Monday, 4 October 2010

Downton Abbey

Okay, so Downton Abbey is not exactly a comedy or a sitcom, and therefore has no place in this blog - but in my defence, I will say this: I laughed more at Downton Abbey than I did at Roger and Val Have Just Got In so it counts. (Please don't mishear me. I don't mean to say that Roger and Val is no good. I can't tell if it's any good or not. I don't get it.)

But it's worth pausing for a moment to examine a decent programme like Downton Abbey and ask ourselves 'Why is it good?' Undoubtedly the cast have to take some of the credit. They are all superb, from The Dame, through Bonneville and Wilton (national treasures both) all the way to Lesley 'Mrs Pants' Nichol, the Head Cook. The show is well shot and well directed. Classy and traditional, but not twee - at least not to my taste.

The real star is the script, by Julian Fellowes. Granted, this feels like something of a rewrite of (and improvement on) his rather fine Gosford Park - a movie nearly single-handed ruined by the presence of Stephen Fry. Downton Abbey are some great jokes - mostly spewed from the caustic mouth of the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith), who cuts people down to size and does not suffer fools, but who is also on the receiving end from time to time. Comedically, the show is exactly as funny as it intends to be.

The show is also well-paced and moves along fast enough to keep things interesting, but not so fast that we have no clue what is going on. Because of this, there is no need for clunky expositions, or restatements of the plot (eg New Tricks, which often assumes that you falll asleep for 12-15 minutes somewhere in the middle, which, sadly, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy).

But the main thing I take away from the show is that every line counts, and every scene matters. If something is shown, it isn't said. If catch a glimpse of something, it has consequences. Unless Mr Fellowes has a supernatural ability, I would imagine this take weeks of plotting, replotting, sketching, redrafting and bellowing at flipcharts and post-it notes.

And herein lies the lesson, I think. There's nothing in Downton Abbey that makes me, as a writer, think 'That is genius! How clever! I could never have thought of that!' The show is not a genre-buster or completely new approach. It's Upstairs Downstairs on a decent budget. It is a historical/costume drama with a few decent jokes. The characters feel real and talk like consistent real people. The situations are interesting. It's just the application of skill, energy and time to the task and making it not just half-decent but just right.


  1. I see you write "My Family". Er - no surprise you don't get Roger and Val Have Just Got In then!

  2. It's true. I did. (One episode in Series 5) And I don't get Roger and Val. I take it you dislike the former and like that latter. That's okay. It takes all sorts.