Mike Higgins vs Hugh Montgomery: Rant & Rave (25/09/11)

More than 10 million tuned in to the start of the second series of Downton Abbey last weekend. Two <i>IoS</i> writers debate why...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mike

I tried, Hugh, I did.... A year ago, for the first series, I was dragged, reluctantly, on to the Downton Abbey bandwagon, and actually found Julian Fellowes's jaunt around Edwardian England quite good fun: a cocktail of class, sex and Pugin architecture that slipped down nicely on a Sunday evening. But sometime during last week's opener for the second series I fell off, with a bump. Maybe it's the hype: expectations weren't sky-high before the first series, but Downton 2.0 advanced on us laden with hype. Maybe it was the rush – Fellowes, presumably, had to dash off his scripts quickly for series two. But the disappointment... Where to start? The dialogue: alarm bells started ringing the moment Matthew began waxing nostalgic from his trench in France: "When I think of my life at Downton it seems like another world." And they kept ringing for the next 90 minutes.

Hugh

Oh Mike, that opening statement speaks volumes: where many decided to check out a popular new costume drama of a Sunday evening, you, poor thing, endured the ordeal of being "dragged, reluctantly" on to a "bandwagon". Why the reluctance? Was it Downton's extraordinary popularity that bothered you? And I think you may have misinterpreted the hype. I, and millions of other Downton fans, are not entirely blind to the fact that this may not be the greatest show ever made/best thing since The Wire. It is, as you say, rather more fun than that: beautifully assembled, high-grade tosh, full of narrative bravado and deliciously ripe performances. If you're looking for a subtler portrait of country-house life, may I point you to a certain 2001 film, Gosford Park? And if you think the dialogue unwieldy, why don't you simply turn over to its Sunday night rival, Spooks, the MI5 drama? Now there's a show famous for its Chekhovian nuance ...

Mike

I'll happily wait as long as poor Anna must endure that duty-bound bore Bates for Maggie Smith to appear – she swipes every scene she's in and stuffs it under her bustle. But otherwise I'm not looking for nuance, just intelligibility: "The war is reaching its long fingers into Downton and scattering our chicks," the Earl was forced to say at one point. Is Fellowes writing this stuff with fridge poetry? And what about the lumps of GCSE history learning-support littering the script: "Why shouldn't [Sybil] learn how to cook and scrub," declared Ethel in the kitchens. "She may need it when the war's over. Things are changing for her lot and us." A-stars all round!

Hugh

Well, I'm glad to hear that you find Bates just as insufferable as I do. And I'm not about to defend those choice clunkers you so assiduously pick out, though, for my mind, ample compensation is provided by the multitude of Maggie zingers. ("Oh, that's a relief. I hate Greek drama, when everything happens off stage", she clucked beautifully last week on hearing that ill-starred love interests Matthew and Mary would be venturing home by different routes.) But, lest you forget, this is a soap opera, albeit of the finely scented Yardley variety: a genre for which plot, not dialogue, is the thing. And what a plot it is: four hissable villains, three will-they-won't-they love stories, two traumatised soldiers and one ongoing coital death scandal. Need I say more?

Mike

Plotting! Aha – is that what was going on when O'Brien, the maid, was to be seen earwigging in the hall as Isobel Crawley recruited Lady Sybil to the war effort? It was pure Mrs Overall in "Acorn Antiques". Except with a £12m budget – much of which has been spent on an incidental score that attempts willy-nilly to lard a bit of emotion over yet another scene of half-cooked exposition. But perhaps I should just relax and, as Fellowes himself suggests, enjoy it as soap opera – more than 10 million viewers did so last Sunday. Hugh, I know you know Downton is naff – but do you think Fellowes and the production team know that? Or doesn't it matter?

Hugh

Oh, yes, that old eavesdropping thing? It's a wonder no one's lambasted Shakespeare, Molière, Austen or Proust for using such a tawdry narrative device. As you say, Fellowes himself is happy to be associated with soap opera; but that is not to say he is producing something knowingly "naff". Rather that, just as the EastEnders scriptwriters conspicuously avoid Loachian realism in their portrait of 21st-century urban society, he is aware of the show's strengths and limitations – one of its strengths being its willingness to eschew irony in favour of a grand spread of melodrama. So while the Downton faithful boo, hiss, cackle and swoon their way through their viewing ritual, I think you've suffered enough, Mike. Perhaps your cheerless Sunday evenings would be better spent joining the Dowager Countess in furrowing your brow and contemplating "What is a weekend?"

Comments