Of all our love affairs with TV shows, the one we have with Downton Abbey we assumed would be the longest lasting. Oh yes, from time to time, it’s fun to flirt with a bit of rough – a piece of Shameless or a Jeremy Kyle – but, when it comes down to it, there’s a lot to be said for a nice respectable series that you can take home to your mother.
But there are times when this vision of loveliness tests even our patience. Because Downton Abbey is a faithless lover. When we want to hear Birdsong, it plays the theme from the Hovis advert. And when we fancy a threesome with Strindberg – just the merest flash of Miss Julie – it gets into bed with Catherine Cookson.
We’re used to this. We know it’s a saga and that’s what sagas do. But, well – it’s all just a bit too Alan Titchmarsh.
The scene that caused this disaffection of the heart? Matthew and William’s return from war in the middle of the concert given by the Crawley Sisters. Oh, the mawkish contrivance of it all! If ever a scene were made up of telling glances, this is the one. Every character gets a close-up: from Carson the butler, smiling in indulgent remembrance of his music hall past, to Irish Chauffeur Guy, glancing at Lady Sibyl and wondering about the possible use of a chamois leather in the class struggle.
‘If you were the only girl in the world’, sings Lady Mary – a song which, in Downton terms, we call ‘a novelty’, in that it’s only two years old in 1918. It’s the Great War equivalent of Lady Mary wooing Matthew with her rendition of ‘Poker Face’: ‘Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin, I’m not lying, I’m just stunnin’.’ But this is Downton Abbey, so no one has poker faces. Instead, they have very beautiful and expressive eyes. Lady Mary – she of the beautiful and expressive eyes – looks up to see Matthew Crawley – he of the beautiful and expressive eyes – enter the concert, and suddenly (can you spot it, dear viewer?), the lyrics take on a new poignancy as he joins her in a duet.
It’s cheating the viewer to be so cheesy, because Downton Abbey isn’t just a programme we watch – it’s a programme we love. Frankly, Irish Chauffeur Guy could be singing ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’, while Lady Sibyl joins him in a sudden mash-up with ‘Car Wash’, and we’d still be watching, open mouthed, alert to every last suggestive drip of the beeswax. But four episodes in, it’s reasonable to be expecting a little bit more. Do they not know there is a war on? Never mind the ballads – is it too much to hope for a death?
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 9th October 2011 on ITV1.
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