Why Doctor Thorne was never meant to be the new Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes' drama was light, lavish and, on occasion, ludicrous, but that's what made it wonderful says Sarah Doran

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As Doctor Thorne waltzed off our TV screens this evening, I couldn’t help wonder whether Julian Fellowes had played a rather marvellous trick on us mere TV viewing mortals.

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You see, for those of us who weren’t oogling Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager over on BBC1, Doctor Thorne was the ideal dose of predictable period drama. In fact, it almost felt like the antidote to the death, despair and desolation that came to characterise later series of Fellowes’ own Downton Abbey.

Doctor Thorne was such perfect period fluff that I suspected Fellowes – the master of ballrooms, banquets and catty dinner tables – had aimed to foist the most wonderful period drama parody upon ITV viewers? Have we all been conned by the ultimate Downton Abbey satire?

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Alison Brie’s overtly stereotypical American heiress Miss Dunstable had broken the fourth wall and winked at the screen before that fade to black.

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Every inch of Doctor Thorne was delightfully over the top, from Tom Hollander’s titular physician’s conversation about the heir to the Scatcherd fortune – ‘let’s make this VERY clear, if you should unfortunately die, and your son dies before he’s 30, the lovely girl we’re all focussing on will inherit everything right?’ – to every thinly veiled barb thrown by the glorious Rebecca Front.

Ian McShane’s Sir Roger Scatcherd was beyond loud and loutish, while his son Louis oozed wrong’un vibes from the moment he set foot in Boxhall Hill. And that’s before we mention Lady Scatcherd (played brilliantly by Janine Duvitski), the ultimate caricature of the deranged wife.

At the heart of the tale, the lovely young Mary (Stefanie Martini) kept the boat afloat with a dash of sincerity amid the silliness, while fellow newcomer Harry Richardson’s fool for love Frank Gresham excelled at being at the mercy of every single woman in his life.

And as for leading man Tom Hollander? His steadfast, occasionally Machiavellian doctor, was just the tonic.

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There was nothing unpredictable about the tale – even if you hadn’t read the book you knew what was coming. Mary was too sincere to suffer at the hands of the class system, while Louis was too unlikeable to live. From the moment the idea that she might inherit instead of him was tabled, we knew where the story was going.

That predictability was precisely what made the series so delightful, though.

There was no chance of a Matthew and the motor style incident, no blissful childbirth scene preceding a brutal death in bed just one ad break later. Unlike Downton, it never sent us hurtling from one unpredictable plot point to the next.

It all led to a wonderful climax featuring Rebecca Front’s Lady Arabella, who had the most delightful meltdown upon discovering the “money” she so desperately wanted her son to marry for now belonged to the woman she’d fought so desperately to separate him from.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good drama with unpredictable twists and turns, but every now and then it’s nice to sit down on a Sunday with a cuppa and simply enjoy some telly. And it was while doing that I realised Doctor Thorne isn’t really satire at all.

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It’s quite simply the kind of light and lavish period drama we would have loved before Poldark bared his chest and Lady Mary Crawley popped upstairs to take off her hat.