So you’ve been having your brief sojourn in Parade’s End, which has been interesting but perhaps a teeny bit too challenging, no? A sort of televisual equivalent of Radio 3. I mean: thinking, who wants to do that? Thank heaven, then, for the return to the airwaves of Classic FM: Downton Abbey (ITV, Sunday), playing all your favourites, music you know from the adverts, TV theme tunes, including its own, most probably. Da da da da da da da da daaa [camera at labrador's arse level follows faithful golden friend towards stately pile].
Whasup then? We’ve reached spring 1920 and the will-they-won’t-they story that’s been going on between Matthew and Mary for two whole series looks like it may finally reach a conclusion. Remember, he proposed in the snow in the last one? Now that they’re in the church practising for the big day, it seems they really will. But there is still this whole extended episode that’s bound to throw up obstacles. I’m hoping that Turkish fellow may show up again and re-seduce Lady Mary with his eastern promise … He’s dead? Oh yes. Well, it is a soap opera – stranger things have happened.
This could be a problem: Lord Grantham carelessly loses the money, almost his entire fortune; Cora’s really, but she needn’t worry her pretty little head about it. Eggs, one basket, didn’t he know that one? The Canadian railway he put everything into is going down and it’s taking Downton with it.
Hold up, though, because Matthew fortuitously appears to be inheriting an equally vast fortune at the same time (that’s the second time he’s done that, isn’t it?). But he’s not sure he wants to give it to the Granthams, which Mary finds disappointing, and may yet prove a stumbling block to their nuptials.
Downstairs, there’s a new chap, who’s very tall, and someone’s on strike, and they’re fussing about the difference between a butler and a valet, boringly. Less dull is that Bates the murderer (I’m just going with how the court found him) is still rotting away in his cell. He has a new cellmate, who appears to dislike Bates almost as much as I do, and will hopefully soon take him for a little trip down the shower block, or whatever the 1920 equivalent was.
More good news: Sybil’s back for the wedding, with her revolutionary husband, Martin McGuinness. Or Tom, as he’s actually called. The chauffeur, remember? Tom’s good value for a while, rants about Irish politics at dinner, especially after one of the nobs drugs his drink with a special pill that makes a man more radical in his views. But then, literally overnight, Tom conforms, becomes Matthew’s best mate, and best man, even dons the uniform of oppression (posh clothes). Very disappointing. There’s a theme of disappointment – Tom told Sybil earlier not to disappoint him.
There are the usual squabbles, with the upstairs-downstairs stuff bubbling away, though the whole class structure is showing signs of wear and tear. It’s seductive, because it’s so well done, but you never really get the sense that it’s going anywhere, or telling you anything. Really what you’re doing most of the time is waiting for the Dowager Countess’s – Dame Maggie’s – comedy: withering put-downs from the Dame Maggie’s Dowager Countess, which she’s very good at, and that fortunately come thick and fast.
Will she have to fight for the spotlight, though, with the arrival of Cora’s mother, Martha, from the US? Martha is, after all, played by a real movie star: Shirley MacLaine. And her entrance is a grand one. The two circle each other, like a pair of warring old cats, backs arched, looking to pounce and scratch and claw. Martha shows initial promise, goes for the soft underbelly: Britain’s – and the Dowager Countess’s – stuffiness and refusal to embrace change. That’s pretty much all she has to say, though; she’s like a stuck record. Or one of those dolls you pull a string out of, and it says: “You’re all so stuffy here, and never change,” or a variation.
To church then, and Mary is wearing … a white wedding dress (sorry, I’m not much good at that). She does look lovely, and Lord Grantham appears to forget his woes. “I’m so happy, so very happy I feel my chest will explode,” he says. Maybe Tom’s sudden conformity is a front, and he is going to blow them all up, from the inside. There is still time, isn’t there, and that wouldn’t be at all disappointing.
And the real winner in all this? Parade’s End, which looks even classier, and whose conclusion on Friday I’m now looking forward to even more.
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