Matthew went over the top in Downton Abbey this week.
When doesn't he, you might ask, though that would be unfair to Dan Stevens, who is one of the more restrained cast members. And perhaps unfair to the cast as a whole, actually, since while Julian Fellowes's script never stints itself when it comes to melodrama the actors generally do an excellent job of disguising the fact. Take last night's opening scene, for example, which featured a sudden outbreak of paranormal sensitivity. As Matthew and his men charged towards the German lines we cut to Daisy, coming over all queer in the Downton kitchens: "Somebody walked over me grave," she said. For most writers one eerie premonition would be enough but not for Fellowes. Upstairs in the drawing room a china cup tumbled from Lady Mary's nerveless hand as she too felt the disturbance in the ether: "I'm so sorry... I suddenly felt terribly cold," she explained. Unfortunately, Bates – wandering around the place stiffly with his crucifix nailed to his back – doesn't appear to share their psychic gifts. "She's gone now," he reassured Anna as they discussed his malevolent ex-wife. Oh no she hasn't.
We live in more egalitarian times these days, but even so some privileges of rank still hold. So, while both Matthew and William copped a Blighty one in France it was William who ended up dying, after an obligingly extended convalescence that gave him time to marry Daisy. Meanwhile, Matthew came round to find that in all probability he's going to be playing a Lord Chatterley role in series three, wheelchair-bound and impotent as Lady Mary gets over-familiar with the Downton gamekeeper. "You mean there can be no children!" said Lord Grantham, when the doctor tactfully drew him aside. "No anything, I'm afraid," he was told. "The sexual reflex is controlled at a lower level than the function of the legs. Once the latter is cut off so is the former."
This seems unnecessarily cruel. One understands that deferred consummation is essential to all popular drama. The audience is brought to a state where they're gagging for it, and then gratification is withheld. In Downton, we've got Bates and Anna, teetering on the brink of wedded happiness, and Lady Mary and Matthew, blind to a love that seems obvious to us. But to entirely destroy the possibility that we might eventually get relief is harsh, and noble sentiments of self-sacrifice no real substitute. "Go home and think of me as dead," Matthew told Lavinia. "Remember me as I was." Even more cruelly we were teased with the sight of Penelope Wilton arriving at Matthew's bedside – an actress superbly equipped to explore the grief of a mother with a wounded son – and then she was given no lines to say. We had to make do instead with William's melodramatic valedictory, as his father murmured: "He doesn't need you no more, Daisy... he doesn't need none of us no more." As Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, you would have to have had a heart of stone not to laugh.
Still, at least Downton gives you laughs, which is more than you can say for Comic Strip Presents – The Hunt for Tony Blair. Family loyalty would explain the commissioning of this "satire", since Comic Strip helped launch the channel, but I'm not sure anything can explain its transmission. The pastiche was undisciplined (what was Barbara Windsor doing in a 39 Steps parody, other than showing that Ronni Ancona can do the voice?), the script flabby and seemingly unedited ("Here, I was back in the city. Anonymous... apart from my sack-cloth toga") and the plot utterly devoid of satirical bite. It should have been cordoned off with crime-scene tape, not broadcast.
Spy, on the other hand, a new sitcom on Sky1, is very promising. "How was school?" a dad asks his son. "Torpid," replies his witheringly precocious nine-year-old. Thirty seconds in and already more laughs than Comic Strip managed in an hour.