TV review: Downton Abbey

Benjie Goodhart / 17 September 2015

A look at this week's highlights including World of Weird and Midwinter of the Spirit.

Downton Abbey, Sunday 20th September, 9pm, ITV

Where else would we start this week’s TV blog than amidst the timeless splendour of Downton Abbey, which returns for its last-ever series. This is an achievement in itself, what with last year’s series also having been described as the last ever. But that’s the problem with cash cows – putting them out to pasture does not come easy.

Speaking of cash, poor old Lord G could do with a bit more. Austerity is coming to Downton, and the cold reality of 20th-Century economics is starting to bite. Staff will have to be let go. How does one begin to survive with less than 40 servants? Below stairs, they’re getting restless, wondering who’s about to lose their job. All of you, sillies: It’s the last series.

It’s that blasted word, ‘progress’. The gramophone, the telephone, the fridge. Still, at least Wifi hasn’t been invented yet – just think how many boosters you’d need to get signals throughout the house. And now – horror of horrors, Lady Mary is no longer riding side-saddle. She’ll be shaving her head and getting an Anarchy in the UK tattoo next.

Even the filthy business of sex is raising its distasteful head at Downton this week, with Mrs Hughes in a tizzy over whether or not Mr Carson is going to exercise his conjugal rights after they’re married. (I’d completely forgotten they were engaged, bless them!) But the more things change, the more they stay the same. As usual, the magnificent duo of Cousin Isobel and the Dowager Countess are at loggerheads, this time over the future of the village hospital. Don’t worry, ladies, it’ll be closed down in an NHS cost-cutting exercise in 60 years anyway. What’s the NHS, you ask, Countess? Believe me, you don’t want to know. It’s not your cup of tea. Or ‘Beveridge’ if you will. (Pats self on back). And, as usual, the Bates’ are being subjected to the twin-imposters of triumph and disaster. Their marriage is the very definition of rollercoaster. They could win the lottery and be struck by lightning on the same day, if only the lottery had been invented. 

Welcome back, Downton. We’ve missed you.

Midwinter of the Spirit, Wednesday 23rd September, 9pm, ITV

You can tell a lot about a show from its opening scene. Downton almost always begins with a large set piece, the cameras sweeping through the house as the servants prepare for some glamorous social occasion or other, and you just know you’re going to spend the next hour bathing in a warm, soapy televisual bath with gilt gold taps. Midwinter of the Spirit, ITV’s new three-part drama, begins with a terrified man being chased through the woods, intercut with a mad-looking priest frantically incanting at a hospital bedside, as blood slowly drips from his nose onto the bible. You’re unlikely to find yourself thinking you’ve tuned in to a new series of Ballykissangel.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Merrily Watkins, a vicar and recently-widowed single mother, whose tragic situation suggests that her name isn’t exactly appropriate. She’s being trained as an exorcist, because her life clearly isn’t filled with enough gloom as it is. It’s not the kind of responsibility you want to be given at work, what with its tendency to bring you into contact with loonies, psychos, monsters, devil-cults, and brutal murderers. I’m never complaining when it’s my turn to make the tea again.

Anyway, when a local man is murdered in less than pleasant circumstances (not that murder is ever pleasant, I get that, but this one really isn’t fun), the police call in Merrily because – well, largely because it helps out with the plot. I don’t think, in real life, the cops have a hotline to their local exorcist. 

If you like your dramas dark and decidedly scary, this one is for you. Maxwell Martin is tremendous as Merrily, and the creepiness-factor is cranked up to 11 throughout. This is genuinely chilling TV, to be watched with someone else, with the lights on, and with a stuff drink in hand.

The Naked Choir with Gareth Malone, Wednesday 23rd September, 9pm, BBC Two

Ooh, how exciting! A fascinating, high-concept show, in which weirdly-youthful man-child Gareth Malone tours the nudist beaches of the UK to find the best singers among the nation’s naturist community – the altos in the altogether and the birthday-suit basses, a plethora of winkle-waving warblers.

No. No, it isn’t. TV perfection will have to wait another year. (Actually, to achieve perfection, it might need to feature Katherine Jenkins rather than weirdly-youthful man-child Gareth Malone…) Instead, this series sees WYMC Gareth Malone mentoring eight a cappella choirs as they seek to be named the best in the land. Hurrah, I hear you cry. Just what TV needs – a singing talent competition. Why did nobody think of this before?

Except that this is actually rather fun. The choirs, having been whittled down from hundreds of applicants, are all very good, which is something of a relief. Listening to a horribly discordant bunch of tuneless wannabes all attempting to harmonise their way through Amazing Grace? I think I’d rather listen to somebody drag their fingernails down a blackboard while Janet Street Porter screamed insults at me in German.

