Perhaps it is good to be reminded that everything period-related from the Nineties - which I fondly remember as The Golden Age of costume dramas - really wasn't that great. I've recently made my way through The Buccaneers, the 1995 TV adaptation of a novel by Edith Wharton, and my goodness it was tedious. When I saw this as a teen (I must have been at least 18) I had no problem getting through it, which means that as usual I've had qualms about whether this drama is actually that bad, or whether it's just me who've become "dumbed down" or dangerously dependent on villain kicks (no villains in this one - not even of the B-list variety à la poor George Warleggan). It was the same thing when I watched Parade's End, for instance. But this time around, I didn't have that many qualms, because the drama was so clichéd it couldn't possibly contain any high-brow wisdoms which my befuddled brain may have missed.
The story is easily told. Connie, an American-Mexican girl with a rich father, marries a penniless English peer. Shortly afterwards, her three equally situated friends come and visit her for an English season. They all end up married: only one of the marriages, between the least rich girl and a self-made Englishman as cheerfully vulgar as she is, turns out happy. (One likeable thing about this drama is that it shows some sympathy for the Sir Richard Carlisles of this world.) The luckless girls who hook up with English noblemen all regret it. Connie and her husband are estranged in no time, partly because her dad won't fork out a dowry. They both play around and he gets syphilis. Virginia St George marries Lord Seadowne, who continues to hold on to his long-term mistress and makes it pretty clear from the word go that he regards his wife as a cash cow. Things become strained when her father suffers a financial set-back, then look up slightly when said father regains his fortune. Virginia's younger sister Annabelle/Nan snags the first prize from society's point of view by marrying a duke, but their marriage proves to be the most miserable of all. And all the time she's in love with a poor, handsome young man from a once-great family, determined to make his own way in the world, who shares her love of poetry.
Yes, really. I suppose there's a bit of a Tolkien problem with this plot, inasmuch as you can't be accused of using clichés if you invented them. At the time when Wharton wrote her novel, it presumably felt new and fresh when someone cast a critical look on the heiresses-for-titles trade between the nouveaux riches in the US and the old British aristocracy. That we have seen so many versions of this tale since then - and most of them a bit more nuanced - is not Wharton's fault. Still, I wonder if the novel's characterisation can really be as black and white as in this adaptation.
Consider Nan's marriage. Her husband, the Duke, essentially behaves like a boy who never properly grew up. He doesn't consummate their marriage for ages, and when he finally does he becomes violent. He belittles her and shows no interest in his tenants' woes when she nobly points them out to him. He's still under his mother's thumb (not such a bad thing because she's pretty sensible on the whole). He's a closet homosexual (which doesn't really chime in with the whole "lost boy" theme, but there we go). He won't let his sister/poor relation marry someone who's beneath her, even when it's her last chance to get married at all. He has a heavily symbolic interest in clocks: see, he can understand these machines, but not the workings of a female heart.
In contrast, Nan's love Guy makes his own fortune doing engineering work, then comes home to Give The Oppressed A Voice by going into politics. He positively reeks sensitivity, and is played by the almost aggressively good-looking Greg Wise (Willoughby in the Sense and Sensibility film with Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson - in real life he ended up with Thompson, and good for him).
Sooo, hidebound, complex-ridden childish Duke vs poetry-spouting Greg Wise? Hmm, I wonder whom we are supposed to root for here? What's remarkable is that even when the dice are as loaded as this, Nan still ends up sounding irritating as the Dowager Duchess is trying to piece together some sort of compromise while she can only go on about what she "wants" and "doesn't want". And surely the estate's steward is the right person to talk to if you have concerns about the tenants' drainage?
I have some sort of dim recollection of the novel being an unfinished one, which would explain why the TV drama ends more daringly than other repressed-high-society yarns from the same period. Guy and Nan run away publicly, and he makes a speech in Parliament about abolishing the House of Lords (!). Even if these flourishes weren't in the original, though, there's still enough to make you wonder how this could be an adaptation from a book by a prestigious, high-brow author.
Let's take the Duke's clocks as an example. My first reactions to the introduction of this theme were, predictably, "What's wrong with liking clocks?" and "I, for my part, think that hobbies which require dexterity should be encouraged in a man". Villain-fancying flippancy aside, though, there is a contrast between how the clock hobby ploy is used in Downton and The Buccaneers which isn't to the latter's advantage. The Duke's hobby is considered an oddity, while Thomas's interest in clocks in Downton is a humanising trait and something Fellowes takes the time to make understandable. Thomas being the son of a clock-maker (with whom he doesn't get on, as is later unsurprisingly revealed) and having grown up with clocks explains why he should view them as "living things" and, maybe, one of the few consolations in an otherwise frosty home environment. No grand back-story speech is needed: the information is lightly sketched in, but effective. It's not the only instance when I feel that Fellowes rather trumps The Buccaneers when it comes to characterisation - and considering that we are talking about an enjoyable middlebrow costume drama vs an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel, he's not really supposed to do that.