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Demelza (Angharad Rees) climbing up on Ross’s (Robin Ellis’s horse), (1975 Poldark)

Dear friends, readers, and class,

This is a continuation of the lecture I wrote as a blog, Ross Poldark, the first phase, which takes into account my first blog on the book, Ross Poldark, Revenant, and on the 1970s mini-series, An 18th century Cornish Che Guevara figure. I’ve added a few thoughts on the first three episodes of Debbie Horsfield (script-writer and “creator”), Ed Bazalgette (director) and Eliza Meller (producer) of the 2015 Poldark which have not quite covered this first of the 12 novels. The stills are mostly from the 1970s mini-series as all I have for the recent one are a few promotional stills, which typically distort what are the characteristic images in any film.

Last time we emphasized the salient characteristics of Ross, which included the above categories, a sense of his rootedness in costume drama of the 1940s (Stewart Grainger) as well as his historical conditions: he is not the heir to the Poldark estate, Francis Poldark, the son of the oldest son, Charles, is. He thus comes home to a small inheritance of a ruined mine, home, neglected property, the young woman he had loved and thought himself pledged to engaged to that heir. He had been assumed dead, out of the way. To this I’d add he is an ordinary man, somber, serious, whose troubles are those that anyone of the 1940s and again 1970s might identify with today: he wants to integrate himself into his community, make a respectable living, is a responsible man with a depth of intelligence. His desire to do some good is what particularly dates the norms to the 1940s after WW2 and again before the Thatcher era.

Ross Poldark and Demelza may be seen as coming of age novels: our hero returns home from the wars, which he escaped his youthful rebellions to, and now he tries to make himself a life, to marry where he will be comfortable, a woman who provides a household (his choice to marry and Demelza too partly fits in with the first part of Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians where she depicts the male of the 18th century eager to marry a genuine home-maker, to begi his career as a respectable male). I wrote a separate blog on mining (& smuggling) in Cornwall with particular reference to Ross’s thwarted heroic efforts. In the first she grows up: she comes age 11-14 into the first minimally decent stable surroundings and people who treat her in a civilized manner since her mother’s death. In the second she too comes of age, partly by finding where she differs from Ross, who by the end of the first novel has become an unquestioned parent-husband-master, someone who opinion of her is all encompassing, who is her. She is to learn he has feet of clay. Jud and Prudie are in effect her surrogate parents.

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Where Jim Carter (in the background) has helped Ross fend off Demelza’s father and she protests against giving her meagre salary away

We omitted talk of Jim Carter, with Jinny, important presences and characters in Ross Poldark and Demelza. On some deep level Ross identifies with him, feels for him (as Ross does not quite for Mark Daniels). Jim is of the wretched of the earth, has been given little chance to develop his gifts, and has not had the individual esteem to refuse to return to the mine when he, like his father, develops lung sickness; still he does not make enough money as a tributer and poaches to put food on the table his manliness demands. This is not to blame him, but we are to see that he is not a flawless character. Jinny is not really happy with him; he will not listen to her greater prudence. He knows how dangerous poaching is (no matter how unjust the laws); she becomes subject to rape and even death when he steals out. Ross’s anger at himself for not saving Jim but persistent impulse to not behave in the amoral hierarchical ways of he gentry leads to his decision to marry Demelza. He will do the right thing. The community think he is sexually using her carelessly as any aristocratic male would; he proves them wrong. Central to the book is his learning experience at the trial, Book 2, Chapter 4.

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Jinny and Jim at their wedding listening to her father

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Zacky Martin

Also the rivalry with Francis. Quite apart from Elizabeth. My research into the period of the Renaissance through early 19th century shows such internecine quarreling and betrayals (Ross almost drowns Francis in their first encouner in the mine when Francis tries to open himself to Ross) occurred regularly between a male heir and especially a cousin, the son of the second son: I found it in Vittoria Colonna’s extended family, and in Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s brother, who murdered his male cousin Hazlewood in Northampton, and could not recover a life afterwards. Primogeniture is not a system to foster kindly feelings (as Austen said the system which demands none of a group of sisters “come out” until the oldest is engaged leads to animosity).

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Clive Francis as Francis as we first see him

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Frank Middlemas as Charles

Powerful scenes in Book 2 are the trial (covered in the last lecture) and Ross and Demelza’s plunge into becoming lovers: she desperate to avoid returning to her imprisoning home, he drunk, wretched, overcome with a need for human contact. She does not entrap him; she fears earning his contempt and he almost does react that way when in his mother’s dress he compares her to his mother. Book 2, Chapters 5-7. The careful slow believable and probable build-up; Demelza’s intense awakening and joy afterwards; his acknowledgment that this was not just “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Elizabeth comes more for help with Francis who her own rejection of has driven from her and into drinking, gambling, promiscuity, debt, thinking to play on Ross’s love for her, but finds something has happened between the two and it is too late for her. To its credit the 2015 Poldark followed this trajectory including his decision to marry Demelza out of a liking and respect for her, that she had become part of his life, and the intensity of their congenial sexual encounters.

So the last phases of the book. Several inward looking threads:

1) Ross falls in love with Demelza, begins to appreciate her as an individual; he continues to love as this icon of aristocratic elusive beauty, Elizabeth. The love begins in the chapter of the harvest of pilchards, Book 3, Chapter 2; Graham may have written as well but he never wrote better. The greatness of it is it’s a recreation of the Daphnis and Chloe (Longus), Paul et Virginie (later 18th century), Tristan and Isolde archtypes interwoven completely with the detailed dramatization of a harvesting of pilchards by a community deeply in need of these fish to sell and to eat, in the context of a real Cornish cove. She packs a picnic supper. Much of the space is given over to describing the intensely important and ultimately successful catch through the use of the nets, yet our emotions are intensely with the each of our two presences.

‘Ross,’ she said, ‘dear Ross’ ‘I love you, he said, ‘and am your servant. Demelza look at me. If I’ve done wrong in the past, give me leave to make amwends.’ And so he found what he had half despised was not despicable, that what had been for him the satisfaction of an appetite, a pleasant but commonplace adventure in disappointment, owned wayward and elusive depths he had not known before and carried the knowledge of beauty in its heart.

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A famous shot from the 1975 series when Ross tells Demelza he will give her his name, marry her

2) The failure of Elizabeth and Francis’s marriage. She prefers her son, Geoffrey Charles, is not finally in love with him, and his failure to cope with the world she can be patient with, but not empathize or help. That they have had no further children is to be taken as a sign of unsatisfactory sex: an 18th belief is still wit hus that satisfying sex brings about orgasm and orgasm pregnancy. It’s a myth used in novels by characters to try to prove a woman claiming rape was compliant (in Richardson’s Clarissa, in Kleist’s Marquise of O) Elizabeth’s resurgent love for Ross comes out of her dissatisfaction. We see Warleggan waiting on the side; he has lent Francis money and bound him that way.

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Norma Streader as Verity: her close relationship with Ross slowly built up

3) The story of Verity — lonely, depressed, without feeling alive for herself (one of the many great chapters of Poldark series, all 12, is Chapter 14, when she returns to her room and faces what is her probable destiny: used but useful in her extended family. So ailing, she comes to stay with Ross and Demelza. Demelza fearing scorn holds off, but Verity wins her over by opening up her own tragedy to Demelza. Their shopping trip is to me a delight: like Ross’s trip to the fair in the first book, it enables Graham to present the 18th century world to us, shopping in the provinces, how people made their clothes. And we have a long trope of female friendship, so rare in male novels (hardly seen in most movies).

