This is my favourite time of year in London. You can smell the shavings from the points of newly-shorn pencils as the City hunkers down in back to school mode. It’s time to take our accounts to our accountant to prepare for the dreaded HMRC payment in January. It’s time to cook meats infused with ginger and autumnal scents. It’s time to watch the fading light of the early autumn evenings – the most beautiful of the year in England – and turn to the comfort of Britain’s most successful export since Charlie Chaplin decided to take up a vaudeville touring post and head west. It’s time for Downton Abbey, Series Three.
The Downton effect is an extraordinary one. In his book The Edwardians, Roy Hattersley points out that the national religion of the English wasn’t Christianity, it was organised sports. Now the national religion of the English appears to be Downton, where we watch Edwardians taking part in organised inheritance debates and sumptuous 12 course dinners with newly-related Irish chauffeurs. I doubt we have lived through anything quite like it. Downton is all. Downton has permeated us. Downton is everywhere. My brother, a The Sopranos / Robert de Niro sort of man, now answers his home telephone with “Good afternoon, Downton Abbey”. The Downton App was launched last week for iPads where, for the sum of £4.99, you can take an interactive tour of the Abbey, and click on beautifully drawn rooms for character breakdowns, cast interviews, vintage style photographs and historical information.
I have noticed that in the last week a vast amount of traffic for The London Bluebird has now started coming from Canada. I would like to welcome the Canadians with a friendly Hello. And the Americans too. In order to ensure that they continue to visit the site, I’ll tell them everything that happened in the 90 minute special of Upstairs Downton Series 3, because those in the colonies have to wait another year. Before that, I need you to gather round whilst I tell you about one of my latest obsessions.
The thing is this : in order to spice up the day job with a little Edwardian frivolity, I take turns in taking on different Downton characters whilst answering the office phone. It’s a harmless habit that really gets results : Pretending to be Lord Grantham to a cold caller trying to sell me PPI and saying : “Now, look here, my good man. I must inform you that we have no need for such rag tag business here. Good day.” is so much more effective than saying “piss off” and putting the phone down. Lady Edith’s voice expresses a surprisingly authoritarian character, whose arch vowels won’t take any nonsense from anyone, and which belong to a woman who cannot physically afford to not see the truth. Lady Sybil is hopeless – a simpering, sibilant voice that suggests swooning at the next availability opportunity. Lady Mary sounds like a Martian with psychotic tendencies. The most terrifying voice of all which is guaranteed to put the fear into those chasing payment or promising recruitment offers is that of Mrs Patmore, the cook, the woman who could knock a man out at twenty paces by hurling a well-aimed scone.
Upstairs Downton started Series Three pack full of glaring reminders of what had taken place in Series 2. This was wise : Series 2 ended during the most debauched period of Christmas Day (somewhere after Only Fools & Horses and shortly before a champagne-drenched viewing of Spinal Tap) so most of the country was too inebriated to remember the snowscene proposal that Mary & Matthew finally got stuck into after two series of flirting. The vaulted turrets of Downton Abbey breathed a sigh of relief slightly earlier in the series when Matthew had informed Carson, the butler, that, despite the fact the Great War had paralysed him from the manly chest down and he was wheeling around the ancestral halls in a wheelchair, he could feel a “tingle”. In Downton World, this was a good tingle, for Matthew must convincingly sex things up to continue the Grantham generations through the ages and stop Downton becoming a theme park in the 1960s or being handed over to the National Trust. Bad tingles in Downton World usually happen to the ladies : one maid servant had a tingle and produced an illegitimate son who then tried to be purchased by its irate grandparents and Lady Mary’s unfortunate tingle led to Lady Cora having to assist moving a dead Turk in a duvet down the corridor.
Series Three opened with a wedding rehearsal and general High Church jollities. It is 1920, and no time has been wasted in raiding The House of Elliot’s wardrobe collection. The ladies sigh into cloche hats. Edith does something jolly with her hair, which is immediately noticed by Sir Anthony Strallen, the one-armed bandit who she follows around like a sick duck. Downstairs though, it’s still about 1891 as O’Brien and Thomas continue to wield their resentment and unrelentingly Northern misery around the servants quarters, in a way that tells us they won’t be Charlestonning in to the 1920s. Not when there’s pins and knives to metaphorically stab into their fellow workers.
“I have to go to London,” said Lord Grantham, resplendent in a green silk dressing gown.
“I have been to London,” said Lord Grantham, having gone up to town and back again in one day, thereby becoming, as Thomas suggests “completely exhausted, mi’ lord”.
As if travelling at high speed on a railway train with poor people is not enough to completely destabilize him, he has been dealt the massive blow that Cora’s fortune is gone because he invested it is some silly Canadian railways. (Is this why the Canadians are following the blog? Is this their revenge for us withholding Downton from their screens for a whole year?) The money is gone. Cora is unabashed and bleakly continues her slightly simple acting style which involves occasionally bleating and wiggling her botox. Whilst Lord Grantham comes to terms with the massive loss of family money, Matthew, The Wettest Man in West Yorkshire, accidentally comes by a great thumping wad of the stuff. Great heaving dollops of moolah has landed, unceremoniously, in his stolid, middle class lap. Mary is jubilant – Matthew’s money can save the family. But Matthew insists on some gentleman’s code of nobility that says you should not take money from the dead father of the woman you pretended to love when you were in a wheelchair and then who died a horrible influenza death. Mary is irate on hearing such tosh and instantly tells Matthew he is batting for the wrong side, or not on their side – or something about sides.
