Thursday, 10 May 2012

Downton Abbey, Season 1 + 2, UK 2010 - 2012

It seems that there isn't really much point talking about Downton Abbey as its success - primarily, though far from exclusively, in the UK and in the US - has triggered a plethora of responses and reactions in the form of blogs, websites, and so on, its reception having been overwhelmingly positive resulting in a string of Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy wins. As someone who watches as little television as possible it probably took me longer than most people to fall under Downton Abbey's spell. And being one of the world's greatest Maggie Smith aficionados, my main reason for watching it in the first place - on DVD - was naturally to see her camp it up in the role of the Dowager Countess Violet Grantham who, basically, is a reprise of Maggie's equally iconic Constance Trentham in Gosford Park (UK/ US 2002).

That expression - to camp it up - probably makes a lot of people cringe, and rightly so, in a way, for it seems to belittle - however unintentionally - Smith's considerable acting skills as campness may be the (part-)result of her performance, but I'm well aware that this performance is far too nuanced to be merely dismissed as camp. Nevertheless, the programme's other qualities notwithstanding, Smith is indeed the highlight of it - to me, anyway - and I look forward to every moment she comes on (which, sadly, isn't often enough, as far as I'm concerned as hers is a supporting role). However, with Downton Abbey being full of drama, betrayal, and intrigue - Smith adds the necessary comic relief, the spice, or put differently, she's the cream in the coffee.

Luckily, some fellow Maggie Smith aficionado (from GPB, it seems) has put together these two wonderful collections of the Dowager Countess' most outrageous - and camp! - remarks:


In case you hadn't been familiar with the Dowager Countess' wit, you now are, and will agree, I presume,  that Smith alone is worth the watch.

And having just finished watching both seasons virtually in a single week myself, I must admit that it does make for addictive viewing. That is, if you're into English heritage films in the mould of The Remains of the Day, Room With A View and especially Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs. Like Gosford Park, Downton Abbey was also the brainchild of Julian Fellowes and it is quite a wonderful and accomplished continuation thereof. Never mind that Downton Abbey, being a television show, has to comply with saleable television rules including, for instance, revealing titbits of an emerging scandal right at the end of one episode to keep the viewers on tenterhooks, and similar such television gimmicks. Nevertheless, Fellowes does manage to keep it in check, though he does so better in the first season than in the second which occasionally does bear traces - if ever so faint - of Dynasty and Dallas, when, for instance, a character  believed to have perished in the Titanic disaster miraculously re-emerges. It is owed to the outstanding acting talent of literally the entire cast that highly improbable plot-lines as these still come across as - vaguely - plausible.

In fact, one of the fascinating things about Downton Abbey is exactly that: that seemingly out of nowhere a great many actors and actresses of outstanding talent have emerged who substantially add to the show's quality and merit. Naturally, they didn't just emerge - looking at their screen credits actually shows that they've been around for some time. It took meaty roles in a high-profile show such as Downton Abbey, however,  to adequately showcase their talent. I do hope that in the future we'll be seeing a great deal more of the likes of Joanne Froggat, Lesley Nicol, and Michelle Dockery, to name but a few - and please, this time on the big screen!  

Downton Abbey has 16 major characters, and that Fellowes successfully manages to breathe life into all of them, as it were, is an achievement in itself. Of course, he's already more than proved his mettle in that regard with Gosford Park. However, Gosford Park was a feature film and though at nearly 140 minutes a rather long one, to keep the lives of 16 and more characters going for over two seasons, is no mean feat, to say the least.

Apparently, due to the programme's enormous success, a third season is currently in the making, to be aired in 2013. Probably to cater to Downton Abbey's growing popularity in the US, Shirley Maclaine has been brought on board to play Cora's - Elizabth McGovern's Lady Grantham - mother.

Talk about shrewd casting!

My imagination is already running riot when I think of MacLaine's wealthy American heiress having tea with the Dowager Countess. I predict, we'll be in for a treat!