Saturday, February 25, 2012

Getting down at Downton

This is a post on Downton Abbey, because I’m in love with the screenwriting…and frankly I can’t stop thinking about the show.

Last year, someone told me I would love Downton Abbey, and that she’d watched each episode of Season 1 four times. Four times! I thought that was quite a ringing endorsement, but I still dragged my feet because I don’t watch much TV.

Then another friend recommended it again this year. I was inspired one evening to look for it on Netflix, but spelling it Dounton or whatever I was doing (Dontown?) yielded no results so I gave up.

A while passed before I tried again…and honestly, I’m so happy. Being a “late adopter” meant that I could watch all of Season 1, and then dive instantly in Season 2. I’m going to start watching Season 1 again--I don’t know if I’ll manage four viewings like my friend, but most definitely I want to go back “knowing what I know” and watch how things unfold.

Julian Fellowes is an incredible storyteller. I loved Gosford Park (and was influenced by it in my current novel-in-progress), and Downton Abbey is more of the same delectable upstairs/downstairs drama. So many of the things I find fascinating about the past are included in the show: the sinking of the Titanic, the 1918 flu.

And more recently I learned that the Crawley family is in part based on the Carnarvon family. SWOON. EXCITEMENT. The very name Carnarvon elicits a Pavlovian response in me: that sense of awe as I imagine that solitary candleflame flickering for the first time in centuries on pharaonic gold.

Lord Carnarvon was financier to Howard Carter, discoverer of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. I’ve been obsessed with this discovery since I was a child. I remember on my wall I had taped up a kids funny pages article about it. My very first signed book was David Macauley’s Pyramid, and he signed it to me, “Greetings from the tomb.” I love ancient Egypt.

Howard Carter’s story is so compelling. He was told the Valley of the Kings was “exhausted,” and everyone considered him a fool for continuing to dig. He kept spending Lord Canarvon’s money, and this was to be his very last season as Carnarvon was withdrawing support. And then a staircase appeared in sand…and they dug…and they dug…and Howard Carter looked through a chink in the wall to the Treasury.

He was asked if he could see anything, and famously answered, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Ah, so pithy! How I love you, Howard Carter.

So, now knowing that Downton Abbey may show us a beautifully-filmed version of this moment…oh it’s making my heart race. There’s so much good stuff here: commoner Howard Carter’s gossiped-of romance with Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn (a close match with the name Edith?) which had to be quashed, Carter’s illicit smuggling out of the country many antiquities, and… well, no plot spoilers but two words: mummy’s curse. I do hope we get to see this!

But even if we don’t, I know whatever Fellowes cooks up for us will be devoured with great gusto. (And don’t even get me started with the news that his next series will be about the Titanic. I was such a Titanicophile--that doesn’t look right--that watching James Cameron’s movie, I instantly noted that he had hired actors who looked like photographs of the actual crew members. The Titanic story is deep in my blood for some reason, and I was disappointed Downton Abbey only glossed over it. How extraordinary will it be when Fellowes actually focuses on it!)

I was marveling the other day that somehow with this gigantic cast of characters (looking at the most recent cast picture, I count 18, and that doesn’t include dear Bates or lost Lavinia) we understand each person’s story and care deeply about them. What a feat, to balance such a volume of stories.

My favorite character? Mrs. Patmore. Lesley Nicol is an incredible actress, with an expressive face. She so perfectly expresses the staunch demeanor of someone who knows her place, but can wiggle a little to assert herself. I will never forget her lost expression as she sat on the bed by herself, Anna having left her, to await her dreaded eye surgery.

There are a few things to quibble with. For instance, Matthew’s constant popping in from war (“The trenches? Oh, yes, I’ll go back in just a moment. But in the meantime, I’m terribly interested in my own love story, and I’ll surely avoid shellshock by holding onto this stuffed puppy”). For another, the lack of resonating emotion for very big events, like Lady Crawley’s miscarriage (of the very vaunted male heir!), or the in-house death of a diplomat. We go so quickly from thing to thing, and it’d be great to slow down just a little and digest these momentous plot twists.

But they are just quibbles. Downton Abbey is the best fun I’ve had with TV in quite a long time, and like I said at the top of this post, I’m thinking about it all the time. I can’t believe we have to wait (sob sob) until next January to see Season 3. I may just have to move to England to see it earlier.

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