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- Tim Boden’s Letter from Australia – First Impressions - 15 March, 2014
Last week series: After the heir to Downton met an untimely end beneath the wheels of narrative convenience, the Crawley family found themselves once again contemplating the future of the family and their place in a changing world. Not that anyone was paying very much attention to that, what with Lady Mary toying with the affections of various confusingly similar-looking chaps, Lady Edith’s journalist loverboy going AWOL in Munich, Branson feeling guilty about having lucked into wealth and privilege (but not so guilty as to actually give it up, mind), and the whole unexpected and unpleasant affair of Anna’s sexual assault and the ensuing conspiracy to keep the identity of the culprit secret from Bates who, although previously cleared of murder and having lived a hitherto blameless life, would absolutely, definitely kill him if he found out. Of course, he found out. And of course, he killed the rapist. Or did he? Who knows?
Is that all clear? No? Well, never mind – Downton has always been less about coherent plot structure and more about wallowing in all the lovely scenery and charmingly pointless social drama, and never more so at Christmas, when it’s pitched at an audience who are stuffed to the gills with turkey and pudding and who’ve been at the sherry since ten in the morning.
Knowing full well the audience would be too drunk and woozy to take in any serious revelations, the Christmas special instead gave us ninety minutes of lavishly-furnished bugger-all. Although there’s a certain underlying awareness that at this stage in history the time of families like the Crawleys has passed and new money is in ascendance, the show is happy to keep following them into their long, slow slide into irrelevance. It almost makes you wish it was set somewhere else – Russia, for example, where at this point the Crawlovskis would’ve been lined up against the wall and shot two series ago, Bates and Thomas would have aligned themselves with rival factions of the Party and be trying to quietly arrange for the other to be sent off for re-education, and Molesley would have been eaten by peasants during a particularly bitter winter.
It’d be a very different drama if the family were all American, too, a country which undoubtedly has its classes and dynasties, but where how much money you have is far more important than how you came by it. Which takes us on to the main theme of this year’s special, the much-teased arrival of Cora’s folks from across the pond – Shirley MacLaine as Martha, who we’ve met before, and Paul Giamatti as Harold, Cora’s brother. Yes, Paul Giamatti! Who’s been in actual Hollywood movies like Sideways and Cinderella Man! On the other hand, he was also in Thunderpants, so Downton’s not necessary a massive step down for him.
The Levinsons also brought along one of their servants, Ethan Slade, who being a Yank was terribly chipper and enthusiastic about everything and, as a result, treated with withering contempt by the Downton staff. I honestly don’t know why everyone was so cruel to him – he seemed harmless enough, though admittedly something about his neat attire and relentless earnest smileyness did make him a bit reminiscent of those duos of roving Mormons you get hanging around city centres. Still, I liked him, because he was sort of like a cute version of Molesley.
On the other hand, that shoes and bow-tie combination is making me see why everybody else found him annoying. (Bonus fact: while briefly double-checking things on IMDB, I found out that Ethan Slade was played by the guy who was Mike in Mike and Angelo! Which if you remember, was a sitcom about a kid and an alien which used to be on ITV. Just before Fun House, I think – I mean, it was no Maid Marian and her Merry Men, but I remember it being pretty funny. And yes, all of this is going to be completely lost on some of you, but that’s your own fault for being young. I’m not sorry.)
If all this international faffery wasn’t enough excitement (and let’s be fair, it’s not), the family were also all traipsing down to London for Lady Rose’s ‘coming out’, which back in those days didn’t mean awkwardly explaining your sexual proclivities to your family, but was the possibly even more awkward ritual of dressing up posh young ladies like extras from Swan Lake and having them curtsey to the royal family because… er, because posh people. Honestly couldn’t figure out a reason for it beyond that. Anyway, it’s enough excuse to get the family to go to London, and also an excuse for a cameo from the Prince of Wales – that is, Edward soon-to-be-VIII, the famous abdicator, fascist sympathiser and jazz enthusiast. Sadly, only the latter point was addressed in this episode; clearly Julian Fellowes rather enjoyed that Stephen Poliakoff drama from earlier in the year in which exactly the same happened, which makes him about the only person who did. (I’m still miffed that something with Matthew Goode and Chiwetel Ejiofor in could have turned out so darned dull – if you didn’t see it, basically, it was a bit like Downton but made the fatal error of taking itself seriously. But I digress. Again.)
On the other hand, the appearance of the royal family wasn’t a total waste of time, as it did lead to a brilliantly ludicrous subplot about occasional family acquaintance and all-round bad egg Mr Sampson stealing a letter which could bring scandal and dishonour on the royal family, leading to the Crawleys having to hastily set up a poker night so Ladies Mary and Rose could break into Mr Sampson’s room to get it back. Now, this is the kind of nonsense I keep watching Downton for, and this plotline was so deliciously far-fetched it was reminiscent of the glory days of Series 1 and poor old Mr Pamuk. Better still was the eventual resolution, in which Mr Bates’ mad criminal skillz were put to good use first in forging a replacement letter for the stolen one and then, when the letter couldn’t be found in Mr Sampson’s room, cleverly working out that Mr Sampson must have it on him and therefore nicking it out of his pocket when his back was turned.
Talking of Bates and coat pockets, Mrs Hughes came across a ticket in Bates’ coat which provides further evidence to suggest he was behind the death of the Rapist Valet – not enough to convict him in itself, but another pointer towards what we already knew. I think at this point we’re all agreed Bates is a master criminal, aren’t we? Whether or not he was a crook before he went to prison, he certainly seems to be well into it now, and I for one hope the series just takes it, runs with it, and fully embraces the idea of having a trusted valet who uses morally dubious means for the benefit of the family he serves. It’s much more interesting than him just being boringly nice all the time; not to mention, why would an innocent man spend so much time lurking, glowering and generally acting in a suspicious and creepy fashion? Despite the script never having outright stated that Bates has done anything wrong, everything in the acting and direction so far means that Bates being innocent would take a lot more explaining than the alternative.
