TV Review: Downton Abbey, Series 3, ITV1, Sunday 9pm

Shall we talk about Downton Abbey, or Dumbdown Abbey as I’ve taken to calling it as it spirals into the gutter quicker than one of cousin Isabel’s prostitutes?

Because, while it’s always been rather silly, it was always enjoyable nonsense, resplendent with beautiful frocks and handsome men in ridiculous collars. I’m a sucker for a period drama anyway, and the first series was (almost) perfect Sunday evening viewing. But, while I enjoyed it, I was surprised at how universally adored it was. As easy and entertaining as it was to watch, from the beginning Downton was too clunky for my tastes. All that sign-posting (Daisy: “Why do we iron newspapers, Mr Carson”; Mr Carson, “I’m so glad you asked me that, Daisy as all the viewers at home will also be wondering and as this is an ITV drama, these idiots will have to be told”). But at least things happened. A dead Turk in Mary’s bed! Thomas’ brewing secret! Evil O’Brien and the bar of soap! And, crucially, the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline, the engine that drove the whole soapy-show.

Rushed out to ensure it caught the golden wave of Downton-Fever, the second series was a largely badly paced mish-mash of implausible storylines where any dramatic tension was shot down quicker than a grouse on the Downton estate on the Glorious Twelfth. And for those (me) hoping that season three would recover as miraculously as cousin Matthew’s ‘severed’ spine, it’s, if anything, even worse, because, as well as being drivel, it’s now limp and boring drivel.

I’m beginning to feel insulted that Julian Fellowes is quite clearly just no longer trying. Does he think us plebs won’t notice the historical gaffs, the storylines that build only to be resolved before the next ad break? The plot holes and inconsistencies; why would an Earl in a financial quagmire be so against his youngest, least eligible daughter marrying a knight of the realm with pots of money because he was a little old and had trouble holding a knife and fork? Robert certainly didn’t have these quibbles in series one when he was hell-bent on marrying Mary off to Sir Anthony.

In fact, the script is the only consistent aspect of the show, but, unfortunately, not in a good way. The whole show is now held together by fine acting, beautiful frocks and Maggie Smith’s facial expressions.

But even the acting is looking limp; Dan Stevens seems to be wilting under all those dreadful lines he’s forced to utter, looking forlornly at that massive cigar permanently stuck between his fingers in this series, as if he knows that it has more charisma that Matthew. And Mary, who was so spirited and joyously bitchy – very much granny’s granddaughter – has descended into a boring nag. Michelle Dockery, so watchable in the first two series, practically sighs her lines out, fully aware of how tedious they sound. And while we’re on the subject, what has happened to Mary and Matthew? Once the emotional heart of the show, they had such great chemistry before they were married, and now all they do is bicker in nasty dressing gowns and make clumsy passes at inappropropriate moments. Perhaps Matthew isn’t quite up to poor Mr Pamuk’s standards.

Unlike the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline that almost outstayed its welcome, any major plot-development in the last couple of series has been quashed before it’s had time to brew. The Matthew rising from the wheelchair that barely an hour before he had been condemned to a life in, is perhaps the most famous example of killing a storyline before the kettle has brewed. But even the recent jilted Edith story has withered quicker than the wedding flowers. Stood up at the altar at the end of the last episode, sixty minutes later she’s a newspaper columnist. No time for sulking in Fellowes-land, young lady. I won’t even start on the whole Robert’s ruin/Matthew’s unlikely inheritance “plot” – what was the point?

The one storyline that has anytime to bed in, only to fall into a deep, and tedious slumber, is the Bates/Anna saga that limps on with interminable dullness each week (and talking of limps, where has Bates’ gone?) I’m longing for Bates to turn out to actually be an evil wife murderer and for him to escape, returning to Downton to par-boil Anna in one of Mrs Patmore’s giant saucepans.

I will, of course, keep watching, in the hope that this episode will be the one where at no point will I roll my eyes or shout “he wouldn’t say that” or (every time Bates makes an appearance – “just hang him”) at the telly. Although, maybe these are the reasons why I’m watching it, that, and the frocks of course.

by Suzanne Elliott

TV Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Hollow Crown, BBC 2

ImageThere’s something truly special about Shakespeare’s The Globe, the Sam Wannamaker inspired theatre that sits like something from a model village on London’s South Bank, dwarfed by the modernist Tate next door.

Open to the elements, and London’s non-stop flight path, there’s no set, the costumes look like RSC cast-offs and the cast are (rarely) big Hollywood names. But within its circular walls, Shakespeare never sounds so alive, nor so relevant in these intimate surroundings. And the comedy, even in a blood soaked history like Henry V, always works so nicely as the actors play into the hands of the groundlings that stand transfixed in front of the stage . You do get a real sense of what it would have been like in Shakespeare’s day, with a (slightly) less stinky crowd and added helicopters.

The Globe’s Henry V season has just finished, picking off where it ended two years ago with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Henry V seems to be the big Shakespeare play of the year – Tom Hiddleston’s played the Prince turned King in BBC’s Hollow Crown series that ended this weekend while Jude Law (who was there doing some research the night I was there) is stepping into the breach later this year as part of a season of plays at Noel Coward Theatre.

At The Globe this season, Jamie Parker returned as the grown up Harry to lead the English army into battle under the shadow of Agincourt castle. It’s a stirring play that, as many commentators have noted, is particularly apt in this flag-waving year– but it has an emotional, almost moral, depth that both Parker and Hiddleston highlighted. Parker, perhaps wary of the big names who’ve gone before him took the bombastic element out of the big speeches. I quite liked this played down approach, and the BBC’s version took the same path with the ‘St Crispin Day’ speech, choosing to have Henry address an intimate crowd of Lords rather than the whole army. This more personal approach drew out the emotion, the horror of war, and highlighted the play’s Henry-as-a-normal-man theme that dragged the story out of history with a present day humanity.  But as good as the performances and staging were in The Hollow Crown, nothing quite beats watching Shakespeare under the stars with actors battling against the planes and elements.

by Suzanne Elliott