And so the second series of Downton Abbey has ended, in an episode that managed to surprise in precisely no ways. Everything, from Lavinia’s rather drippy succumbing to Spanish Flu to the eleventh hour arrest of Mr Bates, was as clunkingly choreographed as a Nancy Dell’Olio dance routine.
As series finales go, writer Julian Fellowes grinded the gear box of the plot to manoeuvre his characters into a starting-blocks position for the Christmas special and next year’s inevitable third series. But, after a series in which the whole of Europe has turned on its head, it’s striking how little at Downton has actually changed.
Thomas is back to being a footman aspiring after the top job; Matthew and Lady Mary are damaged and flickeringly acrimonious, and those characters introduced this season – Ethel; Lavinia; Earl-Bait Maid – have all been despatched back to RADA or Emmerdale or wherever, leaving only Iain Glen’s Richard Carlisle free to twirl his moustache and threaten spousal abuse.
Anna and Bates may have finally married; but, after a night of Downstairs-Downstairs raunch, she’s still calling him Mr Bates – which is either a sign of courtly role play or the sort of excessive formality which should have gone out the window when Mr Bates (let’s call him John) first dropped his new shoehorn.
Taking Maggie Smith out of the equation – because, fine though the rest of the cast are, it’s unfair to judge even a champion breed dog by the precision of a wolf – Series 2 has belonged to Joanne Froggatt, who has consistently brought integrity and heart to the part of Anna, even when the plot has obliged Bates to behave in ways which are defensive and evasive.
While the rest of the cast have been set back to their default characterisations at the start of every episode – every one a specialist in overlooking the obvious, like a child putting their fingers in their ears and saying, ‘Soup kitchen? Can’t hear you! Widow’s pension! Blah blah blah!’ – Anna has been quietly allowed to grow in stature from week to week.
It’s proof that sometimes the best actors do not blaze a trail to greatness, giving their Hedda and Rosalind in Stratford. Sometimes they survive the Cult of Nirab in Coronation Street.
If there is to be a third series, we need much more of her, and Lady Edith too – who, it’s true, is really much nicer than she was before the War. ‘Your turn will come,’ assures Dame Maggie. We certainly hope so.
It would be preferable to the alternative – endless dance scenes enlivened by charmingly period dialogue:
‘You must join me in this new dance they are calling the Charleston. These Twenties are quite roaring.’
‘Yes, although I fear the American stock market may be on the brink of collapse. Thank heavens Cousin Robert has no American bonds, the loss of which could leave Downton on the brink of ruin. Now excuse me while I commit an act of self-sacrifice.’
Oh, look – we’re all grumpy now, and we didn’t intend to be. It’s just that you don’t maintain your status as television’s premier drama by being safe. Downton Abbey was better than this. It needs to be again.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 6th November 2011 on ITV1.
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