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Monday, 4 October 2010

Downton With The Ship

ITV's new drama Downton Abbey is a perverse, facile and cheap remake of Brideshead Revisited-Middle March-Upstairs Downstairs, that relies on the evil of glamour to seduce the TV viewer into accepting aristo-porn for actual literary fictionality.  As a simulacrum of class, this works - but compared to the authentic engagement of works like The Wire and Mad Men, this is history as a catwalk, snobbery on tap.  I confess to enjoying this hollowed out work, to a degree, which plays like Dynasty in black tie, but also pulling back in repulsion.  What it says about Coalition-era Britain in 2010 is more than what it says about 1910 or so, when it is set, in an Edwardian world about to be "shattered" by WW1.

The doomed estate of the title represents centuries of assumed status and privilege, thrown into chaos by a legal question which seems to be allowing a commoner, a middle class lawyer, to inherit the pile, if not the posh.  The man of the house, avuncular, wise, a kind of President Bartlett of the upper-crust set, deals out judgements as if his status will last, when all about are losing theirs.  The captain is sinking with his ship.  So, it is poignant, but this isn't The Good Soldier.  It uses situations from far greater works to entertain, merely.  The difference between literature and entertainment is that both can delight and educate, but only one does so cynically; the art of the one is the craftiness of the other.

This series glitters with craft and guile, but wears its cynicism on its sleeve.  It is a romp, and purely fictitious, not fictional, featuring plenty of flat characters wearing their souls on their livery.  The downstairs types - egads - lust, hope, dream, and plot - and the upstairs types do the same - all that is at stake is the size of the Grail each seeks.  The series may develop a conscience or moral sense - it is currently not very George Eliot in depth and breadth - more Dame Christie - but for now what it emits is a whiff of desperate aspiration - a desire to go OMG they lived like that - rather than question how such living was ever permitted, in the first place.
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