet spare a thought for our friends the television writers who, every year, are placed under the immense pressure of producing a special, festive episode so spectacular you have to spend the whole evening live-tweeting it. Given that last Christmas Downton Abbey seemed willing to kill off characters in an attempt to keep up with the body count Eastenders has amassed over the years you could be forgiven for expecting the ritual blood-letting to continue. Yet Julian Fellowes is a merciful god. This year’s sacrifice has been waived. There is to be no death, no misery, no drama: in short, nothing to make the show worth watching. This year’s festive offering of Downton takes a rather strange Beckett-esque turn as the family drifts to London in search of a plot that never fully materialises.

Seemingly with nothing of interest going on in their own lives the Crawleys decide to trade dreary old Yorkshire for the more tropical climes of London and fall right into the lap of the Prince of Wales, and yet another of his numerous scandals. Determined to prop up a creaking and outdated system of government the Crawleys set about saving the young prince from embarrassment in the tabloids; a task as futile as trying to convince anyone that Prince Charles is actually Harry’s father. What follows is the planning of an elaborate heist designed to steal back an incriminating letter. One can’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of it all as the Crawleys sit down to plan a number of diversionary parties only to be foiled at every turn by the absurd number of feuds amongst the aristocracy. The show transforms before your very eyes into a well-acted but rather peculiar “Made in Chelsea” prequel. Oddly it seems to have been overlooked by most of the family that Mr Bates (Not Master, careful), who’s picked up a trick or two in prison may have murdered someone. This leads charming, if not slightly sociopathic, Mary Crawley to comment “London makes one do strange things” before the two exchange one of those strange back and forth stares that punctuate every conversation that occurs within the Royal Borough. If that’s not going to force a confession I don’t know what will.

To borrow a line from Morrissey, the problems of the Crawleys say nothing to me about my life. In fact they are so detached from the realities of a nation still reeling from economic austerity it’s almost insulting. The Crawleys and their friends seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about money over champagne and caviar at Buckingham Palace. My heart would melt for them if it weren’t frozen because I can’t afford to heat my pot noodle, let alone my house.

The only thing duller than the problems of rich white people it would seem is the lives of those that work for them. The majority of servants in the show seem to have nothing resembling a personality beyond a Yorkshire accent, the others merely excel in being paragons of nastiness. Then again Bates may have murdered someone so I guess he has that going for him. What’s most depressing is that the plebs seem to be content with their lives; if they have any dreams at all it’s to land a job that pays a bit better but importantly still remains in service. No revolution for us please we’re British.

It seems that Dr Who and Downton will continue to be the benchmark to which British television is held to around the world (despite the emergence of numerous better series) for the foreseeable future.  However, the benefit of Dr Who is that should it ever become stale you can just have the Doctor travel through time and space, or better yet kill him off and have him regenerate into a foul-mouthed spin doctor. Downton on the other hand is trapped in a prison of its own making. If Fellowes wants us to continue to take the show seriously he can’t rely upon the sensationalism that defines traditional soap operas, yet without it one gets the impression the show is running out of ideas.

But the benefit of writing a historical drama is that there’s always some intriguing historical event coming up for your characters to become engrossed in. Luckily for Fellowes that nasty Hitler chap will be popping up soon. Personally, I am looking forward to the Crawleys and the rest of the British establishment throwing their support behind the great dictator. Or if that’s not enough for you there are rumours that next year the Earl turns to cooking opium to provide for his family after being diagnosed with consumption.

Ben Cook

Photo: ITV


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