Downton Abbey – movie on general cinema release from Friday 13 September
I know, I know, this is a bit odd. Sending a TV reviewer to write about a film… in his TV blog no less. If it’s odd for you, imagine what it was like for me. Normally I am lounging about at home, frequently in my pyjamas, complaining about the WiFi and/or children, while I’m trying to crank up my laptop to watch a Channel 5 travelogue starring someone who was in Corrie 20 years ago. And yet, on Wednesday night, there I was, at a special press screening for the most eagerly anticipated cinema event of the year. There was a free bar (I didn’t indulge, far too professional) and free popcorn (I filled my boots).
Okay, so it was all very jolly for me. But why send a TV reviewer to write about a film? To answer this, I will refer you to the opening paragraph of the review by The Guardian’s inestimable Peter Bradshaw: “There are some films that you really have to see on the big screen. Not this one, though. To get the full, authentic experience, you’ll need to see it on the small screen, on 27 December, with a quart of eggnog inside you and enough Quality Street to trigger a diabetic coma.” I watched this in the cinema – I know this, because there were hundreds of other people there, and there was popcorn and a massive screen – but in every other way possible, this is a TV programme. Bradshaw is entirely right – it is a Christmas special to the tips of its frostbitten toes.
The plot – in so much as there is one – centres around the fact that the King and Queen are going to pay a one-night visit to Downton on their “Yorkshire Tour”. This is not to be confused with the Tour de Yorkshire, which features altogether more Lycra and sweaty men puffing up hills on bikes, and would have represented quite an incongruous plot device, even by Downton’s standards.
The royals and their retinue are only staying for one night, but the palaver that surrounds them is the kind of fuss that would make P Diddy blush (ask your grandchildren). An advance party arrives, including the King’s Page of the Backstairs (David Haig). Do not make the mistake of calling him a butler. I mean, not that you’re likely to meet him, what with his being a fictional character from the 1920s, but you can’t be too careful.
The Downton staff are all frightfully excited about the prospect of serving royalty (although they’ve been serving Maggie Smith’s marvellously imperious Dowager Countess for long enough, so presumably the actual royals are a step down?). But there is a problem. The haughty and abrasive members of the royal household insist on doing everything themselves. The Downton staff are not required to work. Now, were this me, I’d be off to the pub, the pictures, back to the pub, then maybe out for a meal, then back to the pub again. But they’re cut from a different cloth below stairs in the Grantham household. Instead of rolling over and playing possum, they decide to fight back “for Downton’s honour” whatever that means.
In and around this absurd concept are more sub-plots than you can shake an ornamental antique silver candelabra at. Basically, every character has some form of their own story, which means most are dealt with in an almost comically perfunctory manner. There is one romantic story that literally consists of one line.
There is so much to object to in this film that I can’t begin to understand why I loved it so much. But love it I did – really and truly. I mean, it should carry a health warning. The saccharine is applied with a digger. It’s like eating baklava in cinematic form. But it is wonderful. I mean, if you hated the TV series, you will loathe this film with every fibre of your being, and you will be fully justified in doing so. But if you loved it (and surely most of us did, right?) then this represents its crowning glory.
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As always, Maggie Smith steals every scene that she’s in, even if the acerbic put-downs have become slightly too much of a ‘thing’. Her double act with Penelope Wilton is one of the show’s constant delights, and here it has an added helping of Imelda Staunton, so what’s not to like? Elsewhere, there is a genuinely majestic comic turn from Kevin Doyle as Molesley, and a deeply touching one involving the previously villainous Barrow (Robert James-Collier).
But to single out individual people for praise is to ignore the fact that Downton Abbey is essentially an ensemble piece. These are characters we have grown to love over the last nine years, expertly played by a charismatic cast in the most sumptuous settings. TV and film would do the world a great disservice if they did not reflect some gritty, hard truths. But they should also offer escapism, entertainment, and sugar-coated, chocolate-dipped, frosted, gooey portions of full-fat joy. That’s what you get here, and while it might be too rich for some stomachs, plenty of others will return for second helpings. And we might all need to fatten ourselves up on a good dose of happiness in preparation for what looks like being a long, difficult few months. Winter is coming… but that’s another TV franchise entirely.
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Meanwhile, on TV this week…
Saturday 14 September
BBC Proms 2019, 7:15pm BBC Two and 9pm BBC One: Katie Derham hosts the climax of the classical music festival from the Royal Albert Hall. It’s like Glastonbury, but with better toilets. And less mud. And more black tie. And less rap. Let’s face it, it’s nothing like Glastonbury.
The Jonathan Ross Show, 10:15pm, ITV: The charismatic chat show host returns with a star-studded couch including some of the cast of the new Downton movie (wait… there’s a Downton movie???) and Stephen Fry.
Sunday 15 September
Goodwood Revival Live, 2pm, ITV: Vintage cars, legendary drivers, and 150,000 spectators in period dress: British eccentricity at its finest. Bravo!
Monday 16 September
The Cameron Interview, 8pm, ITV: David Cameron does his first in-depth television interview since his Premiership, as he goes head-to-head with Tom Bradby. What WILL they find to discuss, I wonder…?
Tuesday 17 September
The Martin Lewis Money Show: Live, 8pm, ITV: The money-saving guru is back with his show filled with practical tips on getting the best deals and looking after your pennies. Watching TV has never been so lucrative.
Love in the Countryside, 9pm, BBC Two: Return of the series in which Sara Cox helps those living and working in remote rural areas find love.
Wednesday 18 September
Japan with Sue Perkins, 9pm, BBC One: This promises to be a treat. The effortlessly lovely Ms Perkins embarks on another travel odyssey, this time to Japan, which is about to host both the Rugby World Cup, and my sister and her family, for two months. Our Sue kicks things off in Tokyo, where she trains with a female Sumo wrestling team, and meets a family that lives with robots.
Thursday 19 September
The Cameron Years 1/2, 9pm, BBC One: Documentary looking at the key aspects of David Cameron’s stint as PM, featuring an interview with Cameron himself, as well as contributions from some major political figures and Ann Widdecombe.
1944: Should We Bomb Auschwitz, 9pm, BBC Two: In 1944, two prisoners escaped Auschwitz and laid bare the truth about the horrors therein. This documentary looks at the acute moral dilemma facing the allied powers on discovery of this information.
Friday 20 September
Inside the Vatican 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: Fly-on-the-wall documentary covering a year in the Vatican, following everyone from Pope Francis to the Papal gardener.
Secrets of the Royal Flight, 9:15pm, Channel 5: Combining Channel 5’s love of royalty and transport, this documentary looks at royal air travel, from King George V’s first ever flight to the Queen’s flights of today. I wonder if King George V flew to Downton…
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