Susannah Buxton, Costume designer for Downton Abbey
Dear friends and readers,
Last night I find myself again regretting that the older Poldark films have never been produced on DVDs with features with talk from the film-makers and actors; there has been no voiced-over commentaries with slowed-down parts, or any of the kind of commercial paraphernalia a sociological event best-seller of the Poldark type have begun to accumulate around them since the later 1990s. Here we do have some real use for the fandoms who might be said to serve as a tangible target for money-making on the Net. Beyond Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall, only part of which was about the mini-series, the only book produced was Robin Ellis’s Making Poldark, now in a third reprinting, most of it the same text he originally produced (it has autobiographical additions and better stills).
From recent DVD feature on The Haunting (see review)
It may be much of the original cast is now dead (most of the principals are), but I’ve listened to and watched a DVD of the 1963 Robert Wise film of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting, where what was left of directors and writers and the cast produced intelligent insightful features and voice-over commentary — I took substantial notes on how the film was made. I suspect Poldark as a film still suffers from its original labeling as “swash-buckling soap opera,” and its not having had a widely-prestigious and single auteur type (instead many directors, writers, directors). By contrast, Downton Abbey now has had at least two books (The World of, The Chronicles of) and the first of three projected scripts produced.
Since I last wrote about Downton Abbey I’ve re-watched all the parts of the first season, read the playlets or scripts for all but the seventh part of the first season, and begun slowly to re-watch the parts again this time with voice-over commentary. Here is a little of what I’ve learnt about the power of these films (and by extension other costume dramas). I should say that I can stay up to all hours watching, absorbed, interested, enjoying them more; they take my mind off my recent intense anxiety. Reading the scripts reveals unexpected depths and parallels; cut scenes add much; Fellowes’s notes are ironically instructive. The voice-over commentary and especially watching the film move slowly gives you a chance to see how carefully each shot was cut, shaped, contextualized. We get the personal urges of Fellowes again and again — perhaps that’s the key to the strength of this and other films, this psychosocial projection drama.
The scripts in general
Part 1 as I said was introduction, by Part 6 I saw that hours that seemed centrally silly (it ends on the flower show) when read silently and slowly as with a novel, come out touchingly suggestive. Much of what’s omitted hurt the programs: when in Part 4 Miss Obrien brings Daisy to confide what happened in Mary’s room (how soap opera this kind of sentence is) in the program the camera cuts away. We know what Daisy has to tell. In the script Edith is very kind to Daisy; we hear here how Daisy has been suffering under the harassment and insults of Mrs Patmore and how in need of some comfort she is (quite apart from seeing the dead corpse pulled along), and Edith does provide this. It’s double edged as Edith now (understandably I think) wants to get back at Mary for needling her over Strallan and Matthew but it is real and a parallel to Sybil helping Gwen.
Matthew comes out as ambiguous throughout, far more questionable at times, in his mockery of Edith and his sidling up to Mary; he is as complicit and collusive in this penultimate part (supposedly unimportant) flower show hour as his mother with her overt pressuring of Violet to give up the prize. The Chronology of DA emphasizes origins of characters and how Fellowes sees them. As Matthew moves away from his supposed love, Lavinia, he has a peculiar expression on his face:
In several skeins of interweave it’s not too much to see that there is a Chekhovian rhythm to this hour as written up (like some of the earlier film adaptations, say 1983 MP) which is wholly lost in the actual realization’s quick pace.
Part 3 is hectic: This is the one where Lady Mary goes to bed with Pamuk and he drops dead while (presumably) trying to fuck her. It is also the one where Gwen’s desire to be a secretary is outed by Miss Obrien exposing the typewriter which Mrs Hughes says Gwen has no right to keep in Gwen’s room. The room is not Gwen’s, not even the bed she sleeps in is hers in private. We also have Mr Bates trying to escape the mean teasing and attempts to fire him by wearing a contraption that is torture.
In Fellowes’s notes he shows he realizes Mary is dense (he mentions her surprise anyone could not want her), but he is more concerned he says that viewers wrote in because they thought what was implied was (wait for this) Pamuk buggered Mary (!). Lines had been left out about her losing her virginity and what to do about it and so now he was sorry these were left out. My sense that people hardly ever say what they think and what is presented as mainstream thinking is utterly shallow was confirmed. I admit I had not thought of that – that he forced anal intercourse on her would have hurt and shocked her perhaps and she would not have so regretted the loss — but did think maybe we were to see Pamuk could go with men or women and that’s really why he was with Napier.