4) Graham has said that he did not plan another book, Ross Poldark was stand-alone, but I wonder if by the end of the book Graham knew he would continue: these latter two are the sort of thread that demand fulfillment. Demelza begins pro-active, diplomatically to question Ross to find out about this loss of love and hope Verity had known. Why start such a plot if you don’t mean to continue it into another book. Ross is right to worry about Blamey we are to feel too. A genuine gap between them. They will have male versus female reactions to primal experiences in later books. There is also what is going to happen to Jim Carter? Prudie and Jud kicked out of their jobs? will they continue alienated?

On average there was a three-year gap between Graham’s new books (not the rewritings) but Ross Poldark was 1945 and the very next year, 1946 Demelza. Jeremy Poldark appeared 1950; Warleggan 1953.

5) The last episode: Ross and Demelza are invited to Trenwith and almost torn apart by the pressure of the house and its history, the paintings, the sense of an ancient family Ross belongs to which she is outside of, but Demelza has a realistic success. She is helped to assert herself by Verity’s presence, by drink (she’s not perfect) and by her own native abilities against the spiteful Ruth Teague. Her pregnancy is actually a burden. Her first attempt at social class adjustment and we see in these scenes Francis instinctively kind and Elizabeth not deliberately hurting anyone.

One way to write a historical novel set in a given period is imitate the novels written in that period. Graham is imiating Emma where Austen’s Jane Fairfax plays so exquistely high culture music but Harriet says she prefers Emma’s poorer execution because the “performance” was so great. Also the songs easier. Elizabeth’s harp playing and use of Handel does take those who can enter a higher realm into it: that includes Francis (it is sad how their marriage fails). But Demelza’s folk approach is accessible, sexier and is liked by more. Demelza is getting back but before a sour note enters, Ross taps her shoulder lightly.

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As the novel ends Ross and Demelza achieve communion of spirits walking home in the landscape as Verity has walked by his side with him. Far from this ancient imposing house, with its picture, night and the “old peculiar silence” ceases to make a barrier and “becomes a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long. Time had overawed them. Now it became their friend”

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For next week: Demelza is not a sequel but a continuation. All the novels are continuation, continuing the story. Each one has a peculiar structure and themes of its own but they do not introduce a new set of characters who are dismissed from the action beyond the one novel. In Demelza Graham widens his purview to include the 18th century wold through a Cornish lends: topics will include medicine, law and justice, smuggling, banking.

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Aidan Turner as Ross working at his desk

The new mini-series, a few sketchy thoughts on Episodes 1-3:

I find I’m too attached to the novels after all and have a hard time judging this new one rationally. My worst complaint comes from the new dramaturgy: the scenes are far too short; in the modern way these begin at the end of a scene, are epitomizing, and have a momentary shot which suggest what was to happen and then we switch. The film editing feels crude: we move too abruptly from shot to shot.

Watch any 190s or 1980s mini-series: last night I was watching Barchester Chronicles, a mini-series from two novels by Anthony Trollope; what a striking difference from these new Poldarks; BC resembles the old Poldarks and The Oneddin Line. The three (BC, old Poldarks, and Oneddin) are all literate. Characters are presented with coherent thoughts; they talk to one another and express understandable ideas; debate issues. The scripts were hard-worked on and made sense. The writer does not have the time to develop complicated utterances or she fears the audience will not understand more complicated thoughts when not attached to something immediately personal.

Apparently some Poldark fans (on the facebook page) notice that the chronology from episode to episode is confused. PBS dumbs down by substituting bloody thrillers and situation comedies dressed up as costume drama (Doc Martin, Call the Midwife); the BBC carries on costume dramas of good books, with the alternative solution of having characters grunt at one another, and substituting scenic camera work (technology). It’s not the fault of the actors nor even the scriptwriter – though she appears to know little of the 18th century when it comes to underlying manners and attitudes nor director: the long hand of Mrs Thatcher, budget cuts, and despising of education is at the core of all this.

An overt feminism makes all the male characters order the females around peremptorily. That’s not how it worked. Alas the screenplay writer has not begun to read or understand some aspects of the actual male practical life of the era either, nor the 1790s revolutionary period — which the 1970s writers did. She gets wrong how men were paid; they did not get salaries but worked as tributers, entrepreneurs. The new Francis is made more sentimental and less cynical subversive — which is like the book, Francis’s wit (what are you being saved from? for?) which came from the book is gone, but perhaps the feminism of the producer and writer could not bear to show a man so careless of his wife, so easily promiscuous. Elizabeth in the book and in the 1970s movies was ambitious, cool, wanted to be seen, to go to London and shine in court (she never got the chance); they are sentimentalizing her too. Some of the face-book fans are happy that the portrait is more positive without examining why or how.

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Ruby Bentall as Verity and John Hollingworth as Blamey — good in these roles

The Verity and Blamey story is fairly told and even all the parts, but it needed to be spaced out much more. It’s like a near final draft that needs more interweaving and raison d’etre somehow. I can see that there is a real attempt at time to film scenes from the book that were not filmed before.

I find I miss badly some of the original incarnations: Clive Francis as Francis, Norma Streader as Verity, Frank Middlemas as Charles. We also in this first episode have more romance than money scenes; the gardens are overdone the landscape does not look like Cornwall; the music is inferior to the original episodes and the paratexts not so aptly chosen; they are not original, not thought out. Turner and Tomlinson are good — his is an attempt at a hard unsentimental conception. the Jack Farthing as George Warleggan has the tones of Ralph Bates; Nicholas, the father is gone, but Pip Torrens as the corrupt ruthless uncle, Cary, repeats the tones, notes and kinds of sayings about profit) the old Nicholas uttered. But a number of the actors are weak (especially Kyle Soller in the role of Francis as narrow, spiteful, not bright); Heidi Reed Elizabeth is presented as in love with Ross — nothing about her complicated desires for status, wealth, social life. They don’t know what to do about some of the characters that are not driven by love primarily so have Ross and Demelza sort of be around one another pointedly. They do not have the guts to show characters immoral and careless the way the first series did. Phil David (superb actor) as Jud is thrown away; his gnomic statements of pessimism personalized so lose their meaning. Lots of the working class characters simply in effect dropped. They don’t want comedy or at least not the kind the first series did — it’s melodramatic. To be fair, the original 1970s series often omitted Graham’s best lines, the darker melancholy sceptical ones. It did include the comedy.

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Ellis delivers a creditable performance as the narrow minded judge

On the other hand, it is also a different form of making movies; movies are made differently and I thought the third episode though also ‘dumbed down” used pictures again and movement beautifully to convey the love affair of Ross and Demelza. They are good actors.

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Instead of actors in a stage being filmed; we have figures in a large screen who are part of the wholistic picture, and much is conveyed through gesture, picture, angle of shot. Still, they don’t use montage cleverly (too much money?) and Horsfield has Aidan Turner charging through the landscape on his horse as if she doesn’t know what to do with the actor — the imitation of Colin Firth half naked in the water by Turner with Demelza as voyeuristic in the grass was embarrassing and broke the suspension of disbelief utterly.

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross

Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal reflects our modern mood (she begins in distrust) but it is to my mind closer to the conception Graham had than the previous Demelza — who reflected “sex kitten” moments in the 1960s films (Tom Jones) and was far more 1970s feminist as well as not realistic. It was anachronistic in the extreme for her to tell anyone she did not know who the father of her baby was, much less its real father, Ross. The beaten down, shy, but slowly emerging Demelza in 2015 reflects our own distrusts and sense of darker realities. There are a few scenes (too brief but there) from the book where they shop, he buys her a cloak, she prepares decent food for him, we see them eating and talking together (alas no dialogue).