While we’re still talking about ongoing plotlines, the saga of Lady Mary and her suitors dragged on at its usual glacial pace, with the situation at the end of the episode essentially being exactly the same as it was at the beginning. The only real development is that it turns out, shock horror, that Nasty Mr Blake is in fact not nasty, and not against Mary and her type because he is – dramatic trumpet fanfare please – secretly posh himself! Heir to the title of Sir Severus Blake, in fact, because Julian Fellowes has now resorted to going through copies of Harry Potter for suitably silly historical names (Severus Snape + Sirius Black = Severus Blake. I look forward to the arrival in Series 5 of Hermione McGonagall, Neville Pettigrew, and Lord and Lady d’Umbledore) And as per the immutable internal laws of Downton, if you are Old Money you cannot possibly be bad. In fact, he’s even richer than Mary’s other suitor, meaning a marriage to him would conveniently solve all the problem of Downton’s income currently being entirely dependent on the fortunes of the Levinsons, which’ll all go to Harold before long. So once again we have a terribly convenient resolution to everybody’s problems which will, nevertheless, be meandered around for the best part of a series before the characters reach the same conclusions the audience saw coming months before. Maybe Mary’s happy to hold out for years on end, but I’ve found this whole subplot tedious from the start, and it really doesn’t help that even when they’re standing right next to each other I have great difficulty telling Lord Gillingham and Mr Blake apart. If this plotline is to become at all interesting, what we need is a suitor who’s not tall, dark, handsome and aristocratic. Unfortunately, falling in love with – for example – a short, red-headed miner called Eric is more the sort of thing Edith would do.
Edith has had her baby, by the way, but despite everything having been arranged in a reasonably sensible manner which means nobody need ever find out, she still has a deep-rooted urge to give the kid away to a farmer. So she does. We also finally get to find out exactly what happened to Michael the journalist, which turns out to be exactly what everyone thought would happen as soon as he mentioned going to Munich – yep, it’s Nazis! I’m not sure if I’m impressed at the restraint in holding out for so long before mentioning them, or to despair that it’s only 1923 and we’ve already got Nazi-related plotlines.
What else? Oh, there were various minor characters who popped up and will most likely never be mentioned again – such as Lord Aysgarth, an old buffer in search of a wealthy American wife, and his daughter, who flirted with Harold for a bit without very much coming of it. Thomas did exactly the same lurk about/pester Miss Baxter for gossip/make vague threats routine he’s done in every single episode of Series 4. There were various parties and shindigs which all blended into one, though at least we were treated to a rare sight of the aristocratic equivalent of the bread pyramid, the canape mountain:
Note also the pineapple plinth to the side. Truly, Ambassador, you are spoiling us.
And finally, after various doomed attempts to get the servants out for a trip to the Science Museum or Madame Tussaud’s, Carson eventually gave in and everybody went for a nice trip to the beach. Personally, I’d have preferred the Science Museum (science doesn’t leave you with gritty bits in your shoes for days afterwards), but everyone seemed to have a nice time, from Molesley and Miss Baxter having a nice moment together to Ethan the Awkward Yank extending a typically awkward invitation to Daisy, who wasn’t impressed but did rather enjoy the attention. Most astonishing at all, at least by Downton standards, was the most unseemly spectacle of Carson not only going paddling, but holding hands with Mrs Hughes. It might not sound much, but that’s how butlers reproduce. Soon Carson will retreat to the woods to lay a clutch of eggs, and by the time the next series rolls around he’ll be followed everywhere he goes by a little gaggle of butlets, all tutting and readjusting the place settings.
Best bits: There was more shade being thrown than at a frisbee tournament in a lamp shop. Lady Violet’s brief, bitchy altercation with Martha Levinson was a masterclass in the form, and the King of England himself got into the act, with the actor portraying him getting full value for money out of his four or five lines of dialogue by managing to make the phrase ‘the prince is never short of popularity’ sound like it implied all manner of untoward debauchery. Which, given it’s the royal family, it probably did.
Worst bits: Remember when Thomas actually did something other than eavesdrop on conversations and make vaguely threatening remarks to Miss Baxter? Back in Series 1 he and Miss O’Brien were experts in real-life trolling. In Series 2 and 3 he appeared to be slowly developing a soul. Now he’s back to square 1, earwigging and shit-stirring and doing absolutely nothing other than being a total git, solely because Twitter hasn’t been invented yet and a bored man’s got to get his fix of gossip from somewhere.
Quote of the week: “What could be more revolting than to rummage through a strange man’s socks?” Oh, Lady Rose, you have led a very sheltered life.
Predictions for Series 5: Lady Mary will continue to mess around her various suitors for at least six episodes before eventually settling for Mr Blake. Who will then be killed by a falling tree/in an airship accident/from blood poisoning caused by a particularly nasty pig bite, leaving Mary to conclude she is cursed and vow for a life of bitter, bitter spinstership. Lady Edith will elope with the farmer, only for everything to be messed up by Michael the journalist suddenly reappearing, now with a slight accent and some interesting ideas about living rooms. Rose will continue to have a life and personality based entirely around jazz. Miss Baxter, fearing for her safety, will arrange with Bates for Thomas to accidentally fall onto a tray of unusually sharp forks. Lady Violet will still be brilliant. And, obviously, none of it will really make sense.