This time I’m confirmed in the idea that Mary is a real horror, cold and mean (she could care less about what Gwen is doing with her life) and Pamuk a cad. The irony is that Mary doesn’t see that Napier was a good candidate for her, showing really she doesn’t deserve him. I felt again for Edith, though she shows no compassion or concern for anyone but herself – as Sybil does trying to help Gwen who really despairs in her heart anyone will want her as a low person originally. In his notes to this scene Fellowes confirmed he was aware that the lower class person would not dream he or she could succeed and thus probably would not. It did seem to me the throwing away of the awful contraption is the equivalent of getting rid of the corpse of Pamuk and somehow connected to the typewriter — all sources of guilt, harassment.
In the script to the fourth part, Fellowes thinks the film-makers omitted the whole of the scene below. But watching I find they hadn’t. I begin to wonder how much he worked on his notes — fact-checking is non-existent that I’ve seen. But at any rate I scanned it in because I found it touching. Maybe it was intended to omit it and the last minute put back. t was “not needed” — as part of the action. I reprint it to show that the plays as written in this book show 1) the show was not conceived by Fellowes as tongue-in-cheek at all, and 2) they all thus far make Grantham our hero of decency, fairness, even egalitarianism of a paternalist sort. It anticipates Lord Grantham believing Bates innocent later on, and when Bates returns from prison telling him to take some time off, rest, read books, go into the library:
3 INT. LIBRARY. DOWNTON. DAY.
Robert is working, with Pharaoh at his feet. Carson enters.
CARSON: You wanted to see the new chauffeur, m’lord.
ROBERT: Yes, indeed. Please bring him in.
Carson nods and a young man, in his thirties, appears. This
is Tom Branson. He is attractive and polite. Carson leaves.
ROBERT: Come in, come in. Good to see you again …
Branson, isn’t it?
BRANSON: That’s right, your lordship.
ROBERT: I hope they’ve shown you where everything is?
And we’ve delivered whatever we promised at the
BRANSON: Certainly, m’lord.
Robert nnds him rather an interesting character.
ROBERT: How did you first come to be a chauffeur?
BRANSON: My father was a tenant of Mrs Delderfield’s and
I was apprenticed to the chauffeur there. But he’d been
a coachman and he didn’t have much feeling for cars. In
the end, the mistress asked me to take over.
ROBERT: Won’t you miss Ireland?
BRANSON: Ireland, yes, but not the job. She was a nice
lady, but she only had one car and she wouldn’t let me
drive it over twenty miles an hour. So it was a bit …
well, boring, so to speak.
Which makes Robert laugh. Branson looks around.
BRANSON: You’ve got a wonderful library.
The remark does not offend Robert but it does surprise him.
ROBERT: Are you interested in books?
BRANSON: Not in books, as such, so much as what’s in
A reading chauffeur? Unusual. Robert thinks for a moment.
ROBERT: You’re very welcome to borrow books, if you wish.
BRANSON: Really, m’lord?
He is astonished and delighted. Robert nods.
ROBERT: There’s a ledger
use, even my daughters.
BRANSON: Do all the servants enjoy the same privilege?
ROBERT: I suppose they could, although I doubt they’d
avail themselves of it. Carson and Mrs Hughes sometimes
take a novel or two. What are your interests?
BRANSON: History and politics, mainlyROBERT: Heavens.* Well, when you come
back, you should
start looking in that section, there.t
Carson has reappeared at the door.
ROBERT: Branson’s going to borrow some books. He has my
CARSON: very good, m’lord.
Does Carson approve? Probably not. He looks at Branson.
Typical notes by Fellowes:
The Irish troubles were a hot topic throughout this period, much more even than in the 1970s. We remember the Suffragettes and the emergence of the unions, but in fact if we’d been alive at that time the front page would have been dominated by Ireland, so here Branson is bringing those troubles to Downton. Because, by this stage, the show had developed its own method of dealing with these things. We don’t usually introduce famous characters like Lloyd George or Curzon or De Valera, but we allow our characters to refer to political events and scandals and things that were happening. To achieve this, to make the Crawleys and their servants aware of what was going on, I had the idea of bringing in an Irish chauffeur who was political and a republican. He is not active, in the sense of being a freedom fighter, but he is energetically pro-independence for Ireland. It seemed to me that such a chap would allow us to talk about the topic without its seeming contrived. I also thought – although only vaguely when I was writing this episode – that we might have a cross-class romance at some point and so it seemed a good idea that he should be young and handsome, whether or not we actually did anything with it. The actor who plays Branson (Allen Leech) had worked with me and our producer, Liz Trubridge, on a film I wrote and directed, called From Time to Time. He impressed us both and he had a kind of gritty, very real sort of good looks, as opposed to the face of a film star, which is more useful in this kind of drama.
I was sorry they cut this section, when Robert invites Branson to borrow books. It was taken from Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, whose memoirs of a life in service have just been reissued, for which I wrote the preface. She takes a fairly jaundiced view of the world but she was operating in smaller
households than Downton, where she was only one of two or three servants and they worked like dogs. But, once, she does go to a grander house on a temporary basis to replace a cook, and there all the servants were encouraged to borrow books from the library. When I read it, I thought it was rather a
nice touch and quite Robert’ish. Since I knew it was based on truth I was looking forward to being attacked but in the event it was cut. Naturally, Carson can’t bear the idea.
