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.