There is much to like — very very much to be moved by. In the way of modern adaptations the film-makers take a back story and put it as prologue so we have “Ross in America” and then a scene from his parting with Elizabeth, after which here we are in the coach again. I had hoped for the death of Joshua (which opens the book) but not to be. Phil Davis is a great actor, he’s not comic like Paul Curran, but he’s in a way more credible as a presence than Jud. The actor for Jim Carter resembles the earlier actor.

I am warming to Aidan Turner and thought he has some really effective moments. One stays with me. Demelza is leaving, walking off with the dog, as Prudie has told her see what he said, you’ve more trouble than you are worth, and she looks up and there is Turner photographed on the horse against the sky, looking magnificent somehow. Memorable. There’s a different concept for Demelza for Eleanor Tomlinson; she is made more central to Ross’s decision to stay, not a thief, desperate in a more abject way. In the book he never thinks to go;

The politics are the not the progressivism of the 70s but mirror dark and grim British moods of today.

Thus far I am not sure it will become mythic: the first Poldark had something deeply original about it — the music, the different paratexts carefully chosen to capture important moments (closing of Grambler, Smuggling, killing the informer); time will tell whether that these 8 hours have captured a new original spirit equivalent or analogous to the older one. It’s at a disadvantage being second but Andrew Davies in 1995 knocked the 1979 P&P off the map. Maybe they are trying too hard. Since they are communicating pictorially, they need to have more nerve in filming bold sudden moments of magnificence (Ross on his horse coming up to Demelza and taking her back when she runs away). They try for subtle symbolism in the simplified dialogue: when at the close of third episode he tells Elizabeth he is not leaving Cornwall, he says he had lost something, and his way, and now he has found it; that something is Demelza on his horse behind him as his wife.

Ellen

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The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

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Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

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With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

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Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

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A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

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A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

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I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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In prison, telling of how her stepfather abused her and her mother ignored her distress: Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Bates (Brendan Coyle)

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The Dowager in her mind bidding adieu to any idea of time regained: Violet (Maggie Smith) remembering

Dear friends and readers,

I cannot deny for anyone still emotionally involved with any of these wrenched backward and forward manipulated-for-climax characters, there were still some stirring and/or genuine moments. There is some uncertainty about when and if it will ever end. So to this season’s finale:

For me intense distress over Anna (Joanne Froggart) in prison, humiliated, blamed, her own abused past used against her; some admiration for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) defying all convention and rank-based demands to visit Anna; the improbable angelic quest of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Mr Moseley to find witnesses to show that Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) was in York the day his confession claimed he was in London pushing Mr Green (Nigel Harman) in front of a bus (if he went so far as to say that — we don’t know); however unlikely that such a confession would be cast aside, Anna’s release and continued abjection when she returns “home” (she will not go into Downton Abbey by the front door), and, not for the first time, her bleak presence in black during the Christmas festivities, only to be gladdened and rejoiced and taken away to a quiet private space with her beloved at last.

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Rapturous escape

Punishment of servants and largesse on the part of masters and mistresses defined several of the stories brought to a temporary close. In the last two seasons Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith’s) adherence to duty and not exploiting those beneath her any more than her position demands was continued. She did not permit Spratt (Jeremy Swift) to triumph over Denker (Sue Johnston)’s inability to make a fine soup:

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Delicious soup

Violet was sorely tempted by Prince Kuragin many years ago, actually fled with him, but was pulled from the carriage, by his wife, the princess, and allowed herself to be dragged back not only to duty, but comfort and wealth, and social acceptability. She has reciprocated by paying for the princess to be rescued, giving the princess acceptable clothes and her reluctant husband back. She rises above the princess’s bitter understandable ingratitude.

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It’s an interesting topic: the Dowager’s attempt to do the right thing. I suggest the Dowager has changed over the course of five years — or better aspects of her character have gradually been brought forth. At first she appeared as a kind of dragon lady witch — remember her first appearance, striking in all glittering black.

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She does try to do the right thing, and we have now been given enough of her past to understand her marriage was not super-happy at all; she stayed because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes though these moral “right thing to do” can mislead. When she persuaded the older man to desert Edith at the altar, that was wrong even if it seemed conventional wisdom. She was with Rosamund in trying to remove Marigold from Edith. The “right thing” often violates our deeper emotions and needs — that’s a theme in Anthony Trollope by the way (whom Fellowes claimes to be much influenced by). The perversion of our deepest emotions by being required to follow social rightness — In Trollope’s novel, Lady Anna, the heroine, Lady or Anna Murray refuses to marry the Earl and does the “wrong” thing from everyone else’s point of view; she wins because she’s heir. But other Trollope characters walk away without the big money — in The Warden, Mr Harding for example. The Duchess would have been on Archdeacon Grantly’s side. Phineas Finn walks away to a small salary; he is not made happy and in Raven’s version he does it only because Mary is pregnant. But Trollope does fit in with Fellowes and here (as is not uncommon) if you examine Trollope for real, you find his inferences go another way.

It was certainly a season for older women to be proposed to (a Trollopian theme): Mrs Hughes’s (Phyllis Logan) reply to Mr Carson’s (Jim Carter) is a nearly exact repeat of Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) and Violet to Prince Kuragin:

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Mrs Hughes: ‘We’re celebrating the fact that I can still get a proposal at my age.’
Mr Carson: ‘And that’s it?’
Mrs Hughes: ‘Of course I’ll marry you, you old booby. I thought you’d never ask.

Where did he get the money? In the original Upstairs Downstairs, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges have been saving for their lodging house almost the full five years of the show.

And there were the intelligent conversations between the Dowager and Mrs Crawley once again:

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Otherwise you were invited to enjoy the perversion of natural good feeling, or asked to rejoice in spite, coming comeuppances, abjection, and confronted yet more women who suddenly could put two and two together. The most dismaying was Lady Sinderby (Penny Downie). It was not that she was hiding deep pain; she seemed genuinely puzzled who Diane Clark and little Daniel (HELLO, DANIEL, HIS NAME!) could be?

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I just wish there had been a flicker of recognition and anger in her eyes. I didn’t look but in the script it may say by Diana (Diana or Diane?) Clarke that she expected to be alone with him? I thought she did say that in fleeting passing. The actress the same age as Michelle Dockery, the younger set

(If so, absurd. Jim and I rented a hunting lodge in Sussex one summer. It was once a tryst place for a super rich Duke to have mistress and horses available. We had a large bed with a mirror over it. I kid you not. The building a sort of overgrown hut. I suddenly realize downstairs where younger daughter slept were once servants quarters. This is not marked at all by Landmark Trust who rents such places to people going on holiday in the UK. It was very large down there so lots of servants and grooms as across a yard were old stables — very much marked for our perusal. It was not that easy to get to — as the road is still not marked obviously from a pub, and the bus didn’t go there anymore. Nor were we told which more recent Dukes owned it.)

Rose (Lily James) to the rescue by a series of insistent hypocrisies with all joining in. We were to enjoy Lord Sinderby’s (Aldritch) shame. But what then? everyone conspires together not to help the woman whom he has obviously had a long time affair with, shows no concern for real for or her boy (we don’t learn his name though we do hers, Diana Clark). Meanwhile Lady Sinderby is suddenly unaware of what’s happening, and looks all surprise and bemusement and as ever Atticus (Marcus Bale) notices nothing. There is his half-brother. The character would be great on a slave plantation, surrounded by half-brothers and sisters who were his slaves too; Atticus showed perfect unconcern Beyond yet another women unaware of what’s happening around her (Lady Sinderby); beyond that it’s grating to see how the woman and her child apparently don’t matter, what matters is nothing shall be upset, nor Lord Sinderby embarrassed. Sickening. Yes she looked just fine – but all abasement towards everyone. In a series ostensibly so focused on women, women are dispensable and all children without rich men to keep them.

