One Christmas programme I didn’t post a review of was the festive double-length edition of Downton Abbey, one of ITV’s current biggest programmes domestically and a runaway international success as well. I didn’t write about it partly because it’s critic-proof and people will watch it regardless. That status is not least because it presents a sugar-coated fantasy world of a past history that never actually existed (the reality was far nastier, harsher and harder work for the vast majority of people than we experience today) but one we look back to now in the midst our current problems with debt and economic crises and desperately want to project ourselves back into. Downton’s success is very much to do with being an escape from all our modern worries and woes into the impossibly perfect Edwardian vista on the lid of a Christmas tin of sweets.
To be honest, I also didn’t write anything because I didn’t have much to say about Downton Abbey itself as a programme. It’s solid, old-fashioned (meant positively, and in every sense of the term) drama entertainment, with gorgeous high-quality production values and a cast to absolutely die for that includes Hugh Bonneville, Phyllis Logan, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton and of course the gloriously withering Dame Maggie Smith, as well as making an international star out of Dan Stevens. In television terms, this show has the same sugary intoxicating effect as overdosing on Death by Chocolate.
It didn’t start off quite like that. It was clear in season 1 that writer/creator Julian Fellowes had been slaving over a hot computer keyboard for years, refining and polishing every character and storyline until it gleamed. It paid off handsomely, and the first seven episodes not only shone but also carried an uncommon amount of intelligence both in the plots and in their execution. So much so, in fact, that quite a lot of the legal inheritance issues so central to series 1 had to be excised for international markets such as the US which judged it too arcane and complex for its audiences.
But then Downton Abbey became a huge success, and it seemed as though the executives moved in and demanded not only a fast follow-up, but also more streamlined crowd-pleasing storylines. They knew which plots had worked (the thwarted romance between Matthew and Mary, and between Mr Bates and Anna) and wanted more of that, please. No more of this pseudo-intellectual inheritance stuff; just lots more unrequited/unfulfilled/thwarted love tangles and scandals, and make it snappy – none of this “taking your time to get it just so,” they needed it right away.
Sadly this ended up making season 2 looking threadbare in the ideas department despite the promising dramatic background of World War 1 to play against. The show’s underpinnings as a period, high class but otherwise very ordinary soap opera were laid very bare at times. The episode with the appearance of the disfigured possible inheritor to the estate, for example; the passionless ‘romance’ between daughter Sybil and the chauffeur; or the way that paraplegia could be overcome by some mild tingling, a hot cup of tea and a feeble explanation of traumatic swelling on the spinal cord (which apparently lasted a year or more? Time is indeed a very fluid concept in Downton.) Much of this felt straight out of the pages of the Dallas script bible – which is to say, clichéd and absurd, but all the same not unenjoyable if you can only suspend your disbelief long enough.
Even Dame Maggie Smith’s glorious character (Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham) was watered down somewhat and became – shudder – almost sympathetic and sensible at times. While she still got all the best lines, I missed her fabulously spiky season 1 scenes playing against Penelope Wilson, herself one of the few actresses able to hold her own and then some against Dame Maggie. Finally the end of season 2 came with the arrest of Mr Bates for the murder of his ex-wife, a ‘twist’ that everyone had surely seen coming weeks before and the only surprise being that it hadn’t been sprung long before this; fortunately this cliffhanger didn’t have to carry the series over a full year’s break, for within weeks the Downton gang were back for a Christmas and New Year special.
Surprisingly this was a very different beast from the underwhelming season that had preceded it; indeed, it made series 2 feel more than ever like merely a protracted set-up and preview for the Christmas special. It took all the storylines that had been left hanging and ripped into them with relish, as if freed at last from what has gone before and able to just delight in delivering pay-off after pay-off for the loyal audience. As a Christmas Day special, then, it managed to be both more festive and more satisfying than almost any other counterpart over the holidays (such as, let’s be honest, Doctor Who.)
Of course that does leave it with a big problem of “Now Follow That” for season 3. With the exception of getting Mr Bates out of gaol, the special delivered pretty much the perfect capper to the whole series, with the last scene (as picturesque snow started to fall on the Abbey) finally putting an end to the enduring Mary/Matthew will-they, won’t-they state of affairs that had been the core of the show since its start. It’s as if they expected to call it a day at that point and end the show right there in the snow – which is curious, as there was surely never any doubt that ITV would be clamouring for many more episodes given the show’s phenomenal success.
What will replace the Mary/Matthew story at the heart of the show? What storylines will emerge to propel the series forward? We’ll see whether or not Fellowes has anything more in store, whether season 2 was just an unfortunate dip caused by the need to get the show back on the air – or whether Downton Abbey is destined to be a shining star that burned bright but ever so briefly. Whatever the answer the show can surely coast along for a good couple of seasons before the opinions or critics amount to anything, or before it seriously starts to lose the love and adoration of its huge audience.
The future, it seems, is safe; as long as it’s rose-tinted history.