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MaggieSmithMichelledockery
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).

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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:

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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.

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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?”

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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?

Cover

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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The Movie

The old picture plays
Lights across the screen.
Overhead the beam
From the thoughtful booth
Flickers in a kind
Of code that only
The screen can read out.

Lights like memories
Flicker on the screen
of your deep gazing.
My eyes and my hand
are like some part of
The Surrounding dark.

— John Hollander.

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Rough Tor, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

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Closing scene of Poldark, 1st series, Episode 1 (Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza Poldark walking off on the beach together after a riot at and the burning down of Trenwith, the Poldark home)

Dear friends and readers,

We should be returning to this series of novels and film adaptations this coming spring because I sent in a proposal for this coming spring 2015 to OLLI at American University and it seems to have been liked, and is now accepted; I was hoping that the new film adaptation of the books would be aired this spring, and have now discovered it will be on BBC starting in March 3, 2015, with the older 1970s series replayed on WETA UK starting on January 17, 2015, each Saturday night at 10 pm, with a rerun on Sundays.

In this course we’ll read Winston Graham’s first three Poldark novels: Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark. These plus a fourth, Warleggan, were the novels adapted for the first season of televised Poldark (1974-75), and the matter for the coming Poldark mini-series (to be aired in 2015). They represent the first phase of a 12 novel roman fleuve, a regional romance continuing story, deeply researched and imaginatively realized historical novels moving from the time of the French revolution and reform and politically radical movements in England to the end of the Napoleonic era, including the realities of county politics, mining, banking, smuggling (known locally as free trade) and farming in Cornwall. Written 1945-52, the first four mirror issues of the post World-War II world, are proto-feminist, with a deeply appealing group of characters from all classes in suspenseful plot-designs. We will also study the older film adaptation against these novels, and if possible, discuss the new one. It is suggested that students read a novella mystery, Winston Graham’s The Forgotten Story, before the class begins. Graham won awards and praise from the literary establishment for his mysteries, several of which were filmed by Hitchcock (e.g., Marnie); many of his novels were US Book-of-the-Month Club selections. The Forgotten Story was written in tandem with Ross Poldark and became a BBC mini-series in 1984.

The first seven novels of the 12 have never fallen out of print since each was first published (beginning 1945), and there will be a republication (or reprinting) of the most recent editions of first four once again, with the new actors on the covers. For individual discussions of all 12, go to my website (linked in above), or the category, Poldark, Ellen and Jim have a blog, two; or this handy list bringing all Graham’s writing together and discussing it briefly. I would do all four, but this is considered too much reading in 10 weeks. Heigh ho. If the course is liked, I could go on to “do” novels 4, 5 and 6 in another semester (Warleggan, The Black Moon, The Four Swans), with Black Moon and Four Swans mirroring the conflicts of the 1960s-70s era (e.g., the story of continued marital rape would not have been written in the 1940s, early 50s), or skip Warleggan or ask the students to read the book before the course starts (the trouble is it’s too long) because I would prefer to do the second set of novels, 1970s (Black Moon, Four Swans, and The Angry Tide) as the trilogy it is.

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Norma Steader and Jonathan Newth as Verity Poldark and Captain Blamey dancing at an assembly ball (Poldark, 1st series, Episode 3)

Whether the 8 part British new version starting in March will come to the US is hard to tell. I think they will try because of the success last time. There are many signs in this new series of greater literal adherence to the storyline of the books (called “faithfulness) so there should be an accompanying historical accuracy.

I hope the series succeeds for they could go on to film the next three books for next year and then they’d have the last 5 for a third (which includes a novel as powerful as the best of the first 7), The Twisted Sword, partly set on the battlefield of Waterloo).

I now know of a person who wants to do a biography of Graham, who put on the net a Winston Graham reader, and he has told me who is the obstacle and what to further work; and can report there have been two academic style essays published on the Poldark novels, one on humor and the other on rape: “‘Why don’t you take her?’ Rape in the Poldark narrative” by Julie Taddeo. And I did the politics in a conference: “‘I have the right to choose my own life!': Liberty in the Poldark Novels.”

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I’m partial to this promotional black-and-white photograph of Robin Ellis as the revenant renegade Ross Poldark (used for advertisement of the 2nd season or series)

In the great houses in the Poldark novels what is shown is they are center of political power — something usually left out nowdays. It's found everywhere in Trollope. In Trollope and Graham the purpose of the great house, and all your experiences in it are shaped by its political function, who’s there and the political reason you have been invited, and the film adaptation keeps to this:

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One of the great houses of the fifth, sixth and seventh books (written in the 1970s). The above a country house (which emerges as political linchpin in Season 2)

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On loving the books all over again.