The worst grating thing was Fellowes’ tendency to when he run out of invented faux obstacles to create tension and climaxes on the back of, he returns to bad servants and we are to rejoice in their comeuppance or downright humiliation. Stowell (Alun Armstrong in the thankless role) was the snobbish butler more willing to hurt others to keep his ego up than his master the arrogant Lord Sinderby needs to:

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Fellowes made it acceptable by having Stowell mortify our favorite working class turned sop-aristocrat Tom (Allen Leech) and those under him (including Thomas [Rob James-Collier] who got back Big Time with the encouragement of Lady Mary) but who is he? he probably has no money money than Mrs Hughes — in the first season she originally said she was socking it away; now she has a disabled sister she supports (the Tories will like that). We were supposed to enjoy him cringing before others. I have to have been personally hurt directly before I can enjoy that sort of thing. We were also supposed to enjoy how the Dowager finally best Spratt. His spite against Denker is disconnected from her bad behavior in London. These servants are despicable lot, no? both Spratt and Denker are subject to the Dowager — was that supposed to provide our enjoyment?

Despite what we keep hearing about staff cutbacks since the glory days before the war, the Downtown staff never seems overworked (lots of time for self-improvement, museum visiting), except perhaps in the case of Moseley as first footman — and that is treated as comedy–and Moseley’s fault, of course, for trying to get above himself. Who wouldn’t want to be a servant in a great house? My mother-in-law told me it was servitude and discipline from getting up to going to sleep, little money, hardly any time off.

It has been lacklustre season, filled with phony climaxes or dismissals. Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) can’t be fired but she can be erased. This season was at its best when it tried to return to the tone and mood of the first season, but it did not work as in just the way years had gone by, so much pain and melodrama had been put before us. Also its structuring to move to climax after climax this year and not have one-hour long self-enclosed stories destroyed any of the first season’s quietude.

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Canaletto, Alnwick Castle (18th century landscape)

I felt in the last phrase of returning to the Abbey for a singalong at Christmas, they were trying for the quiet naturalness of the first season again. But as is seen from 3/4s of the 90 minutes they cannot — too much water under the bridge and too much expected. So first they have to go away to a super-glamorous place once again. I had thought Alnwick Castle was a testament to Canaletto’s many paintings, the fame of this country house from the Renaissance, deep in Northumberland, but it was apparently Hogwarts they were thinking of — Harry Potter. Whence a very silly YouTube over the preceding week where the characters tried to decide which house each of them would belong to in the school for magic.

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Like parents dropping children off to school

Anibundel remarked that it felt like the cast were hanging around a museum. I noticed only a small segment of the show was filmed in the house. We did see them go into it, through the door, so it was not as with Chatworth in the 1995 P&P where the film-makers were allowed to use only the outside of the house, but only a few rooms were requisitioned. Anibundel said most of the rooms from the Harry Potter films were not there and noted the huge fireplaces (in centuries past to keep the occupants warm). The result was a film experience as absurd as someone wearing an extravagantly overdone dress for a short moment of a day at great expense and trouble. This to impress people fooled by glamour and fame and money. I found the inside of the house gross. As fake as overdone luxury hotels. All gilt, ludicrously over-decorated every inch each wall. Must be awful to sit in — but maybe no one ever really sits in those rooms, much less lie and read a book

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With all this falseness to see this reassertion of how happy everyone is, not just must be, at Christmas, I was gain reminded of what Trollope said he felt like when he was commanded to make a rejoicing Christmas tale.

While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the *Graphic* for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities –, better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been “Christmas at Thompson Hall”], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time — the picture-makers always required a long interval,–as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.

Yes Mr and Mrs Bates hurry off into that dark bare corridor away from the strained singing; there were moments throughout the hour (as I started with) worth the contemplating.

***************************

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As for future predictions once again:

Here is a reasonably intelligent review

I have noticed no one has aged much — except naturally. They are all five years older, the daughters dress older; the dress of the servants reflects their changed occupations. I have been glad some of the women are not forced into anorexia: Elizabeth McGovern became that long before this mini-series to make herself viable as a comely older woman. The interviewer said it was to go on until 2010 – I had thought next year would be the last but Fellowes gave another interview which suggested it would drag its coffin on.

So he doesn’t “own” DA anymore and is not the only one to dictate the ending so perhaps it will get worse than ever (more fatuously cheerful with made-up crises easily resolved) or it will darken in ways that Fellowes wouldn’t allow. There’s a general strike coming … My sense is Fellowes made this years’ episodes follow closely on the last because he did not want to show the 1930s in England, the real destruction of some of these enclaves, the proto-nazism and fascism, the growth of socialism for real.

One woman on a Downton fan page called this a “fun” interview. Some people have odd ideas about fun.

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So, out my crystal ball: We have two plot lines: Lord Sinderby has a bastard son and now it’s been brought out into the open the sudden bitterness of Lady Sinderby may actuate her into at least a separation for a while. (Maybe just maybe Atticus will notice his half-brother?) Anna and Bates are not home free. Mary will end up with the insouciant cool racing car driver whom she deserves and if he cannot make her miserable, little George will at least grow up to be a twisted ex-aristocrat; Edith (let us hope) return to London and get a nanny. Daisy and Mrs Patmore and Mr and Mrs Carson are provided for; Baxter and Moseley go off into the sunset for other positions in the same great house, or break free, he goes to teach and she to open a millinery and dress shop. We have been told the ending: Lord Grantham dies of a massive heart attack — it was angina and we see how breathless he is when drunk. Other age away, four widows left with another (Lady Rosamund) coming for visits. They have money to travel, at least Cora is young enough, except perhaps Lady Shackleton not far off in her cold cottage. Lady Anstruthers will not be welcome. But Thomas may stay on as butler at last.

Ellen

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Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) explaining to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery why the prospect of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) hurts so

Mary: Granny, I know why you’re finding this difficult.
Dowager: Do you?
Mary: Yes, but you mustn’t give in to it.
Dowager: What? Give in to what?
Mary: Isobel has always been your protege. She looks up to you and you have kept her from harm in return.
Dowager: Have I?
Mary: Yes. So of course it’s difficult that she is to take her place ~ among the leaders of the county.
… you simply have to be bigger than that.
Dowager: Is that what you think of me? That I care about her change of rank?
Mary: Well, you’re not exactly pleased, are you?
Dowager: No. But that is not the reason … If you must know … I have got used to having a companion.
A friend. You know, someone to talk things over with … You have your own lives … Isobel and I had a lot in common. I shall miss her.
Mary: Granny, you’re quite dewy-eyed ….
Dowager: You’ve made me regret my confidence… And for your information I don’t think Isobel has EVER looked up to me.

Dear friends and readers,

Soap operas when they do their work right root their suggestive believable characters into the daily memories and feelings of their viewers. That Fellowes has achieved this may be seen in his continuing audience for a group of stories that he lacks any new material for; one never needed new material for As the World Turns. This week I found my face was wet, the tears had overflowed beyond my eyes over fleeting scenes of decently felt emotion most of us struggle against or want to feel. Some were less tenuously set-up than others. The finest and slowest-fully built up to is above: the Dowager explains to the obtuse Lady Mary that she will miss her friend.