This opening episode sees Gareth meeting with the four choirs from the South, including an all-female choir from Portsmouth, some music students from Southampton, and a community choir from East London. He gives them some execrable songs to go away and arrange both the harmonies and choreography for, before they perform in front of a live audience, including a panel of judges who will eliminate one choir at the end of the show.

And it’s all rather lovely. Everyone involved, Malone included, seems to be delightful, and what they manage to do with the songs is truly remarkable. And you really haven’t seen everything the human condition has to offer until you’ve watched a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class women from Portsmouth trying to beatbox.

 

World of Weird, Thursday 24th September, 10pm, Channel 4

Actually, it turns out there’s quite a lot of the human condition you’ve not seen, if this truly bizarre look at some of the weirder elements of the world is anything to go by. This hour-long examination of odd behaviour from all over the globe contains more strangeness than a comic opera written by David Lynch sung in French by Jersey cows. Comedian Joel Dommett travels to Tokyo to investigate the concept of families for hire. Basically, if you don’t want to introduce people to your own family, you can rent one instead, and pass them off as your own. If I’d known such a service existed in my teenage years, I could have been saved a lot of embarrassment. Mind you, I think my parents might have hired a separate son in those days as well…

Meanwhile, Matt Rudge visits America to look into the concept of Doomsday Preppers, weird, paranoid, gun-toting types with beards (they always have beards) who are preparing for the end of days by building shelters and running around remote woodland shooting at anything that moves. They do this “so we can protect our families from all the fruitcakes out there,” says one man in need of a crash-course in self-awareness.

There is a visit to the world’s largest family, in India, consisting of a man called Ziona, his 39 wives and 94 children. They live in dormitories in a large purple mansion, and perform marching routines and play bagpipes. It’s all a bit mad. Mind you, I’d go mad with 39 wives and 94 kids. And think of the expense if you were embarrassed by them, and had to hire in replacements from Japan!

Finally, Michelle de Swarte visits a convention of Bronies – grown men obsessed with My Little Pony. Yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, there are a lot of them. Her report features the most superfluous question of the week, asked to a 26-year-old accountant, living with his mum, standing in his My Little Pony-filled bedroom. “Are you single?” 

After travelling to the convention, in Baltimore, she concludes that this is indeed a fantastic movement. “I don’t think this many people can be wrong.” Yeah. Because there are no historic examples of popular movements being in any way destructive, Michelle. Still, I don’t anticipate the Bronies invading Poland anytime soon. 

Brideshead Revisited box set

The first TV series I can ever remember watching with my parents was Brideshead Revisited. It was in 1981, and I was nine. I fear the detailed ruminations on the nature of religion and personal freedom were lost on me, as was the wistful sense of regret that permeated the series. 

But I liked it for a few reasons. The first, and doubtless the most important, was that I was allowed to stay up late to watch it. (I imagine my parents thought Evelyn Waugh might be a rather civilising influence on me – I very much doubt they’d have let me stay up to watch something by Tom Clancy, for example). The second was that Charles Ryder spent most of the first episode in an army uniform, convincing me that at any stage there would be a thrilling action sequence, and he’d reveal himself to be a master of karate as well as a dab hand with a machine gun. By the time I realised this was not the case, that Waugh had no interest in war, I was already hooked.

Other things made an impression – so much so, they have stuck with me over the years. The sun-dappled quads of Oxford University, peopled by gorgeously effete young men clutching teddy bears, cricket-sweaters draped around their necks, driving vintage cars and going on picnics. The stunning Castle Howard, used as Brideshead, with its almost implausible grandeur. The sumptuous score by Geoffrey Burgon, at times joyous, more often unbearably sad.

The story follows the life of Charles Ryder and his eager and tragic infatuation with a doomed Catholic aristocratic family, the Marchmains. And yes, it’s about as jolly as that sounds. But this was TV of majestic ambition – 11 episodes, 13 hours of star-studded, hugely intelligent, challenging television, set in multiple locations and filmed on an epic scale. The cast included Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Diana Quick and Claire Bloom, and launched to careers of Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons on to a global stage. The series won multiple awards, and is today hailed as a classic. In 2010, the Guardian rated it the second best TV drama ever made. It is difficult to argue. No other drama I can think of has had the confidence to build so slowly, to stay so true to its text, and to place such trust in its audience’s intelligence.

The first line’s an irritant, mind you. “Here, at the age of 39, I began to feel old.” Ruddy cheek!

Brideshead Revisited is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk for £13.40. It can also be bought for £1.89-per-episode on iTunes.

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