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Demelza, albeit pregnant, providing for the family as best she can by fishing (while Ross is allowing smuggling to go further over near the cove and cliff (Season 1)

As I prepare for the course, the tone, the attitude of mind, the characters, the explicit and implied axioms underlying Ross Poldark have made me feel better and revived good memories. I enjoy the attitudes of mind in Ross, bond with Demelza, Francis and Verity Poldark. I can understand Elizabeth. I enjoy this kind of depiction of the 18th century: it’ll allow me to talk of the 18th century “from below” (smuggling), of reform and radical politics. Of sexuality as seen in this novel. Of landscape. How historical fiction is powerful when written well. Of how it reflects post WW2 England and its worlds — one of the reasons it was so popular in the US too. I am enjoying even more Demelza with its depiction of the 18th century working and agricultural classes and early capitalism and the provincial theater and dancing.

Central to the charm of Ross and Demelza Poldark’s relationship in the first two novels for me is they walk away from the world to one another (for me an emblem of Jim and I); indeed the first season ended on them walking on the beach together after the community has been ravaged by riot, violence due to injustice.

Beyond Demelza, I’m also very found of Graham’s Elizabeth and Verity and for the brief time I was on the Graham fan website I chose the pseudonym Elizabeth Chynoweth — I felt for her, she made bad mistakes in her choices of husband, but she preferred her children to men, and I felt for her.

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This was my chosen gravatar: Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) upon realizing what has been happening to Morwenna in marriage

Verity for her plainness, direct honesty, kindliness, lack of concern, her dignity, when at first she feels she must give Blamey up her dignity, her resolution, her turning to her room and enduring it; how she can dismiss hierarchy when human value can trump this. I haven’t read the last 5 novels enough to be able to name a heroine I have bonded with in the same way, but while not identifying closely (as she is kept at a distance), the most compelling single figure of the second season for me is Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wymark), coerced into marriage (and in effect raped nightly by her husband), shattered by such experiences.

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Here she is on the beach with Drake (a young Kevin McNally) who rescues her at last

Ellen

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Final shot of the house in darkness: the trajectory of the episode: unfolding before us its crowded life

Dear friends and readers,

So here we are, another season. What you notice the first time watching is how the film-makers hit the ground running. Speed: most scenes far less than a minute long. This costs. They were concerned people would say ho-hum, this is getting tiring, are we going to have this again? They do have to keep the characters in character. So a couple of strong star types were brought in: Anna Chancellor as the lecherous widow (she’s even eager for a drink before dinner) Lady Anstruther after the handsome young — harried anxious — Jimmy, 2nd footman (Ed Speleers)

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She puts hand into Jimmy’s waistcoat

And Harriet Walter as the widowed Lady Shackleton who steals every scene she’s in, adding a grace note of real melancholy as she conveys something of the conditions of her widowhood to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith): relegated to a cottage she didn’t want to go into, she bears up:

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She’s telling him she’s warm for the first time in her life

They returned to the old wittiness and sense of quiet routine of the first 5 episodes of the first season (where they were not worried about further seasons or setting up arching stories of melodrama). There are numerous funny dialogues, arresting quips, and not all are Maggie Smith’s (though some are). At the same time there is strong melodrama, ending in a climactic fire.

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That’s Thomas (Rob James-Collier) rescuing Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) in fetching nightgown: she fell asleep after throwing a book of poems left her by her beloved Grigson over towards the fire (a death-wish it seems)

For a suggestive recap of the plot, see I should have been a blogger (Ani Bundel).

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Watch a second time, though, and you see something else, something many have noticed before: The mini-series goes on to develop some of the same patterns and in a realistic enough way that three minutes thought ought to bring to mind the troubles and miseries of the servants and women. Each story line that matters and is melodramatic treats of some real cruelty in the lives of servants and women at the same time as it obscures the real motives for it and why the treatment of the person is so unfair.

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The excruciatingly painful scene of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) confessing her crime, with only a proviso of

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“I’ll see what I decide,” from that site of power, Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern)

Is there any more painful depiction of abjection than Miss Baxter confessing her theft to Cora, Lady Grantham? As with Mr Bates in the first season (where he is discovered), there was a prison sentence; also like Mr Bates the story of explanation, she is anguished, can make no excuse but something evil in her (in Episode 2 we find it was a seductive male servant who “drove her to it” and was “no good”), not that servants were paid so abysmally, exploited so harshly with long hours and severe disciplined patterns, and expected to live among these luxurious super-rich. Who would not steal these fabulously wealthy people’s things? Far from being driven by others, you’d be almost superhuman not to want the comfortable warm beautiful things around you. Today too those who commit crimes are depicted with savage lack of empathy (I don’t know sheer statistics of petty robbery, whether it has gone up with the on going depression in the US with terrible or no jobs for vast numbers of people).

