Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Preposterous plots and character stereotypes in a derivative posh soap

Back in the 1980s Granada, one of the original ITV companies, made two long drama serials at almost the same time. One was “Brideshead Revisited” based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel and the other was “Jewel in the Crown” – the dramatisation of Paul Scott’s extraordinary “Raj Quartet”. They differed somewhat – “Brideshead” was very faithful indeed to the original with much of Charles Ryder’s narration and Waugh’s plot and dialogue intact. “Jewel” was of necessity more selective – the original books ran to nearly 2000 pages – but it was totally true to the main story and characters. Both these series were masterpieces and if you watch them today you will find they have stood well the test of time.

The drama tradition of Granada, of some of the other commercial companies and, of course, of the BBC is strong and is something of a jewel in the crown of British television. It is also an important source of revenue, not least in the United States, where posh British TV has a small but well-heeled following. This brings me to “Downton Abbey”, superficially in the great tradition and with obvious links also to the very successful and ground-breaking “Forsyte Saga” and “Upstairs Downstairs” of the 1960s and 1970s. Downton is set in the second and third decades of the twentieth century and we have moved from Edwardian complacency and excesses through the horrors of the Great War to the early 1920s. As with “Upstairs Downstairs” we see life, and to an extent history, through the eyes of the aristocracy and simultaneously from the perspective of those in the Servants’ Hall. The distinction between these two classes is largely unmuddled by any interventions from the Middle Class and the representatives of this class are few in number. Early in the first Series we are introduced to Matthew Crawley and his mother Isabel who although distant cousins of the gentry family are frowned upon, at least by the haughty Dowager Duchess, for being not of her class. Later in the second series we meet a newspaper magnate Sir Richard Carlisle who being a self-made man, and clearly highly successful in business, is held in contempt for everything but his wealth. But nevertheless these are solidly upper-middle establishment characters, men of education, wealth and privilege, who have far more in common with the aristocrats than they have with the burgeoning middle classes of the time who overwhelmingly worked in “trade”.

Over the 16 episodes that have so far been transmitted, spanning the years 1912-1920, the stories are reminiscent of a Soap like “Eastenders” or “Coronation Street” in that there are episode ending cliff-hangers and improbably extreme story developments. Every historic event from the sinking of the Titanic through women’s suffrage, the Irish independence movement, the Battle of the Somme, the post-war Flu epidemic and many others is a trigger for something to happen in the plot. In addition we have adultery, murder, homosexuality, alcoholism, illness and recovery or death, the black market, inter-class affairs and marriage, and most of the seven deadly sins in sharp relief. The stories are often signalled rather obviously and it is an amusing parlour game to predict what will happen next - as with any soap. Taken as a whole the story is totally preposterous and rather in the same way the Midsomer must have the highest homicide rate in Europe so the Downton extended family was surely Britain’s most dysfunctional. The “issues” are not handled with any subtlety at all – there is none of the restraint of a Galsworthy, a Waugh or a Scott.

The starting point for Downton Abbey was in the creative mind of the writer Julian Fellowes and its main inspiration was clearly that author’s film script for “Gosford Park” - which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2002. But whereas this film lasts a couple of hours and was tightly directed by Robert Altman Downton goes on for 20 – and running! The characters are largely pastiches of real people. Maggie Smith, for example, is wonderful as the Dowager a figure straight out of Pantomime - Dame Maggie overtly seeks hisses from the stalls. Fine actors like Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton and Dan Stevens struggle with a script that is always close to parody and sometimes spills over into farce. Indeed at times there is a slight sense that they know what they are being asked to say, or the absurd plot twist in which they are expected to participate, has moved into lampoon territory and that Mel Brooks or the Directors of “Airplane” or “Something about Mary” are in charge.

The great strength of Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown and the Forsyte Saga is that the stories had passed the tough test of being seen as credible in the original novel format. They were great books before they became great television. The original screenplay of “Downton Abbey” has had none of the checks and balances that apply to the written word. And because the medium is only to be visual, and in a number of time-limited episodes, it is presumed that there is a need to provide colourful action rather than attempt any true characterisation. We are supposed to like the Earl of Grantham because he is a benevolent toff – fragile but caring with a true sense of noblesse oblige. But compare his character, which is utterly superficially sketched, with the way that Evelyn Waugh gradually introduces Lord Marchmain in Brideshead - we feel we know the Marquess long before we meet him. The same superficiality applies to Downton’s “below stairs” characters most of whom are stereotypes we have met frequently before.

The visual impact of “Downton Abbey” is strong and in this area the production values are high. The sets, both in the studio and on location, are beautifully designed and the costumes and other artefacts are good and look authentic. There is a strange paradox here which I suspect has led some to assume that because it looks good then it is good - perhaps ignoring the often wooden acting and sloppy direction - because what is seen is at times quite striking. A series of this sort needs a big budget to look so good, and familiar actors of the calibre of the leads in the series don’t come cheap either. Downton at a cost of in excess of £1m per episode clearly has that budget. This brings us to the economics - and to a challenge familiar to all involved in the Arts. Downton’s viewing figures are good and this is no doubt reflected directly in the income received from advertisers and the revenue from the sale of overseas rights and DVDs etc. - it is evidently a profitable venture. So a legitimate response to those critics who deplore the triviality of the series would be to never mind the quality and weigh the receipts.

There is nothing really wrong with “Downton Abbey” if you see it for what it is – a Soap of fleeting interest with can pass the time on an autumnal evening. It is easy to be superior about it – especially if you put it in the context of truly great fiction or memorable adaptations of this fiction as I have in this review. Perhaps it doesn’t pretend to be of this quality and so we shouldn’t judge it by these standards. But actually I think that Downton does take itself quite seriously at times and some of the acting is so pompously self-important that it can only be seen as light comedy, which it isn’t meant to be, or over-written moralising trash - which at times it comes dangerously close to being.