Sunday, 8 November 2015

An ode to Downton Abbey: Time to say goodbye

*Spoilers ahead - season six mentioned at times*
It's a strange thing to want to mark the passing of a television show as if it's a valued member of your life, but when you let a group of people into your homes and hearts through a television screen for six years, it does feel as though you are losing a friend.

Downton Abbey is a bit of a marmite show, with people being very strongly in the love it or hate it camp. My own father, for example, cannot stand it and spends the evening of Christmas Day in another room, whilst the rest of us sit through the ritual of Strictly, Dr Who, Call the Midwife and Downton (inevitably getting through a great many tissues). Perhaps he has the better end of the bargain at times - I was certainly a nightmare to live with when a certain blond haired man bit the dust a few years ago. 

I have loved it since it began. I freely admit that Maggie Smith was the hook that drew me towards it, but before the first episode had finished I was just as much in love with the entire cast and couldn't wait for the next episode - even if I did want to slap a considerable portion of them. More on that later.

What is it about Downton that makes it so successful? Certainly the era of ease and beauty it presented is a delicious piece of escapism during the troubled times of the present day. Economic worries have traveled the globe, which might go some way to explaining the success in so many other countries. It isn't only that which attracts, however.

The costumes are, of course, enough to make even the least sartorially conscious people green with envy. The hats in season one, with their gigantic brims, are wonderful, as are the hair styles. Being blessed with long curly hair, but no talent for styling it properly, I find myself longing for a maid to help. I'd look fabulous, I'm sure. It isn't only the upstairs characters clothes I envy (and with them I am more drawn to the beautiful practicality of Isobel's wardrobe than Cora or Sybil - although, having said that, I'd pay serious money to anyone for Edith's wardrobe when she starts to become a modern business woman). The downstairs costumes, although necessarily simpler, are by no means any less intricate. Mrs Hughes is probably best served of course (which makes certain interviewers insinuations that she looks drab that much more infuriating) and I've got serious envy when it comes to her season 2 wartime dress and her evening uniforms. I could write an entire essay on her wedding dress. I won't. Not right now, anyway. The downstairs clothes are practical, of course they are, but the costume department have obviously gone to great lengths to make them, in some way, relate-able to the character. Miss O'Brien managed to look like an overgrown bat in her dress - which suited her Machiavellian ways - whilst Miss Baxter's dress allows a certain anonymity which suits her wish to avoid her past.

The fact that only Mrs Hughes remains in a corset whilst everyone else embraces the freedom of the 20s might seem to be some sort of cruelty to Phyllis Logan, but in a way it suits the character. As housekeeper she is supposed to be the upright model of behavior to all her staff under her care, and the corset helps to achieve that level of authority, but on a personal level it also taps into her sense of self and her own body image, which has been revealed to be an issue to worry over in this latest series. The fact she has yet to give up the corset serves to highlight the fact she is still proud of her figure even if she believes she is no longer beautiful (which is a load of nonsense, because anyone with eyes in their head would tell you she is stunning. Get Mr Carson a little tiddly on the sherry and he would surely talk your ear off on the subject). I might be a little biased, given Mrs Hughes is my favourite downstairs character.

All this talk on costumes serves to highlight an important point - that if you are a fan of the show, you can get just as invested in the small things as the major plot points, and that all the characters matter. It is a huge undertaking, cast wise, and with at least 17 characters to focus on in any one episode, is it any wonder that sometimes it feels as if things are forgotten and often fans are annoyed when a small moment between their favourite characters is overlooked. Having said that, however, not one of these characters has ever felt like a caricature or underdeveloped. 

