As Downton Abbey draws to a close, many of us will shout (like the inner voice of Sir Anthony Strallan as Lady Edith glided down the aisle towards him), “No! This cannot happen!”
Do you remember the jilted bride episode? You may well not; since then, we have had a dramatic death, a baby, an overturned conviction and the threat of a terrible marital rift between the main lordly couple. Do not for a moment imagine that country aristocrats lead quiet lives of stalking and sleeping. It’s all go in the statelies. Never forget, this was a programme that kicked off with an heiress bonking a Turk to death; the Granthams make the Ewings look positively banal.
What is terrific about Downton is that massive crises can be raised and resolved within minutes. It’s reassuring for those of us who face difficult questions in our own lives. This is a happy world in which no problem remains insoluble for long.
It has been particularly true in series three, where everything speeded up. Last series, Matthew was confined to a wheelchair, totally paralysed, and we had to wait several episodes before he sprang up, miraculously cured. This time around, Lord Grantham was informed of his lost fortune and the inevitable homelessness of the family in an opening scene, and Matthew inherited the necessary funds to save everybody two scenes later.
Were the pace slower, of course, the human dynamics might be a little more sophisticated. In real life, people don’t generally cheer up quite that fast after being dumped at the altar, going bankrupt or having their sisters die in childbirth. But we are watching it for fun. We are watching it for silver soup tureens, massive pies, shocked butlers, snobby doctors, flappers beads and hooker housemaids. We are watching for the lavishness and luxury that our own lives lack (perfect escapism in these recessionary times) and, once we’re escaping the drabness of reality, why not kid ourselves that life’s bigger disasters can be wiped out in moments like an Etch-a-Sketch?
We will miss it terribly, once it’s gone. What will replace this blend of excitement, drama, wealth and scandal in our bland lives? I don’t know about you, but my plan is to invite Prince Harry for Christmas.
But let’s not forget that while the narrative developments may occasionally be daft, the script is still capable of making us laugh and cry. Also, the acting is genuinely terrific. Performances that good can make us love a character, however unlikely the surrounding storylines.
It is often said that the people on television, especially the women, are too young. It’s one of those truths that we all recognise yet nothing is done about it, like the closure of post offices or the complications of train-ticket pricing. Downton is a show where the older actors absolutely shine.
The youngsters do a perfectly good job, but the heart of the show is with the parents, the Dowager Duchess, Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes, Miss O’Brien and Mrs Patmore.
Remember the scene between Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Mrs Bird (Christine Lohr), when Ethel the prostitute was taken on as maid? Lohr did a fantastic job of conveying a decent working woman’s pride, while Wilton’s face and tone, as she reassured her old housekeeper that nobody would mistake her for a prostitute, reminded us what a great comic performer she has always been. These two 60-something actresses showed us the depth and range that TV gains when it looks beyond the usual teenage totty.
We can only hope, as these much-loved characters wave goodbye, that Julian Fellowes will provide us with a new series as quickly as he can cure paraplegia.