Robert Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) close relationship with his dog, Isis, has been before us from the opening credits (much mocked) where we see the dog from the back, presumably walking alongside Robert back to Downton, to the incident where Thomas (Rob James-Collier) ruthlessly locked the dog out in the wet cold wild so he could gain Lord Grantham’s trust by rescuing her, to her just being there, with him. Even that quiet boss-lady, Cora, Lady Grantham, oblivious as she was to the twisting of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), her second daughter’s character and pregnancy, and much else seemed to notice the dog’s decline, and opened her bed so the suffering creature need not be alone and feel unloved in her last hours:

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Daisy continues to gain in skills and self-respect from the time we first saw her when the series began and she was making the fires in the house, filthying herself in the cold. She’s now reading Vanity Fair under the tutelage of that thwarted teacher, Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle). While I wish we didn’t each time have to re-assert the justification for learning for Daisy, and this time it was to enable Fellowes to take potshots at the labor gov’t, I enjoyed the visit to Mr Mason (Paul Copley) engineered by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) so as to keep Daisy’s spirits up. At his dinner table no one insults anyone. He wouldn’t allow it — all is generosity and decent social thought:

Miss Baxter: Are we all finished? How lovely, Daisy, to have such a beautiful place to come to.
Mr Mason: She’s always welcome is Daisy.
Daisy: I’ve not been here enough lately.
Mr Mason: You’ve been busy I know. With your books. That takes up time.
Daisy: I think I’ll stop it now. So I’ll be able to visit more.
Mr Moseley: Do you think she’s right to give up her studies, Mr Mason?
Mr Mason: I do NOT.
Daisy: Don’t you want to see more of me?
Mr Mason: You know I do. But education is power.

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) had been startled to find herself invited, and once there, perked up, looked like she had some self-respect, enjoyed herself guiltlessly, and held Mr Moseley’s hand as they comfortably came home after a comfortable meal.

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Things were quite otherwise in the dinner scene closely juxtaposed next. I felt for Isobel as those wretched sons of Merton made themselves obnoxious again (to Edith too).

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I loved Tom Branson for getting up and calling one of them a “bastard.” They did throw a stink bomb at any coming happiness in marriage with them in the Merton house. I don’t know why anyone eats dinner at that place: it is a landmine.

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Of course dinner tables have ever been places where you dramatize social agons, it’s inherently theatrical.

The ball of agon has not left the Bates’s residence either. I did love the scene of Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates drinking tea so comfortably at home together.

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Here I just wish Fellowes didn’t think it necessary for me to suspect one of the pair is a murderer. I have realized (from reading one of the Downton Abbey facebook fan pages where they regularly take the most small-minded positions, siding with the worst people) that we are supposed suddenly to suspect Anna. This is surely out of character. What would she feel in a prison? horrified. so humiliated and mortified and filled with inculcated self-hatred she’d wither up with shame.

Alas I’ve covered the fine moments and have now to turn to the absurdities and offensive omissions. I omit the condescension enacted towards the Duchess’s adult servants, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) as children squabbling. To this is Fellowes driven for material you see. Mrs Drewe gets to have her say to Cora, Lady Grantham, but we are not allowed to see or hear her, and doubt we’ll ever be permitted to develop some sympathetic imaginings for the Drewes at home now.

Implications: When told by Robert that Isis has “cancer,” and Cora replied: “Poor old thing … Oh, how I hate that word,” she for a moment redeemed herself, but like Anibundel whose recap is again worth reading, I cannot grasp how Fellowes expects us to take seriously her indignation at her mother- and sister-in-law, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) at having not told her what she should not have needed telling to know. She will never forgive them, never trust them for not having informed her her daughter had a baby while away on a suddenly “mysterious” 10 month trip to Switzerland:

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Yet worse there was Edith, since Episode 6 closed, set up at last, running a business she owns (left her by Mr Grigson), a job to do, writing she does well, a place to live, a nanny on the spot, with money to pay her:

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And what does she do? return to the Abbey where she hides from Mary and her maid at the station giving up her baby once again to the conveniently there Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)

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in the library again overridden by Mary (coolly despising Edith’s generous impulses to take “an orphan child”), look like some rabbit or deer staring at headlights lest daddy say no to adopting this strange child until mummy declares it is right. The family obtuseness passes to Edith’s father. There’s more than a hint that Tom (Allen Leech) suspects (he asks her more than once to be open with him about her troubles over many episodes). Mary of course couldn’t be bothered to figure anything out about anyone, least of all Edith. Psychologically for Edith it does fit: she is the bullied, over-sheltered, super-ego driven ugly daughter. I hope she never marries, because surely she’ll end up abused — and we saw in the fourth season that Grigson saw this and refrained.

Is there any more to add? I fear Fellowes enjoys inflicting pain on Edith because he likes Mary’s meanness, identifies, triumphs with it. So more obnoxiousness from Lady Mary supported by the complacent Charles Blake (what ever happened Julian Overdeen as the man who worried about the average person’s housing in Britain): if it was so little trouble for Mary to get rid of Gillingham (Tom Cullen) by a kiss in public of Overdeen, why did we have that scene in the park? Fellowes gives away how he manipulates shallowly to milk scenes.

Lady Rose’s (Lily James) continuing charitable impulses and her hurt and fear she will lose her suitor, the good-natured bright Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), are a decent note and rightly rewarded by Lady Sinderby’s (Penny Downe) generous liking of her despite her being a non-Jew; Lady Sinderby and her husband showed real awareness of the prejudice against them, he that he needs to fight to maintain respected space to thrive in, and thus is not eager for a daughter-in-law who will not be Jewish (conversion never mentioned), but their son’s total lack of any consciousness of what it was to be a Jew in England in the 1920s brings us back to the incredible. Someone on a Jewish news on-line page suggested he is modeled on Prince William (Charles’s son); so when he kneels to this princess, far from an intermarriage, we have a simulacrum of revered English royalty:

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(Jim was one of those who wanted to see their huge fortunes taken from them, lamented when again the Queen was no longer to pay taxes.)

I suggest Fellowes is moving time so slowly because he does not want to reach the 1930s. He frequently gives Violet quips which are designed to obscure hard truths, this time it was “My dear, men have no rights.” In the real world of 1924 or so the men were in charge, servants were beginning to flee these places for work for money and freedom. There was a general strike in 1926.

But allow me to end on another of the good moments: Tom leaning over a bridge in the green landscape of the Abbey (one of its attractions for him, one he is at work on as steward in his fine office daily), with his daughter, trying to get her used to the idea they will perhaps leave for another country where he will fit in, be able to maintain his identity (and hers) better:

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Now if we could just get a message to Miss Bunting (the show is a continual fantasizing so why not?) to meet him at the New York docks.

Ellen

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Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) before Tom Branson (Allen Leech) finds out she is leaving

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His not-so-cool but complacent acceptance of her departure

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to approach this week’s episode: on the level of human feeling, I felt most for Miss Bunting (“I loved you you know”), but found Branson’s cool adieu where he just about informs her while he’ll miss her it’s her fault for not being compliant that drove her from the abbey, repugnant, and repugnant the more lavish punishment meted out to other decent characters. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is forbidden to come near the very young child who she now has a sick craving for. Her male aid, Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is now bitter at the possible loss of his farm because his unbelievably obtuse wife, Mrs Drew (Emma Lowndes) says she cannot bear the pressure from Lady Edith and will insist on departure:

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Edith is directly threatened by immovable pressure from the aunt who enabled her to have the baby (Rosamund, Samantha Bond) and a grandmother (the Dowager, Maggie Smith) who sometimes seems to be the only person in rooms filled with people to recognize intense strain, though her response is usually one which makes the person’s inner condition more wretched. They begin to insist on the departure of the baby to an orphanage in Switzerland where Edith could visit — as long as she’s discreet.

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Lady Rosamund and the Dowager close in on Edith, apply pressure …

Rosamund: I gave up ten months of my life to make sure she [baby Marigold] came safely into the world.
Edith: The trouble is, the farmer’s wife, Mrs Drewe, she just thinks I’m a nuisance. She doesn’t want me to see Marigold.
Rosamund: So, we have a situation of infinite danger to your reputation, which brings you no emotional reward to compensate.

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The shared heart-hope of Anne (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) rocks back and forth over the persistent if gentle interrogations of police implying that one of them was near Mr Green in London at the moment of his death. They fear parting from one another.