Meanwhile Lady Sybil is attempting to bring her husband on side, which is tricky bearing in mind the hullaballoo she brought on herself by running away to Dublin with him in the first place. Branson the chauffeur is now brother-in-law Tom but, dash it all, the fellow doesn’t even own a dinner suit and keeps shouting about Ireland over the starters at the dinner table. In some bizarre drug attempt, some posh fruit calls Larry slips the 1920 equivalent of Rohypnol into Branson’s drink. This makes Branson get drunk and rail about Ireland and Home Rule which is incredibly out of character. Eventually he is carted off to bed in disgrace, Matthew saving him by asking him to be his best man at the wedding, although Branson is so off his face on Rohypnol he probably doesn’t remember this the next day. Several people most probably violated him in the night (including Carson the butler) and he hasn’t a clue. Lady Edith continues her pathological and puzzling sexual pursuit of Sir Anthony Strallen. Anna, hearing that Shirley MacLaine is about to turn up, legs it to prison to visit her husband to convince him of her plans to turn Miss Marple in order to release him. Mr Bates struggles with a peculiarly underwritten role and sits there nodding.
Shirley MacLaine does turn up, in her much vaulted, much publicised role as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother, but she forgot to pack her facial muscles when she boarded the Mauretania. She slips out of a gorgeous Rolls Royce with a performance low on energy and high on red lipstick. Her lines often call for a raised satirical eyebrow, but our Martha’s had some sort of stroke so cannot move her face. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess does a lot of English disapproval and bitchy asides before brother-in-law Branson the chauffeur decides the whole ShirleyGate thing is just too much and checks in to the local pub. He didn’t marry “up” the social scale just so he could tear pheasants with Warren Beatty’s sister. Lady Cora attempts to smooth over the political disaster of chauffeur-at-table by tasking him with answering odd questions about Irish horticulturalism, as if he is Dublin’s answer to Monty Don. Mary is upset at dinner due to Wet Matthew failing to hand over his moolah. This delights Lady Edith who, having a face that breaks mirrors, secretly despises her sister, and probably makes wax models of Mary and then burns them in the dining room fire. Lady Sybil seems to have developed laryngitis, a frumpy bob and a pregnancy in that order, and spends a lot of time fretting over whether her husband will ever fit in, failing to notice he has performed the worst dining room faux pas since Mrs Patmore put salt on the meringues because she was so blind she couldn’t tell it wasn’t caster sugar.
Branson redeems himself in trying to convince Matthew not to be so stupid, and plays a hand in attempting a reconciliation with Mary the night before the wedding, thereby ensuring Series Three shifts from a series of pre-marital disagreements between Mary and Matthew to a series of marital ones, which will be occasionally hijacked by Matthew’s mother, the irritating Isobel Crawley. She is only at home when tending deep wounds of infantrymen from the front and attempting to supercede Lady Cora as Director of Operations at Downton Abbey. If the Dowager Countess as mother-in-law would make any sturdy American baulk, then the parsimonious and interfering Isobel Crawley will test Lady Mary’s patience more than Sir Richard Carlyle did in Series Two, when he behaved like a mean chav whilst out on a partridge shoot.
Lord Grantham has found the answer to his financial distress – hard liquor.
“I say, mother, would you like to try one of these new fangled cocktails?” he chirrups at her, clearly 7 mojitos to the wind and only another 3 mojitos away from embarrassing all and sundry by attempting air guitar to Genesis in the drawing room. He glances at the camera with a look in his eye that says “Yes, viewers. This is the 1920s.” The Dowager Countess is appalled.
Lady Cora’s delusion regarding her husband flushing her money down the toilet knows no bounds. Her resolve to carry on and just have a good party of the wedding stinks of burying one’s aristocratic head in the sand. Perhaps there is more to her motives than meets the eye, however, as she had earlier reminded her husband that she is an American and has a gun, thereby hinting at what might happen to Lord Grantham the next time he is discovered snogging a maid in the wine closet.
Then they all go off and celebrate Rosh Hashanah.
No, of course they don’t.
They roll out of bed the next morning, Mary deigns to dress for her wedding looking like Frankenstein’s bride of death, puts up with her mother’s icky advice that married love really is rather “terrific” once one gets the hang of it, and turns up to the church. But there unfortunately, the first episode draws to a close as they stand at the altar, ready to be married in the High Anglican tradition, so I leave it up to your fetid, disgusting minds to work out once and for all whether Mary and Michael finally get to consummate two series of will-they-won’t-they that has pushed the ratings up like nobody’s business.
The hullaballoo of Downton has less to do with them and more to do with us. Brideshead Revisited rocked onto our old-fashioned analogue televisions in 1981, when Britain was in the midst of a huge recession, and where a summer not only featured a Royal Wedding but also urban riots. Today in Britain, we’ve come out of a long and artificially suspended boom, and collapsed into a long, stagnant economic pile of poo. Our comfort is drawn from the old world, from the stately home, from the sense of an England that is not altogether lost, because it was never truly owned by any of us in the first place. This is an England of debentures, of investitures, of entails to inherited wealth, of dressing in silks and satins for supper, an England whose structure and beaded and be-jeweled prettiness we are happy to concern ourselves with until the view out of our own early 21st century window changes. When the economic spirit lifts, when 1 in 4 young Londoners and not unemployed, when you don’t have to produce 25 and a half years of income proof in order to get your mortgage offer accepted, and when the most positive thing that happens to us in our day is not that, like Lady Edith, we merely do something jolly with our hair, I guarantee you won’t see Downton for toffee.
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