Downton Abbey repeatedly touches on these real subjects but always from the employers’ point of view — the question is how Cora, Lady Grantham, feels is the issue; and if she will see if she can endure to have such a low “felon” in her intimate room. Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) it was who counseled Miss Baxter to confess in order to stop the fierce bullying of Thomas (once aqain playing his part of the spiteful gay) so it’s patriarchy which may save poor Miss Baxter, if Cora condescends to keep her. One almost longs for Miss Obrien’s strong sarcasms (Siobhan Finneran): we later hear she lost her place when the Marchioness of Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls) got her comeuppance (not enough money to keep a lady’s maid). Not that Thomas is immune from the power-lady of this hour: when he goes to snitch on Miss Baxter, he finds he is too late: Cora, Lady Grantham tells him, she knows, and uses the opportunity to threaten to sack him too, for what what she doing recommending such a person to her? She so dim over Lady Edith has guessed Thomas was using his power over Miss Baxter to find things out.

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She’ll think about what she’ll do to him (remember he needs a “character”)

Well, yes there is another, a second an equally painful depiction of abjection. As the series begins again, wesee that privileged ice-princess who makes it a hobby to throw corrosive darts at Edith, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) riding on her bike away from Downton:

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who turns into Lady Edith careening near an old deserted church(where she will meet Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), that super-loyal and therefore impeccable tenant-farmer. There they plan and plot how they will find a way for her to live as if she is child’s mother without telling, all the while using Mrs Drewe as their front. Before it was Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), a servant, driven to prostitution, driven to give up her child, whom we watched pacing everywhere with her baby clutched to her bosom; now (as a third watch-through proves) it will be Lady Edith, similarly holding tight to her child and near hysterical tears.

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Lady Edith (first shot) watching

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Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) playing with Lady Edith’s baby, Marigold (uncredited)

As Anibundel pointed out, Mrs Drewe is our latest dimwit not to pick up the obvious: Edith is the baby’s mother (well, duh): it must be Mr Drewe Lady Edith is drawn to, or she is very sick indeed (well something somewhere is sick). Wouldn’t the natural inference be this child is Edith’s by Mr Drewe? This pattern of a mother giving birth out of wedlock is seen in later 19th & early to mid-20th century novels (Bronte’s Shirley to East Lynn to Poor Cow); here it is presented in such as a way as to make exceptional a pattern of deprivation and grief.

Anibundel also feels for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): on the second time round, he certainly seems to be the figure everyone else can ignore or look askance at. He is “donk” to his grandchildren because he once played “pin the tail on the donkey” and apparently was the donkey. He is not wanted to head the installation of a memorial on his own land (!), and is given a position as patron only because his butler, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) makes it a condition of Mr Carter’s accepting as chair. Lord Grantham is told off by the village schoolteacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis), and knows he looks bad for bullying her in his indignation that she should have the temerity to disagree with him — most strongly on the issue of the WW1 memorial

LordGrantham (2)

LordGrantham (1)

Let us stop at the memorial. Some of the loyal older viewers of Downton Abbey may remember the 1970s To Serve Them all My Days (scripted Andrew Davies, with that salt of the earth good man-teacher, David Powlett-Jones), based on the arch Tory Delderfield’s 1950s novel of the same title, a nostalgic look at the upper class schoolboy hood of the 1930s. The terms in which this memorial is debated in 2014 is precisely that of the 1950s novel. Miss Bunting is against spending money for a memorial to a war that uselessly killed millions and left the establishment in power; says she we can do something but not waste money on that. Lord Grantham’s allies around the table (Lord Gillingham, Tom Cullen) has produced the usual pieties about comfort for those who died and a symbol of gratitude. Even in the 1970s Andrew Davies did more justice to the Miss Bunting point of view as creditable and even right. Of course people have to be rude to voice it. But Miss Bunting does not have Tom’s approval; she is not exactly welcomed by the kitchen staff whom she hen wants to thank (ostentatiously) — though her coming downstairs does lead to Daisy, now a cook-kitchen maid (Sophia McShera), finding a teacher to help her with her self-improvement studies.

