Grace Dent on TV: The winds are changing in Downton Abbey and boy are they icy

Not long now until the Downton National Heritage tearoom opens and the entire family are living upstairs while tourists root through their knick-knacks

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The Independent Culture

Downton Abbey is back and, it seems, is somewhat in decline.

The house’s pomp and ceremony may still be in semi-swing – every fish knife still twice polished, forelocks still being tugged – but for the “upstairs” toffs, the farty, displeasing winds of change are blowing. That damn war hasn’t exactly demolished class deference, but it has left its rigidity a questionable matter. The peasants are (quietly, while carrying trays) revolting.

I may giggle at Downton for its daftness – I’ve only just got over the convalescent-home plot in series two – but they make a good fist of tackling the subtleties of historical social change. In its clonking “history for beginners” manner, we hear stalwart human pastry machine Mrs Patmore  explain to drippy Anna that folk would rather work in factories and shops these days than make a living from service. The end is beginning. Not long now until the Downton National Heritage tearoom opens and the entire family are living in two rooms upstairs while tourists root through their knick-knacks.

 

At those stiff, joyless dinners that Lord Grantham laps up, Carson the Butler has even begun to chip in with uninvited opinion. Brazenly! Almost as if his opinion matters! Worse, in the opening episode, Lady Rose MacClare took leave of her senses and invited a lowly schoolteacher to dinner. To compound matters, said schoolteacher arrived armed with uppity, pie-in-the-sky, anti-war opinions (something about millions of young men pointlessly slaughtered being a bad thing, yadda yadda) and, gasp, refused to recant them. Not even when Lord Grantham’s face began to resemble a distressed beetroot.

When Lady Mary announced she was “going upstairs to take off her hat”, it left me with a  terrible concern that the woman was quite possibly going to be forced to remove her own hat. Using her own hands. Without any assistance. Social mobility, I thought, is all very well, but where does this leave ITV’s flagship drama? If nine lowly souls can’t make a huge, humdinging fuss about the availability of another, posher person’s preferred post-hunt consommé for hours on end, then where are we?

Plotwise, Downton opened at a snoozy level. Evil footman Thomas was blackmailing Phyllis over her criminal past. He’s always blackmailing someone. Phyllis stole a load of jewels in her last job. This is all stuff Phyllis should have probably mentioned at the Downton interview, but then Lord Grantham is such a berk with money there is probably not a great deal left to steal anyway.

Thomas, as ever, spent all of episode one  lurking in a dark alcove, mumbling. Eventually, Phyllis called his bluff and told the Countess  everything. “I have no excuses!” Phyllis said. Well, couldn’t you make some up for God’s sake, I thought. There’s nothing else happening. In fact, the high point so far has been Lady Mary’s plans for crop rotation.

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Alan Leech (Tom Branson) and Rob James-Collier (Tom Barrow) on the set of Downton Abbey in August 2014

In other news, Lady Edith’s illegitimate baby girl is now a tousle-haired child living with honest-to-goodness farming stock. Edith is keeping this secret firmly under her hat by visiting her child, clutching her lost daughter to her chest while the adoptive mother looks on bewildered, then leaving dramatically, clomping tearfully up the mud path. “Stealth” is not the word.

Edith is in a tough position, but I remain  unforgiving about her writing that letter to the Turkish ambassador, in which she branded her sister a loose-knickered strumpet in series one. In other, not entirely unconnected, gossip in the opening episode, Lady Mary was making plans for pre-marital sex. She confided this to her  maid, Anna, who replied, “Ooh I’m far too old-fashioned for this”, seemingly forgetting that her husband is a divorced ex-con. Mary has found love with a dashing toff who wants to take her away for a dirty weekend and make love to her. All her talk of arable farming technique has stirred something deep in his loins. He is only flesh and blood, after all.

How Downton will tumble on in this low- impact manner for an entire series, before filling a double-length Christmas edition, is debatable. Hollywood’s finest, George Clooney, has been announced as a cast member for the festive shindig, although the channel showed their knickers with this secret sometime in late August. It would have been wonderful if Clooney had  simply appeared, just at that point on Christmas Day when one must accept that one’s family will not be shutting their traps, no, not for one minute, during any programme. No, not even if one really wants to watch it, and has had the show circled with felt tip in the big Radio Times since at least mid-December. At one point, the big felt-tip mark used to count for something. Then it was all “Let’s Sky+ this” and “Oh it will be on again on ITV2 anyway”. Like Lord Grantham, I have felt the winds of change, and they are icy.

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