torsdag 7 november 2013

High on Downton

"I know a girl, a girl with so much luck/She could get run over by a two-tonne truck/Then brush herself off and walk away/How she does it - couldn't say"

The song "I know a girl" from Chicago wasn't written in 1922, of course. Even so, you could have sworn from Mr Bates's expression at the end of episode one that its lyrics, amended to "I know a guy" etc., were going through his mind. His disgruntled face alone would have been enough to buoy me up for the whole week. And then there was so much more!

Yes - finally, series four of Downton Abbey has started airing in Sweden, and has had such an uplifting effect on my mood it is almost ridiculous. Honestly, what's their secret? Subliminal messages? A drugging effect transmitted through airwaves? All I know is that I'd been feeling rather listless for a while, not caring to read anything too taxing or to watch anything much. But now, post-Downton, I feel full of beans, ready to start watching those 50-minute shows for ordinary workdays again - Charlie's AngelsFame, you name it - and to get to grips with some of my Ambitious Book Projects, not to mention those impulse buys of historical novels set in Ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy etc. Life is lovely, life is sweet - and in two weeks' time approximately, I will get a whole box of  Downton series four. As long as this addiction lasts, November is in danger of becoming one of my favourite months.

In my defence, it is a very good show, and series four started highly satisfactory, with all the ordinary Downton juiciness. So what was so great about it? Let me count the ways. The show didn't close its eyes and pretend Matthew never existed: instead, the late heir was treated with the respect he deserved. His death was seen to have serious consequences, quite rightly, and both Mary and Mrs Crawley were suitably eaten up by grief. This being six months after Matthew's demise, attempts were made to snap them out of stalking around in black in a dazed fashion, but the snapping proved far from easy. Granted, I would have expected Lord Grantham to have been a bit more down in the mouth still - after all, he had come to look on Matthew as a son - but all in all, this was a write-out which was handled well and not unduly hurried, which is not something you can take for granted when vanishing series characters are concerned. There was even a bit of self-irony concerning the unceremonious way in which Matthew was dispatched. Mary pointed out how terrible that it was that her husband, "after all he went through in the war", should die "in a ridiculous car accident". Yeah, Julian, we see, and we forgive you - leastways, I do. There was never going to be a good way of getting rid of Matthew.

The write-out of Miss O'Brien I was less convinced by. After all, one of her humanising traits was her loyalty to Lady Grantham following the by her much-regretted Soap Incident. I couldn't quite believe that she would up and leave in the middle of the night, leaving a only a note behind and her ladyship in a fix. If she was sick of Downton - and, after the events of series three, you could see why that would be - I'd imagine that she would be above board about having found a job elsewhere and serve out her month. Still, her hurried departure (to Lady Flintshire aka Mrs Shrimpie in India, which made every kind of sense after the Christmas Special) ushered in a promising storyline as the oblivious Lady Grantham ended up hiring a very unsuitable lady's maid indeed.

Elsewhere, the characters remained consistent but not congealed. Edith, say, has come a long way since her embittered spinster tactics in series one, but her development is a credible one. Thomas, bless his villainous socks, still picks a quarrel with everyone he imagines even remotely challenges his position, but he's become better at it. The delicious hypocrisy with which he bad-mouthed the unwisely bossy Nanny West ("I wouldn't have spoken out only... with a little girl and a baby boy put at risk...") would have done even Miss O'Brien proud. Clearly, the otherwise meaningless dust-up with O'Brien in series three had the fortunate effect of sharpening his claws, besides giving him oodles of leader of the pack appeal. I don't think that black-marketeer in a pub would be able to fool him now.

The Downton Old Guard generally are doing great, Mrs Hughes being a special boon as always. The real challenge for this series will be in how it handles the relatively new characters who joined the show last series: Lady Rose upstairs, and Ivy, Jimmy and Alfred downstairs. They are at a marked disadvantage compared to the characters we've got to know and (in most cases) love through three whole series. The downstairs newbies aren't helped by being locked in a storyline that does them little favours, i.e. the footman-kitchen maid daisy-chain of attraction (though strictly speaking, Daisy is an assistant cook now, not a maid). What Daisy sees in lumpen Alfred is still a mystery. I can understand, given her past experiences, that man-wise she would want to forego the dashing in favour of someone sweet and kind to whom she could be special - a William surrogate with whom she could get things right. But Alfred is neither dashing nor sweet and kind. Ivy, for her part, though essentially goodhearted (which is more than you can say for the footmen), seems a bit of a flighty piece who is not too unhappy to have Alfred as a back-up beau in case she has to admit defeat with Jimmy. As for Jimmy, he comes across as a prize brat; so what else is new? 

Still, who knows, these characters may well mature and develop like the Old Guard did before them and, with time, command our sympathy. When it comes to Alfred, though, I really can't imagine a storyline which would make sense of him. But maybe Fellowes will?