And note Lord Grantham’s misinterpretation of what is happening between Jimmy and Lady Anstruther is the one that decides what happens to Jimmy: having seen Jimmy in bed with the lady, Grantham sacks Jimmy because he cannot accommodate Jimmy’s ambitions. There is no guarantee whatsoever that Lady Anstruther will do anything for Jimmy but use him. If Jimmy could find it in himself (he can’t) Thomas would be the better partner (as he recognizes). Lord Grantham, like Cora, gets to decide who will be sacked; in discussions over the land, it is Lord Grantham Lady Mary and Tom must convince to build houses on the land for more rent. And it is Lord Grantham who leads everyone to put out the fire, who congratulates Thomas (who thus wins back Cora, Lady Grantham’s favor — too easily), and Tom Bransom (Allen Leech): back again as this deeply remorseful muddled liberal Irishman who seems to believe that leftism is a movement based on hatred, and has to ask permission to have his friends stay. He does still see to the cars (Lady Anstruther); maybe he does need to get out more.

Bransom

So paradigms of abjection and looking askance at those who are powerful still.

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Watch a third time (preferrably after having watched all 8 episodes) and you see: several overarching storylines are set up: the first, whose emphasis is not lost from sight throughout: Edith’s need to build a life for herself: the study of Edith: yes just such an environment would foster her kind of dependence and love and despair when the one attempt for liberty she grasped at was destroyed. Parallel is Tom’s need to separate himself from these people, find himself.

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Daisy striking out to become personally emotionally by knowledge gained independent. She has become an artist of a cook, and now she wants to ready herself for a life outside the house, perhaps in charge of Mr Mason’s farm. (And ho-hum who will Lady Mary marry in the end. Does it matter? as she might herself say ever so coolly. Later her grandmother will tell her she’s overdoing it.)

The sub-stories attached which are used to create feeling states, the communitarian ideal that is projected is that of Mr Molesley who emerges as a reader: we did see signs of this when long ago he gave Anna Smith, now Mrs Bates (Joanne Froggart), a copy of Von Armin’s Elizabeth and her German Garden (which true to her anti-intellectual practical spirit she never found time to read). Mr M is champion of good feeling. Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nichols) concern for Daisy’s self-esteem — like Edith’s character, this makes sense given Mrs Patmore’s background, where you learn you will be hurt more by the failure because the trying may get you nowhere.

As yet we only see Mr (Brendan Coyle) Bates and Anna marginally (they live in another house), enough to see the aftermath and results of the rape are not at all gotten past. They remain wary, she aware how vulnerable they both are, he on the alert for anyone suspicious of them who can hurt either. Why haven’t they had a child he asks; she doesn’t know. They fear Miss Baxter as a weak informer.

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Secrets, many of the characters have secrets to keep to themselves (for some stills of them much later in the series at home [from Episode 7]).

A new note: we do see Barrow’s real loneliness and lack of life — a rare case where we see what happens from the exploited and marginalized person’s point of view — he cannot make a life for himself that he wants to live he tells Jimmy. And Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) is considerably softened: she is as pessimistic and wry as ever, but more willing to admit her need of others, e.g., Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton’s) friendship

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How many widows this series has had … they walk through a graveyard as they discuss Mrs Crawley’s relationship with Lord Merton: it’s a matter of companionship

Characters are cast aside to make room for the new feeling states and developments of over-arching stories across the seasons: Dr Clarkson (David Robb) who will not now marry Mrs Crawley; and characters are brought to the front, the supposed amusement of the snobbery of Violet, Lady Grantham’s butler, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) who Violet, Lady Grantham is supposedly ruled by — not very.

And in each episode we’ll have self-contained stories of characters not seen again (as here, Anstruther and Jimmy, Lady Shackleton), or stories which last 2-3 episodes and conclude (TBA). Even Isis, the dog, is being readied to play her role when the time comes.

There is a darker palette this time: I have enlarged several stills because unless I do that you won’t be able to make out the guarded people.

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Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the last shot of someone in the opening: she knows Lady Edith has a painful secret she has shared with Mr Drewe (now fireman he makes an appt with Lady Edith to discuss matters)

Ellen

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Derek Jacobi as Alan Turning being interviewed (1996 Breaking the Code, directed by Herbert Wise, script by Hugh Whitmore)

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Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan (1935 The Informer, directed by John Ford, script by Dudley Nichols)

Dear friends and readers,

While I bought in New Year’s Eve quietly, alone with my cats, I watched two films: both unexpectedly great: Breaking the Code, a 1996 90 minute British TV film, based on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography of Alan Turning, and John Ford’s The Informer which was so powerful, a piece of German expressionist art turned to popular movie account I was astonished.