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Mrs Hughes sits by and supports Anna in one of the police interrogations

I also found repugnant how unthinkable it is to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) that she should be anything other than imperturbable at questioning by the police, and the way she reacted to meeting the young woman, Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman), at a luncheon meanly (coolly is the word I’m supposed to use) engineered by the self-satisfied Charles Blake (Julian Overdeen).

Hurt
Miss Fox gets up rather than be ganged up on by this pair:

Charles: Well, what shall we do with your food.
Mable: Eat it. And I hope it chokes you …
When she’s gone:
Blake: Now, I’d like my beef pink, but not raw.
Lady Mary goes on sipping her port.

How the ongoing self-berating abjection of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) prompts her to regard the kindness and understanding with with Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) greets her as a further burden. So too an unexpected parallel with Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) also whipping himself (physically, he is inflicting taking electric shock therapy on himself) who refuses any comfort from concerned expressions of regard (from the Dowager, Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan], even Mr Carson [Jim Carter]). He is still out to do damage where he can.

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Sick, giving himself sick treatments, he lashes out yet …

Sometimes it becomes impossible to ignore the perverse ethical and reactionary class and ethnic biases of Julian Fellowes — even if he feels for his victims. There is a very nasty outlook undergirding the whole of many scenes in Downton Abbey this year. I wonder sometimes if many people watching this just rejoice in the faux glamorous settings and clothes and have the most shallow understanding of the forces and themes Fellowes’s figures in the carpet represent.

For example, this week the as yet untouched and thus easily sweet Rose McClaren (Lily James, soon to be playing Cinderella in movie theaters near you) encounters in the rain an equally sweet suitor, Atticus Aldritch (Matt Barber), who turns out to be Jewish. It is the episode’s second sequence to use the romance of umbrellas:

Umbrellas

He at first presents himself as Russian partly perhaps because Rose tells him the sweets she is carrying are for a group of Russian emigres she provides comfort for twice a week. But when they get there and the two Russian males they introduce him are told his relatives came to England in 1859 and 1871, they become angry at his presence, and declare him not Russian, he is pushed into admitting he is Jewish. Those were fierce pogrom years.

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Russian emigre reacting to Aldridge’s presence

Those who would rejoice in another break-through against prejudice in this new coupling, should notice that Aldridge does not behave in any way that marks him as Jewish, seems to have no feelings that might naturally arise from such a family pre-history. Why should these Russians be angry at him? Disdain would be more realistic. This resembles the treatment of Cora, Lady Grantham, who many people might forget is said to be half-Jewish. This identity would be totally erased but for her wealthy dowry, her mother’s name, Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and the way Paul Giamatti who played Harold, her brother, did present himself as Jewish now and again.

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As a rakish New York Jew in a London park

At the dinner table with the Sinderbys Atticus’s parents (Daniel and Rachel Aldritch, married n real life and introduced in the next episode), there is a back-handed joke about how much money the Sinderbyss have: this fits the stereotype of the super-rich Jew (the father is a well-to-banker); it’s something about how they need not worry about what others do, but of course the sting in the joke is they do.

I noticed that again it’s Lady Rose who is open to someone outside this narrow purview of who is acceptable to these upper class British people. Can she really be surprised that there is such a thing as anti-semitism? She is the one who went out with the black musician in the fourth season; she did seem to realize there was racial prejudice. Before that she danced with and was genuinely attracted to a working class man to whom she said he was a “nicer” person than she; and again she recognized that he would be seen as “beneath” her. I give her that as a character she does her charity work in a generous spirit, but Fellowes can conceive of such behavior only in a peculiarly innocent person. I just wish he did not then (in the following episode, 7) display a need to demonize some woman in sight so that when her divorcing mother and father turn up, the Marquis of Flintshire, Shrimpy (Peter Egan), and the Marchioness (Phoebe Nichols), he is the generous spirited one and she the poisonous witch. Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran, appropriately for a while the Marchioness’s lady’s maid) having gone, Fellowes turns to the Marchioness — Phoebe Nichols often gets such parts, and I suspect because she’s not pretty and has a reedy voice. It won’t do.

How does the Dowager’s schemes to forestall the possible coming marriage of Mrs Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) with Lord Merton (Douglas Reigh) fit into this white world paradigm with its reinforcement of every law and custom that upholds this aristocratic order? After all, does she not want her best friend, Mrs Crawley to be like herself?

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They do a puzzle and drink tea — to keep Spratt (Jeremy Swift) occupied …

When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) suggests to her, she is jealous, she demurs, she does not “understand him.” She cannot be threatened; no, it’s that this useful active female bourgeois will wilt under a regime of having nothing to do and life with a boring man. This does not seem to have hurt Cora, Lady Grantham, and anyway of late, Mrs Crawley’s life has been (as far as we can see) sheer leisure whose one sport is the occasional tension that dinner conversations cause. She says she’ll miss Miss Bunting.

It is hinted that Cora, Lady Grantham may miss her gentlemanly art-historian Mr Bricker (Richard E. Grant) because she is seen standing at her window watching him leave early in the morning.

Window

He overplayed his game by sneaking into her room on the night that Lord Grantham said he would not be returning from his dinner at Sheffield. But unlike Lady Mary, Cora remains physically untouched; indeed she stands in her lovely dressing gown stiff as a board during much of this “ordeal” — she produces mild abjurations that he must go, until unexpectedly Lord Grantham does turn up, and when Mr Bricker tells Grantham he insufficiently appreciates Cora, Grantham at least erupts and punches him and we get a near row. For once this character is seen to bend and look excited. Never fear when a knock on the door is heard, she returns to peaceful walking and speaks Edith who comes to the door as if Edith were a five year old, “‘Your father and I were just playing a stupid game and we knocked over a lamp.’ ‘Oh. If you’re sure.’ ‘I’m sure, poppet.’

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Since she was allowed to act for real when Sybil died, McGovern has at best been allowed dramatic self-control which she performs here

The legitimate male order must be preserved. What comedy the episode had is provided by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mrs Hughes when Mrs Patmore inherits a small sum. His desperate stab at advice was she should buy into a building firm that Lord Grantham had a brochure about on the dining table because he might hire them to build houses on his estate to rent to tenants. He is non-plussed when Mrs Patmore asks if the shares have gone public. The two women conspire to make Mr Carson feel not that he has exposed his ignorance of the ways of the stock market (which he has) but is responsible for Mrs Patmore managing to think of buying herself a cottage and renting it until she retires. Mrs Hughes is (as is common in this series) given the one genuinely funny line as she assures Mr Carson that because of him “We feel thoroughly protected”

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After Miss Bunting, Daisy (Sophie McShera) had the best moments of this hour. She braves the rule which forbids her to show herself upstairs (how many times over the past five years has an upper servant reacted with horror at her presence, one of the household looked puzzled to see her upstairs?) and reaches out to the bumbling Branson to tell him not to give up Miss Bunting: He sees her peeping out at the door and comes over and asks: “What can I do for you?”

Daisy

Daisy: You can do something for yourself. You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.
Tom: Is this Miss Bunting, by any chance?
Daisy: She’s an extraordinary person. Clever and kind.
Branson: She’s all of those things.
Daisy: Then why turn your back on her? … I mean it. She’s leaving tomorrow, but I know she loves you. I can tell when she speaks of you.
Branson: She’s leaving tomorrow? For good?
Daisy: Won’t you stop her? You’re not a Crawley. You belong with us. We’re the future. They’re the past.
Branson: Well, I can hear her voice in that …

Alas, the upstairs people are still very much in charge of the UK. But people like Daisy have access to good educations and much more fulfilling jobs than they could dream of in the 1920s.

