Heirs and Graces: Rachel Cooke Doesn't Believe the Hype about ITV's New Period Drama
Cooke, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
Two weeks in, and those of us who have been longing for a Brideshead Revisited-style Sundaynight treat--for a drama that is long, sumptuous and properly involving - must now invest all our hopes in the BBC's forthcoming revival of Upstairs, Downstairs. Yes, I refer to Downton Abbey (Sundays, 9pm), an advert for which I was even treated to at a cinema the other day. How is it that this much-hyped series has turned out to be such a disappointment? I was determined to love it and, after struggling to feel even remotely involved during part one, I decided to keep my doubts to myself. Perhaps it would pick up. Yes, I felt patronised by the explanatory dialogue. Yes, the soundtrack was intrusive. Yes, virtually every costume-drama cliche one can think of had been concertinaed into a little over an hour's worth of television. But, still: a grand house, a collection of warring servants, an estate without a rightful heir. What's not to like?
Yet, now that I've seen part two, I'm already thoroughly sick of the bitchy servants and couldn't care less who inherits Lord Grantham's pile. If they turned Downton into time-share flats, I'm not sure I would be exactly sad. Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his script for Gosford Park, another big-house-in-changing-times drama, is obsessed by social class and I think Downton Abbey is a victim of that fixation: the series has no light and shade because its only preoccupation is where anyone stands in the house's hierarchy. As a result, everything else--plot, character--has been bleached out.
People are either good or bad, nice or nasty: cardboard cut-outs in jet beads and plus fours. The whole set-up feels ersatz, a mere vehicle for gawping at silverware and hunting jackets. Worse, for all that Fellowes pays lip-service to the social revolution that will come with the Great War--his working-class characters say things like "Just because you're a lord, you think you can do what you like with me!"--the script oozes nostalgic approval for the days when people not only knew the difference between an earl and duke, but cared about it, too.
So, in terms of emotional development, his characters make some weird journeys. …