You can watch all of Breaking the Code on line instead of (wasting your time) seeing The Imitation Game:

I hope you took the hour and one half out. If not, here are a few notes which perhaps might tempt you. Instead of presenting Alan Turing as a kind of (freakish) autistic person never getting long with anyone after a brief youthful friendship in school with a young man who died of TB, Derek Jacobi plays a complex man who has a number of relationships, but is unable to fulfill himself as centrally part of his life because of the cruelties of the anti-homosexuality of English culture, the lack of understanding of a sensitive unconventional mind.

Breaking the Code is set mostly in the 1950s. There are flashbacks to the 1930s in school (a young Blake Ritson plays the friend who died from TB) and then to 1940s when Turing is hired (no atmosphere of paranoia or heroism; no justifications of murdering people to protect the “enigma code,” no silly team of a few men saving the world who also happen to be spies); in the 1996 film we see a slow building of relationship with his immediate boss (who is not crazily hostile, but half-sympathetic, played by Richard Johnson), and the woman he engaged himself to who did love him and he loved (played by Amanda Root), but he did not want a sexless or false-front marriage. I found very touching the depiction of Jacobi as a homosexual man trying to find companionship and the lack of dignity and threat, the sordidness and contempt of what he had to endure in the one person he could find to spend time with him.

breaking the code

I could understand deeply how someone brought up in the 1950s looking at homosexuality might say I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to know that and hide away. He is seen having an affair on Corfu (where he could have some safety). Equally gripping was the way he was treated in 1951. Pinter plays the M16 person who begins to have Turing monitored and put pressure on him after the trial: yes for national security it’s said. As we look at the desk where he slowly he gathered the drugs he used to kill himself we have a sense of how this came from a process across his life. Prunella Scales is brilliant as his genteel mother who has no understanding of her son and repeats the world’s cant to him but loves him; Alun Armstrong as the relentless narrow police officer (he reprised a verision of this as Inspector Bucket in Andrew Davies’s mini-series Bleak House).

Here is an account of the staged play and the awards it won. Herbert Wise’s work includes I, Claudius; High Whitemore many different stints writing one-time plays for British TV, and 1970s to today’s mini-series (including Stevie [Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith], A Dance to the Music Of Time, recently The Gathering Storm.

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Then I turned my attention to a novel, by Liam O’Flaherty, DVD, a redigitalized The Informer with a feature describing the filming (means, cost, people involved, goals, first reception), George Bluestone’s famous essay comparing the book and film (Novels into Films). Unfortunately this film is not on the Net, but a thorough defense and explication of in lucid terms (it has been attacked) is:

A Ford Crucible by Blake Lucas. It’s long interested me as an exploration of a role once regarded as abhorrent to all people fighting oppressive gov’ts, tyrannies, wars (when E. M. Forster said he hoped he’d betray “his country” before his friend”), informing for monetary or other rewards on friends, colleagues, family to powerful people. The opposite of the today reviled and hounded-down and punished “whistleblower.”

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I was deeply moved by McLaghlen’s performance of a non-thinking hulk of a man driven by poverty, a desire to stop his girlfriend from selling herself on the streets as a prostitute, a momentary blindness to all the consequences of his act (not just the immediate murder of the man he informs on, but the results on the organization of which they are part, the man’s family) and unawareness of his own feelings. Yes the movie is a lot more sentimental: in the novel the characters are far harder, selfish, his girlfriend is treacherous, the man he informs on a treacherous murderer himself; to make the movie more widely appealing Ford turns ordinary people into exemplary heroes and heroines, but this does not detract from the central fable of the awakening of this man’s remorse and the relentlessness of others around him to his act. The use of fog, of mist, the black-and-white interfused medium of the few streets, and rooms and archetypal direction is daring — Gypo Nolan is a sort of Frankenstein monster rejected by all a seething and bewildered humanity. He cumulatively gains dignity and forgets what he has done because it is too unendurable.

Since this past summer when I began once again to watch American-made movies from the 1930s to 40s, I have been so startled at how many were superb, not because of the Hays Code but in spite of it. These were pre-1950s, pre- the successful attempt of reactionary and rightist groups in the US to remove all pro-social feeling, all history from a working class point of view honestly represented. This is tale of Irish people as they seek, violently, crudely, to achieve political independence. O’Flaherty’s Famine, a novel set in the the 1840s is part of this history, and John Ford and Dudley Nichols committed to making films of integrity and intelligent art.

On one of my listservs, a member argued how important it is to pay more attention to how history is rewritten. What is erased and subsituted. Look at the difference between The Imitation Game and Breaking the Code, at The Informer versus Zero Dark Thirty.

Ellen

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