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Thursday 16 August 2018

Class act at the Abbey (Downton Abbey, UTV)

IT'S 1916 and there's a massive war on.

That's what I like about Downton Abbey, the unexpected twists. Some sort of Great War? Brilliant. I did not see that coming.

Matthew (Dan Stephens) the heir to the aforementioned great house, is on the frontline at the Somme being all sad-eyed and noble, while wily footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is trying to get injured and sent back home.

Back in Downton things are proceeding as normal.

The Earl (Hugh Bonneville) wanders around pontificating about honour and duty.

His oldest daughter Mary who, in the last series, secretly removed the corpse of a Turkish diplomat from her bed, is keeping her head down by courting a newspaper mogul (I can't see this backfiring in any way).

Middle-class cousin Isobel keeps trying to improve the lot of the servants but doesn't realise they like being subjugated, and youngest daughter Sybil is continuing to transgress class boundaries by training to be a nurse.

As a posho, this is her prerogative. Poshos can do what they want.

In contrast, new housemaid Ethel (Amy Parks) also wishes to cross the great class divide, but is an uppity nincompoop who needs to be put in her place.

"I want the best and I don't mind admitting it," she says. "In the end I want to be more than just a servant."

In response the lady's maid O'Brien proceeds to publicly humiliate her.

Ethel may have the last laugh, however, as she seems to have access to a history book written 50 years later.

"When the war is over things will change for them and us," she says ominously. "And then there will be a great depression, another war, we'll all eat loads of hydrogenated fats and then there'll be a thing called the internet" (I may have imagined that last bit).

Ethel needs to learn self-sacrifice from Bates the valet (Brendan Coyle).

He and housemaid Anna start the series planning their marriage, but before long he's sacrificing his future happiness because his estranged wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has information that could ruin his employers.

In every episode, Bates must do something masochistically noble for the sake of feudalism.

That's just the type of guy Bates is: one who hasn't read Marx or the Croke Park Agreement.

As usual, the best bits are reserved for Maggie Smith as the icy-tongued Dowager Countess.

In an unconventional move, she begins the second series dressed as a bear.

Okay, she's actually just dressed head-to-toe in furs, but it makes her look like a bear... a snooty bear who might rip you apart for using the wrong fork.

She's also the only character who seems to know she's in a television programme and many of her lines are commentaries on plot structure.

"Oh that's a relief," she says on hearing that Mary and Matthew, estranged at the end of the last series, would be meeting again for the first time in Downton rather than elsewhere.

"I hate Greek drama where everything happens off stage."

All in all, Downton Abbey is well acted and is un-taxingly entertaining, but it's also historically dubious propaganda for an inhumane class system.

Its creator, Julian Fellowes, clearly believes these lovely rich people and their faithful servants were living in a golden age.

But while much of the enjoyment of the show comes from imagining living like the idle rich, we must remember that our ancestors would most likely have been the over-worked poor.

In fact, as they were Irish, the real Earl probably rode them around like donkeys.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I want the series to end with Carson the butler suddenly saying: "Hold on, these goons can't even dress themselves!"

Then one bloody insurrection later we could have a spin-off show: Downton Soviet.

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