Simon Kelner: The ups and downs of English life


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Did you know that Downton Abbey is in Guinness World Records as the most positively reviewed television programme in history? So it's only to be expected that, as the second series gets going, it's hard to find anyone who's got a good word to say about it. Viewers have complained in big numbers to ITV about the preponderance of adverts (23 minutes of commercials and 67 minutes of drama last Sunday), there has been much adverse comment on internet sites about the speed with which the plot is unfolding, while the professional critics have not been universally complimentary about the return of Lord and Lady Grantham to our screens: Giles Coren on Twitter likened it to Acorn Antiques.

Why should the makers of the programme care? Viewing figures grew on Sunday to well over nine million, and rarely in recent times has a work of original, British-made drama excited so much comment. The secret is that it's a period piece in which we don't know what's going to happen. We wouldn't have breathless newspaper articles wondering whether Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy will one day get married, or pondering on the future of Soames Forsyte. But Downton is that rare beast: a work that has all the comforting features of a period drama – it looks and feels and sounds reassuringly familiar – but which leaves viewers guessing what's going to become of Lady Mary. To weave a thread of unpredictability into the frocks and the dress coats is at the heart of its appeal. For sure, there are too many adverts, but who can blame ITV, which has had its share of hard times recently, wanting to cash in?

My opinion is that there is too much tell, and not enough show, in this series. One of the most impressive features of the first series was its understatement: there was much left unspoken, rather in keeping with the mores of the age. I also didn't care for the Ealing Studios remake of the First World War in the first episode – and I thought the invitation, over the closing credits, to see how the scenes were made was crass – but, for those of us who don't follow The X Factor and think the latest iteration of Big Brother is the modern equivalent of Bedlam, Downton is an unalloyed joy, something we know like souls will be watching too, and an hour or so of escapism that makes the unforgiving hours on Sunday evening bearable. But what we see here is a recognised arc: first the bouquets, then the rotten tomatoes. This is a very English phenomenon.