In James Leggott and Julie Taddeo’s Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from the Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, Andrea Schmidt dilates on “Imaginative power” of the fan fiction and postings on the Net about Downton Abbey. She demonstrates how these fans — often disdained — expose the absurdities and perversities of Fellowes. He hires a “historian” as a reinforcement of his claim that he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics because is he keeps to “historical accuracy” no anachronisms in his characters. “Historical accuracy” is his mantra (like the US uses “national security”) behind which he wants to control the depiction of the characters to suit his defense of this super-rich order of people. At the same time he can write dialogue and invent presences with the power of suggestivity. He is usually real enough, and registers the depths and amorality of people sufficiently to open up suggestions we can play with — such as my argument last year that Mr Bates murdered his first wife and Mr Green through the clever ruse of accident.

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POV: Miss Bunting looking back from her carriage window at the village and Tom Branson standing by a tavern door — perhaps we may hope he relents for his own sake ,a poignant shot

Similarly this Downton Abbey fan fiction develops his characters from hints and behaviors Fellowes refuses to make clear or explicit — he cannot sue them as they are making no money and are not acknowledged as legitimate or serious by those in charge of literature and art. These fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity. They complicate his stories in more “interesting, self-aware and sensitive areas” that he (in effect) refuses to. One I noticed is a fan fiction that postulates a love affair between Miss Obrien and “arguably the most underdeveloped character in the series, Cora, Lady Grantham.” A pair of lesbians. In another “poor Edith” is given a sarcastic and funny voice and describes the passive-aggressive relationship of Matthew (his sycophancy and making up to her) and Lady Mary (her cold indifference and potentially needling tongue) one New Year’s Day. They allow Robert (Lord Grantham to have his affair with Jane (the widowed housemaid?).

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After punching Mr Bricker and throwing him out of his and Cora’s bedroom, Robert asserts himself by holding on to the chair and saying he will sleep in his own room —

Ellen

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One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….

Dear friends and readers,

When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.

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Fleming early in the first act — in the later scenes her many changes of costumes included no widow’s weeds

So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number

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What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.

Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.


A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014

Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.

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Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.

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The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)

At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.

So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)

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I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.

It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.

When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.

I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.

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Kelli O’Hara and the dancers during rehearsal — seen in a previous HD-opera as part of an intermission

Ellen

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Joanne Froggart accepting Golden Globe as best Supporting Actress in a TV series, 2015

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As Anna in Edith’s bedroom — after the fire, finding a photo of Marigold under Edith’s pillow — in this episode she is continually ferreting out, enabling her employer’s sex lives

Dear friends and readers,

This blog covers episodes 2 (with a forecast of 3) as I will not be here next week; there is retrospective, crystal ball work on what’s to come, and like last week’s, I take into account the whole arc of this season, which now includes the Christmas episode filmed partly at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

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As famously painted by Canaletto in 1747 — the very basis of the Christmas episode is an old master painting

No one more involved with some of the characters in Downton Abbey than I. After rewatching Episodes 2 & 3 on Sunday night, last night I watched the Christmas Episode as it played on British TV (a region 2 DVD purchased from Amazon.uk): I became that distressed as I watched Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) go through grim gate after grim gate to reach Anna behind bars in a rough cotton, knee length smock I could hardly bear the distress. I am filled with perplexities. Why does Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) not come forward and say Anna was raped? is it that then there would be all the more reason to accuse Ann? is the rape nothing? Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) visits her and we learn that her background will be held against her: it seems she picked up a knife (how was this recorded and remembered) when as a child her mother’s second husband, her stepfather did attempt sexual coercions of all sorts.

When at the Golden Globe, Joanne Froggart accepted (at last) the well-earned statue and said how gratifying it had been to her to receive a letter from a woman (which she read aloud) who said the depiction of the rape had helped her endure, cope with a rape she had had inflicted on her and the aftermath of that, I felt good for Froggart. Poor Anna, she’s never had a decent dress in the series for 5 years, the best they’ve done for her is a couple of snazzy hats with feathers along the brim.

Nonetheless, the word aftermath is unfortunately the state of things this season. Now that the initial flurry of the whipped-up first episode is done, we are rightly I should say back to the quiet diurnal patterns of the first season. Life’s like that and the original appeal of the series first five episodes of the first season is gestured towards.

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Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) is lost in the room his wife built as he tells the dowager (Maggie Smith) and Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton)

Trouble is, this is not the first season, and a mini-series is art, not life, and these quiet diurnal events are too many of them mopping up operations of the previous three seasons or some off-stage pre-history (Raquel Cassidy as Miss Baxter’s excruciating ordeal as the reluctant thief and her need keep Kevin Doyle as Mr Molesley on her side). How can Laura Carmichael as Edith play mother to Marigold (indeed how does she endure being Edith) for yet another year? what is Mrs Crawley to do about Lord Merton’s lonely frustrated existence in that room with his mean sons? who will Lady Mary fuck and will Anna manage to buy a set of condoms for her?

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The conventional tryst photo — faux aggression and glamor (complete with alluring hat band) — are we really supposed to take this seriously?

Where does Allen Leech as Tom belong? But we’ve heard it all before. Then life’s little troubles. Since the new turns are so resolutely pro-establishment, they fail to grip: Lady Rose (Lily James) is doing charity work among Russian aristocratic “refugees,” helping them back into “ordinary life: dancing and shopping and seeing one’s friends” (says Charles Blake, Julian Overden). Lady Rose is not permitted to be other than “a sweet young thing;” she is a sheltered virgin whose lost her way to her 19th century novel. Her anguish is for a wireless. The dowager (Maggie Smith) meets her old love, Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija, embarrassing, the scene absurd). For more comedy we have: Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) and Jeremy Swift as Spratt vye for pre-eminence in the household of the dowager.

Memorial

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Where to place the memorial provides conflict with Lord Grantham refusing to give up his meadow devoted to Cricket for a memorial, and preferring the middle of the village where we do have a moving moment with yet another (this time lower middle class) widow and her student son walking past in the middle of the village, but then the moment is over and we are not involved with the potentially interesting story of widow and son. Our great climax is Robert agreeing to rent a wireless for a day so everyone can hear the King’s first speech to the nation over it, and however possible we get this stiff re-enactment of court behavior.

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Portrait shots abound in these episodes

As it was not creditable that Cora, Lady Grantham would not pick up that her second daughter was pregnant and had a baby so Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) is another mindless woman who does not begin to guess that Lady Edith is Marigold’s mother. She does not even come up with the theory that Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is the father. What are we to make of this? Well in the Xmas episode Lady Sinderby (Rachel Aldritch) joins the group of wholly undeductive women: Cora, Lady Grantham who never wondered where Lady Edith went for 10 months. A woman in her thirties (not too young) turns up at the castle with a young boy in hand and Lord Sinderby (Daniel Aldritch, in real life Lady Sinderby’s husband too) becomes mortified and runs away in shame to sit in a chair far from all; everyone seems to “get” who this person is (his long-term and now supported mistress? and son?), except Lady Sinderby who is characterized as not understanding who the inexplicable woman is. In context Barrow’s (Rob James-Collier) purpose is to expose Sinderby so Sinderby will stop castigating his daughter-in-law’s parents for their divorce and also to revenge himself for the way the same snobbish insulting butler (Alun Armstrong) has been treating Thomas: Lord Sinderby will blame the butler for having his (ex-?) mistress and son (?) come to the castle.

