They're so thoughtful at ITV.
Understanding that audiences might find it difficult to make it all the way to the Downton Christmas special without an interim top-up of starched shirt and candelabra-topped oak, they'd scheduled The Making of a Lady as a kind of interim feeding station.
What's more, it had Joanna Lumley in it as a formidable aristocrat, a kind of thespian methadone to ease the cramps that accompany a sudden withdrawal of Maggie Smith. And it had a class-challenging romance. And disapproving house servants. I did fear at first that they might ruin things by making it halfway believable. But they had that sorted out in a big way by the end. It turned out to be a near-perfect Downton substitute.
Based on a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett called The Making of a Marchioness, it told the story of Emily Fox Seton, a respectable young woman living in reduced circumstances. Emily's best hope of getting a room without wall-to-wall mildew is to be taken on as the personal secretary of Lady Maria (sound the Dowager Klaxon now, please). Unfortunately, Emily makes the fatal mistake of changing the placements at an heiress-snaring dinner Lady Maria has laid on for her favourite nephew, and is told to pack her reticule and get out. Fortunately, she has snagged the eye of the nephew before she goes, and after a courtship consisting of one long walk after dark, he asks her to marry him.
This bit wasn't bad, actually. There was something rather touching about Linus Roache's performance as a regimental type, fairly recently widowed and proposing marriage more as a kind of convenient business arrangement than a meeting of souls. "You're pragmatic. You'd require little from me," he says bluffly, in the closest he actually gets to sweet talk. And Emily's acceptance of the proposal seemed to acknowledge the social realities of a life that was never going to stretch to the luxury of marrying for love. Between his constipated English politeness and her pained surrender, you had the potential for something intriguing – a self-arranged marriage awkwardly ripening into something warmer.
Unfortunately, it ripened instead into silly Victorian gothic, with a cashiered cousin turning up intent on removing the only obstacle that stands between him and the country estate. It also became clear that Emily must be fearsomely thick – dutifully drinking down the drugged milk supplied by the cousin's sinister Oriental sidekick and writing hilariously brusque letters to her husband, who had been called back to India to forestall a mutiny. I can quote the complete text of the heartfelt missive in which she informed him that he was to become a father: "Dear James, I am pregnant, which is a great surprise. I am very pleased. I know it is what you wanted. Your Loving Emily." Astonishing, really, that she didn't write it in crayon, and that she survived the skulduggery long enough to be rescued by his surprise return.
Will our own melodramas look so fusty 100 years on? One supposes they will, but this close to them, the clichés are less easy to see – or maybe we simply cherish them for the pleasure they give us. That was certainly the case in The Killing, which concluded on Saturday night, not just for this series but for ever. No more inky cellars, light-sabered into chunks by Lund's trusty torch. And no more Lund, with her rough-knit sweaters and her rough-knit attempts to unravel the mysteries of emotional dependency. They ended well by returning, with an almost shameless fidelity, to the narrative formula that had made the first series such a success – a cocktail of political ambition, parental agony and unreliable friends. And the drama deserved the occasionally hysterical attention it got. No moping now, though. It's left a perfect space for British television to show that it can refresh the old genres with equal ambition.
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