Arts & Events

Confessions of an English Soap Opera Addict

By Stuart Dodds
Friday March 30, 2012 - 02:34:00 PM

In 1999, at the height of his success, a silver-tongued Prime Minister Tony Blair greeted the Labor Party Conference in Bournemouth with: “My friends! The class war is over!” For me—speaking as one who had viewed the upper echelon with a mixture of caution and envy—the class war ended while watching “Downton Abbey” on television. Something in me snapped. 

I was happy and relieved when Lady Mary hugged her forgiving father, Richard Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, after he told her he had learned all about her night-time escapade with Mr. Pamuk. I was thrilled to hear him say to her: “Get rid of Carlisle. I don't want my daughter to marry a man who is threatening to ruin her.” Robert Crawley is a good man and Richard Carlisle, the newspaper publisher, is intimidating and spiteful, an upstart with a huge chip on his shoulder. Talk about class warfare! I loved it when Matthew clocked him finally although it became an unseemly scuffle and I worried that Matthew might hurt himself or reopen wounds he had received at the front. 

I fought back tears when Matthew’s short-lived fiancée, Lavinia, after seeing he and Lady Mary dancing together said they were just right for each other, that she felt so ordinary by comparison and didn't want to stand in their way. Soon after, almost obligingly, she died of the Spanish flue. 

I was touched when Matthew awkwardly, and I suspect painfully, got down on one knee and proposed to Mary (she had insisted he propose “properly”). They had been through a lot and this was the end of their vacillations. Dan Stevens is a clever actor, in the way he registers the change in Matthew, the psychological scars of war, the bitterness and self-reproach. Miraculously recovered from a crippling injury, he still wears a haunted look that is quite appealing, enhanced by eye make-up, and I fancy that his pupils occasionally would sink into the lower part of the iris. Lord Byron had a similar peculiarity in which his pupils would momentarily disappear. It was known as Byron's “underlook" and it had a devastating effect on women. 

O'Brien has a lot to answer for—possibly murder— but I am glad she never had the opportunity to confess her sins to Cora who was sick and in no position to deal with them. No doubt, there will be more about that in the next series. The confession she seems eager to make belongs in the confessional, if not at the police station. 

* * * 

Cora, the Countess of Grantham, I think, protests too much. She is rather whiney but she has much to put up with and being an American and the mistress of this weird and wonderfully complex English household may have been difficult for her. She’s a worrier. Robert is a recognizable character of his time—a patriot with one foot in the previous century, not to mention the previous war. He is crestfallen at being turned down for active service on the grounds of age while every day of the Great War (one of the most savage in human history) he puts on a uniform in which he looks less than debonair, even a little pudgy, and frets over his family, his castle and an army of servants. Keeping him especially busy are three very modern, highly-strung daughters of marriageable age. 

Emily Nussbaum in a New Yorker magazine review had some astringent words to describe the daughters—"reared like veal, though sharp as vipers." What Edith did was viperous, or vengeful, but there is another side to her. She is not heartless. Sybil is the more rebellious of the three—to her parent’s horror, marrying a chauffeur (their chauffeur), an Irishman and a “Fenian” no less! 

Lady Mary I find to be the most poignant figure in the series, a Venetian beauty like those in the paintings that were on view at the de Young museum this year. Thanks to her sister Edith, she is in a terrible predicament. It takes all of her breeding and all of the social skills in her possession to conceal her suffering and her boredom---from time to time, there is a split-second when the art of concealment seems to desert her. The mask slips. That these times are rare is a tribute to her coolness and to her beauty which is so distracting. That they happen at all must have inspired in Matthew a great sense of protectiveness. Mary, for all of her intelligence, unlike her sister Sybil, doesn't see a way out of the social trap and but for her father would have been blackmailed into a hellish marriage to avoid a scandal. Thank God for the Earl of Grantham! 

The story of John Bates with his marital difficulties and his relationship with Anna, the maid, was real enough but it was monotonous. When he first arrived at Downton, he was fascinating. An incongruous presence in the servants’ quarters, he had the air of a gentleman adjusting to reduced circumstances with the utmost grace and good humor. I didn’t believe in the back-story concerning Robert and “the African War.” (i.e. the Boer War). The Earl of Grantham could have been his batman. Nevertheless, he is now in serious trouble, being convicted (wrongly, it is supposed by everyone at Downton) of murdering his wife. It is likely that the Crawleys with their connections at the Home Office and their friends in Parliament will bring about a retrial or have his sentence overturned. (I must admit to having some doubts of my own about John Bates: There is a hint of violence in him, of physical power held in check. Maybe he really did murder his wife.) 

* * * 

I was glad that Nigel Havers showed up in the second series, as Lord Hepworth. He plays these rogues well—white-collar criminals, cads and criminals of the officer class, so pleasant and plausible and very English. He had been at Downton no more than a few hours when a door on one of the guest floors is opened and—low and behold!—Lord Hepworth is caught in flagrante delicto with the maid of his fiancée. His fiancée! 

Of the Maggie Smith character—-for many, a favorite and a scene-stealer—-I have no pleasant memories. In repose, the elderly Dame Maggie Smith is lovely but in this character, as she relishes her bon mots, I can barely look at her. She is much too like men and women I have known who believe themselves to be witty when they are simply mean and tiresome. Her literary ancestor is Lady Bracknell but her lines cannot hold a candle to those of Oscar Wilde. I am thankful--since she is such a star turn—that she doesn't play a larger role than she does in this grand affair. 

But there is more to come. A third series is in the works with Shirley MacLaine adding to the drama as Cora’s mother. Let’s hope she will give the Dowager Countess a run for her money! 

Stuart Dodds was born and educated in London, England. He served two years of National Service in the Royal Air Force and emigrated to the United States in 1958. He lives in Berkeley, California. Prior to his recent retirement, he was editor/general manager of Chronicle Features, the syndication division of the San Francisco Chronicle.