I’m not an uncritical fan of Downton Abbey, but I have to say, this Christmas special was brilliant festive telly. It had about fifteen simultaneous plots snatched from the likes of Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland. For our viewing pleasure we had:
- a murder trial, mention of which was being suppressed by The Press along with the Downton dead-Turk-in-a-bed sex scandal
- the machinations of a charming bounder fortune hunter
- the lingering family aftermath of a ‘phoney’ deathbed marriage
- the thwarted ambitions of a talented cook
- the stealing of a beloved family pet
- the birth of a baby across the class (and Irish sea) divide
- a convoluted love triangle involving a dead woman
All of these were woven neatly around use of the newfangled ‘game’ popular in 1919, the Ouija board. This was used as a veritable deus ex machina. Never has a glass being shoved about willy nilly done so much to promote the speedy tying-up of loose plot ends. I’m not sure if whole words were written on that board, but it seemed to communicate complicated messages at impressive speed. The Downton Abbey protype of Twitter perhaps?
All of these juicy stories took place during a few short days of post-war Christmas and New Year at a gloriously decorated, fake-frosted Downton Abbey. The trial of Bates hangs heavy over everyone, mostly Lord Grantham because he has to do up his own buttons, but Bates’ current (living) wife is pretty upset too.
Events kick off around the bloody big Christmas tree with electrical lights and everything. Shit-looking gifts being given by the Granthams to their servants, who have to look grateful, and are then given time to eat their Christmas lunch at lunchtime rather than breakfasttime whilst the much put-upon posh lot upstairs have to SERVE THEMSELVES from a buffet.
Nouveaux riche Sir Richard Carlisle, betrothed to an increasingly irked Lady Mary, is appalled at the servant scum being given such soft treatment. They even have their own Servants Ball at Downton. Heck, they’ll be demanding pensions next. Evil Dicky will not be allowing such mollycoddling amongst his own staff, when he gets both the plumbing and Lady Mary installed in his own vast house up the road. If that ever happens.
There’s a clear steer from Julian Fellowes that we’re supposed to dislike Sir Richard and his modern, fancy ways, such as hot and cold running water (and, in theory, servants). But I love handsome, machiavellian Iain Glenn, and I was rather sorry to see his eventual ignominious departure.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The trial of the somewhat tedious Bates is underway for the premeditated murder of his Evil Scheming Wife (not that Fellowes draws his characters with luminous Goody/Baddy tags attached to their foreheads or anything). Many servants and Lord G get called as witnesses and fall for the sneaky prosecuting barrister’s evil traps as, one by one, they condemn Bates by their words (“I’m sure Bates is innocent”. But did you hear him say: “I’ll kill that bitch if it’s the last thing I do” before he went off to see her and her cold, dead body was found next day? “Erm, yes I did actually”). Oopsy. So Bates is found guilty, the black mortar board of doom is put on by the judge, and it looks like this valet has done up his last collar studs.
And during all the palaver, how was poor Hugh Bonneville supposed to manage to put on his own trousers the right way round without the aid of a regular manservant? The upper classes really do suffer you know, and Fellowes isn’t afraid to show it. Thomas the Evil footman was angling for the highly sought after job, and to win his Lordship’s trust, stole his lovely yellow Labrador, locking the dog in a remote shed, so he could impress the Lord by “finding” him again (all very Empress of Blandings). It’s ok by the way, the dog was found by a Village Child and returned, but Thomas got the job anyway, after returning from an early morning “search” all muddy and scratched, because he heroically tripped over his own feet in the woods.
Then the Home bloody Secretary intervened and Bates’ death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. And in the meantime, like all the best Christmas Agatha Christie specials, we had the pleasure of a few Guest Stars. Trudi from Mistresses was playing the maid of the sister from Outnumbered, being pursued for her fortune by an impoverished (and type cast, but that’s ok) charming rogue, played by Nigel Havers. Getting lost? Do keep up.
Maggie Smith was on top form as the pantomime Dame in this, every bit as much a plot manipulator as the Ouija board, to be fair. At one point, when the saintly (but cute, I know) Matthew got into a rug wrestle with Evil Richard over the love of Mary, smashed a vase then apologised to her, she commented: “Don’t be sorry. It was a wedding present from an aunt. It’s ghastly.”
And, of course, in the end, Mary and Matthew got over the many obstacles in the way of True Love (dead Turks, dead Lavinia, evil Richard) and fell into each other’s arms in the fake ice with a massive fire, representing the final ignition of suppressed passion as subtly as a train plunging in a tunnel, blazing through the window behind them.
All perfectly and gloriously manipulated.
Posted by Inkface