They are all complex and none of them can be said to be wholly good or bad (except perhaps for Vera Bates or Mr Green who existed solely to bring mayhem). Mr Barrow and Miss O'Brien might be the best villains of the piece (and Sir Richard Carlisle as well. I quite liked his snobbery and dictatorial manner as long as Mary didn't end her days with him), but they have redeemable qualities just as much as anyone else and care deeply for others - the children and Mr Lang being good examples. Sybil might be seen as the good fairy of the piece, being the joy filled, passionate, purpose driven counterpoint to her two bitchy sisters, but even she was headstrong to the point of stubbornness. Mr Carson can be blinkered and cruel in his pomposity, Mrs Hughes is far too nosy for her own good, and I found Mrs Patmore's pushing Daisy to agree to marry William just so he didn't go to the front with a broken heart to be highly problematic, although I love the two women's relationship in general. Mary, for the most part, is the character I spend the majority of time wishing I could slap, with her high handed manner and cool drawling tones, but her love for Matthew and her protection of Anna are her saving graces, and prevent me from totally hating her. 

It is an interesting fact that whilst not one of these characters is perfect, no matter how much we adore them, it does not actually matter when it comes to liking the show. When I had my own brief aversion, declaring I wouldn't watch it anymore, it wasn't because I disliked the characters, but was rather supremely pissed off by Matthew's death. It was Maggie Smith's delivery of the line 'you have to choose to live or die' in the promo trailer that made me want to return, and I'm so glad I did.

The series has its flaws, of course. It can rattle through the years at an alarming pace (season two being a case in point), it pays very little attention to historical events except when it fits for a bit of exposition (throwaway mentions of women getting the vote or a Labour government), it introduces plot points only to forget them almost instantly (Mrs Hughes's incapacitated sister has not merited further mention) and has produced some of the clunkiest dialogue simply for the sake of giving someone something to say (Edith's 'so it seems, and a happy end indeed' in response to the end of Anna's ordeal ranks alongside the pointlessness of Legolas's 'a diversion' at the end of the LOTR saga - so obvious and unnecessary that it feels like the verbal equivalent of jumping up and down to attract attention).

Downton is at its best in its small, quiet moments. When O'Brien finds her conscience a tad too late after booby trapping Cora's exit from her bath; when Sybil died and the aftermath which included a brilliant moment from Maggie Smith when she walked across the main hall and appeared to age ten years in as many seconds; Matthew's delight at becoming a father; Isobel's heartbreak after her son's death; the hysterical laughter shared between Mrs Patmore and Mrs Hughes over the lucky escape from Mr Tufton; 'Dashing away with a smoothing iron'; Mrs Hughes challenging Mr Green; Shirley Maclaine's entire performance; Mr Molesley suddenly finding that he's really good at something; Carson's proposal to Mrs Hughes - which I can quote verbatum, I've watched it so often.

I could go on and on. There are so many scenes, characters, words I havn't touched on (Isis! Rose! Russians!), but I'd need a month of Sundays to do it all justice. Perhaps I should do an episode recap when I get the boxset. I've also not dwelt on the problematic characterizations of certain characters, and it will be obvious who my favourite characters are. That is the nature of these things, and a blog is personal anyway.

The object of this ode has been to try and convey my love for a show that, although by no means perfect, has become a cherished part of my life. This year, for the first time, I became part of the online fanbase (I can think of worse ways to avoid doing your dissertation) through tumblr and by writing fanfiction, which has opened up a whole new world of Downton love and hate. People feel things strongly on the internet and although there are, at times, clashes of opinion over characters and their actions, one things remains true for everyone - that is that the show is greatly loved and will be sorely missed when it leaves our screens for the very last time on Christmas night. Asking Santa for a box of kleenex would probably be the best present idea.

There seems to be a certain fear that with the death of the show, the links made through the fanbase will cease to be. To my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. I'd like to use some words from the creator of another global phenomenon. J.K. Rowling said at the time of the premier of the final Potter film that 'the stories we love best live in us forever. Whether you come back by page or by screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.' It is true, and the Potter fan base remains very much active. The same will, I am sure, be true of Downton Abbey.

It is time to say goodbye, but only to new adventures. The doors of the abbey will remain forever ajar for its followers to push open whenever they wish, and whenever they need the comforting presence of old friends to help them through troubled times. There will always be points to discuss and, just as with Potter, there will always be people for us to introduce the world of Downton to.

I'm going to shed buckets of tears as the final scenes play out, of course I am. But shot through the tears will be a massive smile that this wonderful drama has been in my life and given me such memories. Farewell Downton - gone but not forgotten.