BRANSON: Is that all, m’lord?
ROBERT: It is. Off you go and good luck.
Branson goes, leaving master and butler alone.
ROBERT: Well. An Irishman with an interest in politics …
Are we mad?
CARSON: I could always bring in fire drill for the staff.
ROBERT: Thank you, Carson.
They share the moment.
ROBERT (CONT’D): He seems quite a bright spark after poor
Carson is not prepared to volunteer an opinion. Yet.
ROBERT: I always thought he was happy. Why did he want
CARSON: I believe it was Mrs Taylor, m’lord. She felt
cut off. She wanted to live in a town.
ROBERT: But running a tea shop? I cannot feel that’ll
make for a very restful retirement, can you?
CARSON: I would rather be put to death, m’lord.
ROBERT: Quite so. Thank you, Carson.
with a glance at the dog, he returns to his letter.
I liked the joke too, now this tea-shop part was omitted
One of the many things I like about serial storytelling is how a later part harks back to the earlier. In Part 4 we also get the slowly developing love of Anna for Bates; we saw her pity for him, her respect, her bringing him a tray when she and he thought he was fired, and she watched him cry; now in this episode he brings her a tray during her bad cold and in the script we can read the scene slowly.
It’s through this syntagmatic (is the word) development that these series gets their depth. Of course it contrasts to Mrs Hughes giving up her love, Daisy making an error in falling for the lesser man, Thomas. All brought together in the moment of ferocity when Bates threatens Thomas for needling and mocking William, that foreshadowing the reality of his pent-up violence … he is the one real justfiably angry man of the series.
The script to Part 6 is a deepening of the seriousness and suggestivity of the Scripts 1-5. You really feel for example how the relationship between Branson and Sybil has a genuine basis in their natures, their predilections, his reading (John Stuart Mill you now see), her ideals. Talking seriously:
The show does not have enough time and is in a way — however paradoxical this is — too effectively presented dramatically. You lose the hidden novel in the quick-paced creamy-pop appeal that all the filmic techniques project.
Downton Abbey 1:1: from the voice-over commentary
As I wrote, it was not until I watched very slowly, this time having read the script, clicking and snapping on the stills and then studying them (the way the film is put together) that I realized the real motive for the Duke of Crowborough’s visit was to go up to that attic and snatch back his love letters to Thomas Barrow.
In the case of this series, part of my absorption is a kind of fascinated horror at what the whole thing reveals about what audiences like, what they think when they are watching — for in the scripts Fellowes includes many notes telling of what viewers have written to the film-makers. The commentary has
Fellowes and his partners (the producer for season 1 and director of this part) continually upholding this fantasy world as good and wonderful and real (so from the point of view of understanding the film dead wood), a kind of bland hypocrisy, their “job” whatever hype is expected they’ll utter.
Fellowes is the best of the three because he really believes in what he is presenting and is unashamed. Amid or sometimes after his fatuous kinds of naive statements he will suddenly say what he intended to do in a scene, comment on how he sees the actors, what they are doing, why this one is dressed this or that way (costume so important in costume drama). Two examples, when near the close Anna visits Bates with the
tray of food all three suddenly say these are their ‘favorite pair’ and there is suddenly a discussion of the lighting, the words (which insist he’s going to be fired), the depth of feeling in the scene, the lighting. As important in these
over-voice commentaries, the scene moves much slower.
The paired scenes sandwiching this are of Crowborough getting the naive Mary to take him to the servants’ quarters so he can find and get back his letters to Thomas and Thomas’s visit as a footman to Crowborough’s room. The latter is the first place in the whole hour all formality is dropped and we get two human
beings confronting one anther for real.
I don’t believe it was the two males’ ideas to kiss so lovingly, but at any rare they do it so touchingly and yet we know how no humane feeling lies beneath it (so a contrast to the Bates/Anna scene in the attic which just precedes it — see first two stills) and again light, words, gestures and it’s the real climax of all the scenes in the part — and it undermines all the fatuity about how the show supports the order in front of us.
Fellowes also confirmed for me that Miss Obrien is really meant to be the person who had no belief in this system and hates it. He does not like her for this at all, and thinks it condemns her. But we may think differently even if we don’t
like her personally. He described Maggie Smith as a kind of crow in this part: also exposing the humbug but from her self-interested perspective. He kept pointing out how often she is in black with black hats.
He personally finds Elizabeth McGovern very pretty as an older woman and remarked on this as they watched the last bedroom scene.
While she is often in black (they are all supposed partly in mourning), not always, and I could see he liked her as a simulacrum of an older wife he could quite imagine himslf “having” …