The Abbey habit

Downton Abbey is, believe it or not, just a television programme. It’s on ITV1, it’s set in the past, it draws upon roughly the same transitional period for the English class system as such previous television programmes as Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited and Flambards, and everybody’s gone nuts for it. Written by Julian Fellowes, and not indebted to a literary source, it feels very much tailor-made for a Sunday night audience.

When it arrived on our screens last September, it was an instant hit, scoring around 10 million viewers an episode. Period dramas of this type have never really gone out of fashion, but they do seem to have enjoyed a renaissance over the last few years, perhaps as a reaction to the more hi-tech, CGI-dominated, sci-fi entertainments predominantly served up to us. With the fashionable success, either critical or commercial, of US imports like The Sopranos, The Wire and the CSI franchise, with their contemporary grit and violence, you can also see a gap widening for drama set in a less coarse era, when forensic science held no sway, and warfare was only just getting mechanised.

Upstairs Downstairs, to my mind one of the finest TV series this country has ever produced – for ITV, lest snobs forget – set a high bar for the historical saga between 1971 and 1975, and is just as watchable today. It was, however, basically a theatre piece, its action played out against plywood sets, and its occasional forays on location marked mainly by the jarring switch from videotape to grainy film quality. When it launched, without fanfare, and having sat in the vaults at ITV for a year, unloved, its first episode did not score 10 million viewers overnight; it went out at 10.15 on LWT and took its time to bed in.

It felt like bad timing that the BBC revived Upstairs Downstairs last Christmas, just a couple of months after Downton Abbey, when the new kid on the block was so indebted to the old kid. Downton began with the sinking of the Titanic, with a key character onboard; Upstairs Downstairs covered this in its third series, when Lady Marjorie, a major character, perished at sea on the Titanic. Perhaps this is the difference not just between the two programmes, but between the eras in which they were first broadcast. In 1971, it was fine for an ITV period drama to begin with an opening episode whose main storyline was a new parlourmaid starting work at 165 Eaton Place who wasn’t quite what she seemed; in 2010, it had to be the sinking of the Titanic and an inheritance crisis.

I can never love Downton the way I loved Upstairs Downstairs. (And when I mention it, as delighted as I was to see it back, and with Jean Marsh still in it, on BBC1, I’m always referring to the 1970s original.) This is not Downton‘s fault. It’s just that it feels the need to ramp up the melodrama and explain everything as it goes along, just in case its audience is feeling a bit too “Sunday night” to keep up. In Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, Downton has its cartoon character, with her withering one-liners, but it’s all a little bit easy, isn’t it? I think audiences – even a Sunday night ITV audience – were granted with a little bit more concentration and intelligence. (Can this really be true? I guess there were only three channels in 1971, so competition for our attention was less bloodthirsty and unscrupulous.)

The other thing Downton has against it is hype. ITV1 are rightfully pleased with its success, and it’s great for the drama industry that it has found such a Teflon hit; the last thing we need in this country, culturally, is for TV drama – and comedy – to be underfunded in favour of wall-to-wall talent and game shows, and “scripted reality”. But the second series, which began on Sunday opposite Spooks, arrived amid fanfare, ticker tape, a twenty-one gun salute and acres of listings-mag, TV and newspaper anticipation (Radio Times caught the mood with its “Souvenir Issue” – my employer hasn’t been this excited, and on the money, since Doctor Who came back). It can live up to this hype, but such expectation demands numbers, and numbers are achieved not through taking risks, but throwing more big names at the screen and giving people what they want: big stories, big world events, broad brush strokes.

Watching Upstairs Downstairs – and I’ve done so on DVD box set in the last couple of years so this is not nostalgia – is like having a long, luxurious bath in the past. Downton is more like being whacked in the face with some rolled-up Wikipedia printouts. I’m not sure I’m made of stern enough stuff for that kind of an assault every Sunday.

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5 thoughts on “The Abbey habit

  1. I think that I would like Downton Abbey more if it didn’t treat its audience like it was completely stupid. The clunky, poorly written exposition in the opening episode had me rolling my eyes even more than usual (at least we didn’t have anything of the level of ‘will the stupid maid poison everyone’). It feels ridiculous that it won the mini-series/movie writing Emmy (over Sherlock I think?!) as the show has never been well written and is saved by the acting. Next week I think I will count the exterior wide shots of the house as these seem excessive even in comparison to series one. But that makes it very useful for teaching ‘heritage television’ so i’m grateful for that.

  2. That Fellowes won an Emmy for his writing is beyond me; it is the beautiful cinematography and quality acting that papers over those woeful cracks. However posh folk in pretty frocks is simply not enough. On the other hand Upstairs, Downstairs was mostly about the script. In the latter a scene would last ten minutes: one set, two cameras and two or three actors getting their teeth into the thing. On only very exceptional circumstances would we be treated to some 16mm location filming; Hazel’s weekend at Bunny’s place or, when budgets were stretched in season 4, Miss Georgina lighting a fag for a dying soldier at a beautifully-dressed Marylebone station. Downton appears so much more superficial – a light souffle which looks delicious but contains very little of anything in comparison with the lovely stodgy crumble of Upstairs, Downstairs. Whilst I appreciate that the era depicted in UD was well within living memory I cannot forgive the use of clangers such as, “As if,” in Downton as it only adds to the feeling that we are simply watching people with twenty first century sensibilities inelegantly plonked down into First World War England – are the Doctor and his Tardis hiding round the corner?

  3. On Sunday, I declined to be taken in by the Downton v Spooks hype and watched neither. Instead, I dug out a DVD with some episodes of Sapphire and Steel and observed much of what you talk about, just in a slightly different context.

    The S&S story I watched (note for nerds: Assignment 2: The Railway Station) has almost glacial pace and over the course of of 8 half-hour episodes nothing much happened by modern pyrotechnic standards. But it was gripping. The slightly wobbly sets and the dated lighting didn’t matter. The performances and the characterisation were to the forefront and the audience were encouraged to think and work things out for themselves. and this was peak time television at the turn of the 1980s.

    It happens less often now, with a demand for faster pace, more “dynamic” editing but it still sneaks through form time to time, even in prime time. Toby Whithouse’s Doctor Who on Saturday being was a case in point. In fact, it was this that made me go and dig out my Sapphire and Steel DVD because the episode reminded me of it a lot.

    As a rule I’m not a period drama fan; not because I don’t like period pieces but because too often the viewer is swamped (by design) by the visual sweep of the show, with the production team trying to demonstrate its attention to period details*. When done well, with attention to script and setting, like the classic Upstairs Downstairs or Andrew Davies’ Pride and Predjudice it can work beautifully. When done less well it is just dull.

    *Don’t even get me started on the recent episode of George Gently that a) was unable to spell the word Teesside properly in the first three seconds of the programme or b) was unable to get into its head that people in County Durham and Teesside don’t speak like people from Newcastle; a bit like equating people from Luton with Cockneys. This is a whole other post in itself. The one bit they did get right was casting northerner-for-hire Mark Benton: he’s actually from the area and sounded right.

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