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Walking outside Alnwick Lady Sinderby does not seem innocently naive

It seems to me that Fellowes saw as a boy growing up many of these privileged women turn a blind eye to the doings of their husbands — just as down south white women pretended not to know about their husband’s concubinage (and whatever cruelties went on). They knew, of course they knew, but they pretended not to to save face — as they could not do anything about it and keep their position. He has deliberately made a pretense into a reality in order to avoid showing us the anguish beneath. We could say the women are enigmatic and know more than they admit — Lady Sinderby does suddenly threaten to divorce Lord Sinderby if he will not allow Lady Rose to marry their son in Episode 7, but her awareness is not in the script, not a hint.

Curiously Fellowes is willing to show upper class young women’s anguish (Edith’s) over babies and of course women who don’t count like Ethel. He is also willing in this season to show us Anna’s anguish once again – -this time from a stepfather’s advances however muted. And last year spectacularly over the rape — though again Lady Grantham is not permitted to notice. Anna is — really strongly dramatized — is our real heroine and there he slams hard. As he did over Sybil who died of childbirth young.

I suggest there’s a twin thing going on: 1) if Fellowes were to show the anguish that would rip open the power and cruelty of males in charge and the compromises women supposedly with power (and they do have some Lady Grantham showed it in episode 1 and over when she learns Edith’s baby is her grandchild). 2) that he does see this and it’s a continual bemused undertow of the series (with hints that Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) had a child out of wedlock and gave it up, that Lady Grantham in this season had no happy marriage and made many compromises) shows that in fact he does look at these stories form the woman’s point of view (no matter how conservatively) and thus can write soap opera so appealingly for women. The number of widows mounts up season by season.

The distastefulness of blaming butlers for snobbishness, lady’s maids as semi-crooks and the like with their masters vindicated as amused egalitarians needs no comment beyond observing this I hope.

So what can we fall back on? I wish there was something interesting filmically innovative, musically, some apt filmic thought embodied in a techique, voice-overs (nothing of this, nothing at all in any of the seasons): all stage playlets, mostly faux theater. The actors carry it all in their faces. The audience watches the costumes and decor and fetishized objects and places (however rich, beautiful or picturesque). What there are this season are lovely pictures: many of the scenes are conceived as old-master paintings, glimmering with soft lights, and subtextually that’s a self-reflexive theme.

This photograph is (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with Downton Abbey, Carnival Film & Television Ltd or ITV plc. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can
Note Elizabeth McGovern’s painfully thin shoulder and arms … (I keep it small so as not to dwell on the anorexic diet she’s been following all these years to keep herself a viable “beautiful woman ‘of a certain age’)

Perhaps the visit of the art historian, Mr Bricker (Richard E. Grant) to see a genuine old master painting Della Francesca (a bit of self-reflexivity here) and his flirtation with Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville, Robert’s jealousy holds some new line of development but Robert’s pathetic complaint the man is flirting with his dog, is not exactly Othello.

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I am happy Daisy (Sophie McShera) is continuing her studies in arithmetic now with Miss Bunting’s help (Daisy Lewis) and has become such a splendid cook (and anticipate her trip to the Wallace collection where she will see old-master paintings). Were this life it’d be touching and in the first season it might have worked well. It is pleasing development in the spirit of the 1st season, which of course is that a big fuss is made; deliberations carried on by Mr Carson (Jim Carson), Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichols) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan): shall they permit it? is it good for her to improve herself? get aspirations. Would you believe it? And we are given modernized old master pictures.

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A symbolic moment, a climax of Episode 2: they turn the wireless on …

The series’s central action was laid before us towards the end of the third year after the death of Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), with the death of Matthew (Dan Stevens) tacked on and thus providing grief, sorrow, and mourning for season 4. Season 5 we are watching them play on with no new material since Fellowes is not going to dramatize the new social change, but stick with Britain as a tourist attraction, and a commodified fetishized past. Now they have been inexorably tempted to keep salaries coming and revenue by selling products and advertisers/sponsors to a sixth season. So shall we predict how all will end up?

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I have bought the scripts for the third season, which come with far more annotated notes by Fellowes than the previous two and more cut scenes fully written out. In effect a dense encyclopedia. And I restudied Season 4 – which I liked very much.

I discovered what Fellowes had intended for Dan Stevens had he stayed: in the 3rd season it’s clear that not long after Matthew and Lady Mary’s marriage he begins to become alienated: most strikingly by his discomfort over the way she continually denigrates and hurts Lady Edith, but the way she prefers her father, the older Downton way of life. Fellowes writes (elsewhere too), he intended them to separate slowly and Matthew go to the US. By the 4th season in place are the coming marriage of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes (remember them holding hands at the close), Mr Mason’s farm for Daisy, Miss Baxter has arrived for Mr Molesley (Miss Obrien flees to the appropriate upper class witch, the Marchioness of Flintshire – play allegorical name — at the Christmas episode of the 3rd season she has taken over the Marchioness from the present lady’s maid), Mr and Mrs Bates have his house from his mother in London, their undoubted abilities to carry on. Perhaps Grigson would have returned, and Tom off to America.

At the end of the fourth season Lady Mary, Tom and Grantham together with their one tenant farmer, Mr Drew (also the fireman of the place, are making the place thrive; 5:3 they begin to plan to build houses on the estate. 5:3 also showed me I may have been wrong to assert so unqualifiedly that Mr Bates killed Mr Green, as now we see Fellowes left himself wiggle room for yet more denial as after all Mr Bates’s ticket to London on the train was uncut! Therefore he stayed in York all day. The only way he could have gone to London was to have bought 2 tickets. This is beginning to stretch it. But as they say, from the 2nd season on, Fellowes began to jump the shark regularly.

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Anna’s trip to the pharmacy will provide a new turn in Episodes 3-4: she has Mary Stoke’s book and this and a version of Lady Mary’s cervical cap (?) is found by Mr Bates. Anna is utterly unfree. If she goes to the pharmacy, she is confronted by a demand on the part of the clerk that she prove she is not immoral. She has to state she’s married. In the 1950s when women went to doctor’s for contraceptives, they would be similarly condescended to. When Mr Bates finds this stuff in her drawers, he accuses her of preventing conception. Is it her body? Mrs Hughes did not seem to think Edna Braithwaite’s body (she who seduced the hapless Tom, MyAnna Buring) was hers when Edna said she was pregnant and in effect threatened to attack her, felt she had the right to intrude into her body. It’s such moments one can watch Downton Abbey for now.

So how will the life of the country house itself be brought to an end or turned into a tourist place with offers to the BBC to do radio shows from (TV shows will come later)? It’s being prepared for, and the death of Isis is the foreshadowing. Christmas time Robert is short of breath; can’t hold his liquor and is told he has angina pectoris. Robert will die. Yet another widow. Then the house will fall apart; it will no longer be needed. Silly as we never saw it properly used as the political linchpin it should have been, but Cora will go into a smaller place, maybe travel (why not? — she is still attractive, the false stereotype of the rich widow on cruises will do here). Lady Edith at last rid herself of her nemesis Mary by taking Marigold to London where she runs Grigson’s press. A new suitor appears for Lady Mary in the Christmas episode and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot really does fit into a character who seems insouciantly up to Lady Mary; Fellowes must have said to himself, Why didn’t I see this before? the actor once you see him just is “it” for Lady Mary. Perfect for little George’s cool new father — another generation of heartlessness in the offing.

Violet, Lady Grantham and Mrs Crawley’s marriages do not come off – too much baggage and life does not always have happy ending; so they settle down to doing lunch with Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter). Miss Denker will improve her culinery skills.

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From the Christmas episode: Poor Mr Barrow. He will have to find another place – he’s not allowed to have a partner or open life.

We are never sure who killed Mr Green — I doubt Anna so back to Mr Bates even if sleuthing by Mr Molesley and Mr Baxter turns up an alibi for him — once again:

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Our enigmatic heroine and her beloved tough husband discussing how that day in London will be understood but giving away nothing themselves (Episode 7)

Ellen

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