Thursday, March 10, 2016

Five peerless pleasures of watching Downton Abbey

Scott Murray

March 10, 2016

Downton Abbey rewards viewers over its six seasons.
Downton Abbey rewards viewers over its six seasons. Photo: Channel Seven


Few series reward re-viewing  like Downton Abbey. From its first episode, one can detect and thrill at the themes and storylines that will inspire writer-creator Julian Fellowes throughout. It is there in the way Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt​) so sweetly attends to the unwelcome John Bates (Brendan Coyle), and in how the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) do battle against the dying of the light to maintain the standards of a country house they both so treasure. I have seen all of Downton Abbey many times and I never intend stopping. And I will continue to be delighted by the exquisite narrative patterning – of how Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) must deal with the death of his fiancee, and things said, before he can move on and marry Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and then how Mary must deal with the death of Matthew, and things said, before also moving on – just as I will cheer loudly at each dazzling aphorism from the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).


It is a truth not universally acknowledged, but the criminals of Downton inhabit downstairs. There's a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist, a black marketer and so on. True, they are offset by some of the finest people around – Anna; the aspirant secretary, Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie); the saintly Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy); and, of course, Old Grumpy himself, Carson – but we expect no less. More than a century of British screen entertainment has told us the kindest and best are below stairs. What one didn't expect was the family upstairs to be portrayed without cliched vilification, but as generally thoughtful, caring and generous. Grantham may look weak and vacillating at times, but in a crunch he invariably proves himself to be an honourable man. Carson may be an absolute stickler for the correct rules of behaviour (including that servants stand when he enters a room), but it is upstairs that a fuller understanding of what is right and proper prevails. Marxist class war has been challenged by the belief that, "We all have different parts to play and we must be allowed to play them", as Grantham tells Matthew.


From the start, Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) is a smouldering mess of jealousy, furious that her sister Mary, and not she, was engaged to Titanic fatality, cousin Patrick. And when Edith discovers that Mary is not totally adverse to Patrick's replacement as heir, Matthew, Edith attempts to steal him away. Rejected, she dispatches a letter to the Turkish Ambassador denouncing Mary for a romantic dalliance with Kemal Pamuk (Theo James). Edith is a monster, so how is it that we spend so much of the succeeding five series caring so deeply about her, hoping that she ultimately finds happiness? It is because Fellowes is a brilliant writer, constantly upending our expectations and resurrecting to likeability characters of seriously evil intent, be it terrorist Tom Branson (Allen Leech) or the sinister duo of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finnernan). Fellowes succeeds so well that even within Barrow we begin to sense goodness, a hero in the making.


There can be no doubt that Fellowes loves, understands and celebrates women in a way arguably too few male writers do. He revels in their strength, feminine wiles, intelligence and courage, and even – from the safety of his typewriter – their feuds. Who could  possibly make a cuter couple than the forever-sparring Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton)? All of Downton's women have their lesser moments, it is true, but these would barely reach in total the height of an ant against the mountain of collective female greatness.


Lady Mary is one of  the finest portrayals in literature, film or television of the struggle to do right, even when it thwarts personal desire. Mary holds to the upper-class insistence that a public exhibition of emotion is an impoliteness to others, and for this she is regularly misjudged. It is Anna and Carson who best understand Mary's fineness and inner turmoil, kind servants who observe every key moment of their mistress' aristocratic life, and provide the emotional connection and counsel Mary's family often cannot. And while Carson and Grantham may be the ageing, noble leopards presiding over a greatly changing age, if there is only one seat left on the lifeboat, pray that it be given to Lady Mary. She is the one who will safely see us home.

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