David Lister: Downton makes a mockery of its own creator's prejudices

 

When the next series of Downton Abbey begins, it should have a new character – an aristocratic writer given to outlandish statements, spoken with utter certainty. Who better to play the part than the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes?

This week he declared that American actors were too "contemporary" for period drama. He said: "I think our actors have a kind of understanding of period. For Europeans, the past is in them as well as the present, and I think they are at ease in that genre in a way that the Americans find harder. I think Americans are wonderful film actors – the best in the world – but they are a very contemporary race."

Let me introduce Mr Fellowes to two "contemporary" Americans, Shirley MacLaine who will appear in the new series of Downton, and Elizabeth McGovern, who has played Lady Grantham from the start. Ms McGovern is one of the most convincing performers in the drama, even if Mr Fellowes has somewhat underwritten her role. Did these two actresses slip his mind when he made his comments?

Mr Fellowes is certainly not alone in expressing such thoughts. It's a not uncommon view, especially in an age of too much casting-to-type, that actors can only play roles which fit in with their background. Yet if Americans are ill-equipped for costume drama, how does one explain the exquisite performances by Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder in the film adaptation of The Age of Innocence, directed by that most contemporary American Martin Scorsese?

Great actors have the ability and the imagination to cross oceans and traverse time. Costume drama isn't in the blood, nor is it part of a shared history, it's a result of research, imagination and empathy.

And it's not just in acting that the assumption is made that a shared history is necessary. How often does one hear that only German or Austrian orchestras can really interpret Beethoven and Brahms, or that only Russian musicians can do justice to the pain and power of Shostakovich? Those of us who witnessed the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra give such a thrilling rendition of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony at the Proms a few days ago will beg to differ.

The logic of Julian Fellowes's comments is that art can only be expressed by those belonging to the culture and tradition which they seek to explore. Meryl Streep could not have played Margaret Thatcher, nor Vivien Leigh Scarlett O'Hara, Dvorak could not have composed The New World Symphony, Canaletto could not have conveyed the glory of the Thames.

Meanwhile, I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Fellowes, McGovern and MacLaine next meet. He might hear a few "contemporary" phrases.

Cometh the hour, cometh the end. Hopefully

Two thoughts on theatre voiced at the Edinburgh Festival have stayed with me. The playwright Sabrina Mahfouz tweeted: "Even a long life means only 700,800 hours. Your whole life if you live to 80. This is why theatre shouldn't be more than an hour." The novelist Alexander McCall Smith wrote in The Independent: "Check the language in which the play is being presented. Three hours of drama in Polish or Chinese can be testing, if you do not speak Polish or Chinese." As someone who thinks too many plays are 20 minutes too long and we are afraid to criticise foreign-language drama, I agree.

How one BBC presenter is still Living in the Past

Newsnight's Gavin Esler (whose new book is reviewed on page 28) has revealed himself a fan of prog rock, and will host the 2012 Progressive Music Awards. "I grew up listening to bands ranging from King Crimson and Jethro Tull to Colosseum," he said. There's an unfortunate childhood. Esler shares my alma mater, the University of Kent, where such bands were fashionable long after they were fashionable, which might explain it. I'd like to see a Newsnight special with the presenters championing their tastes. Gavin could tell the world who Colosseum were and why. Kirsty Wark, to judge by her reverential interview with Madonna, is a fan of the queen of pop. Emily Maitlis possibly liked Eighties new romantics. Paxman, I suspect, was a secret glam-rock aficionado and put stars on his face when alone in his bedroom.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/davidlister1

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable