Saturday, 15 September 2012

Scotsman TV Preview: Downton Abbey, Parade's End, Strictly Come Dancing

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 15 September 2012.

Sunday, STV, 9pm

Friday, BBC2, 9pm

Today, BBC1, 6:30pm

Paul Whitelaw

A lavish harlequinade of withering gazes, arched eyebrows and stoic suffering: yes, DOWNTON ABBEY is back, and thankfully it seems to have calmed down following last year's hyperactive series, which at times felt more like a series of disjointed trailers for an upcoming episode interspersed with blaring commercial breaks every five minutes. The latter are still an unwelcome intrusion, but it's good to have it back on form.

In case you'd forgotten where we were, the first few scenes are helpfully devoted to nothing but clunky exposition, leading up to the return of Lady Sybil and her fierce republican husband (cue awkward discussions of “the Irish problem” over dinner), the much publicised arrival of Shirley Maclaine as Lady Grantham's mother (cue laboured bouts of American modernism vs English traditionalism), and the wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew (cue the expected drama on the eve of their nuptials). And most dramatically of all, Lord Grantham is shocked to learn that he may run the risk of losing dear old Downton altogether.

Despite the fact that you can always hear the gears shifting in Julian Fellowes' writing, I can't deny that, at his best, he's a fine purveyor of world-class soap opera. It's corn on a grand scale, but it's expertly tuned and entertaining corn at that.

The cerebral yin to Downton's full-bosomed yang, PARADE'S END, which concludes this week, is almost stubbornly anti-populist in its appeal. Indeed, this handsome Edwardian period drama mirrors precisely the compelling, frustrating, enigmatic allure of its central character, Christopher Tietjans, who for the past five weeks has made an esoteric virtue of keeping his entire world at arm's length.

Immaculately portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch – his oval jaw set in stone, although increasingly prone to wobbles as the story progressed – Christopher's damned loyalty to his strict, self-flagellating moral code takes a further battering in the final episode, which mostly finds him mired in the insanity of the Western Front trenches.

Created by Ford Madox Ford for a series of highly-regarded early 20th century novels, “the last decent man in England” is certainly more complex than any character found in Downton, and highlights, not only the fundamental difference between the two programmes, but also the inherent, possibly deliberate flaw of Tom Stoppard's otherwise impressive adaptation: Downton Abbey wants to loved, and will jab all your buttons to ensure that it is, whereas Parade's End has no interest in giving you an easy, comfortable, emotional ride.

And that's why, although I enjoyed it, I never felt particularly moved by this sprawling epic. I admired its stellar performances, its dry, eccentric wit and Susanna White's assured direction, but I never really got under the skin of the central love triangle between Christopher, his entertainingly maddening wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall, a haughty swan, superb throughout) and moist-eyed, lovestruck plot device Valentine (Adelaide Clemens, doing her best with an underwritten role).

I suspect that Stoppard was more interested in the material for its reams of layered character study and socio-politcal satire, than as an unconventional romantic drama. It's certainly obvious that Madox Ford's novels, which many deemed unfilmable, don't lend themselves easily to adaptation, and Stoppard should be commended for transforming them into five hours of captivating, if at times inscrutable, TV drama.

And I'm glad that the BBC has taken a leaf from co-producers HBO's book and produced something that demands concentration and actively repels the casual viewer. It's encouraging that we have a landscape where populist period fare such as Downton can comfortably coexist with the relatively challenging and idiosyncratic likes of Parade's End. And while it wasn't an unqualified success – the stasis of Christopher and Sylvia's relationship, for instance, led to repetitive reinstatements of their central dynamic every week – it was undeniably smart, startling and ambitious. And we need more of that, always.

Also, special mention should go to Stephen Graham, who, despite being lumbered with a ridiculous stick-on beard that made him look like a Blackadder Dickens, pulled off a faultless Edinburgh accent while proving himself yet again as one of TV's most versatile actors. And speaking of Blackadder, the penultimate episode, with the great Roger Allam coming to the fore to essentially portray a blimpish General Melchett substitute, was one of the most effective and darkly humorous “war is hell” statements I've seen on TV in quite some time.

Finally, STRICTLY COME DANCING returns tonight for another ratings-grabbing series of flotsam and fluff.

Personally, I've never been a fan. It's not something I object to – it's utterly harmless – but it's just one of those cultural happenings that unfolds every year in my peripheral vision, like football and chart music and the latest globule of scandalous idiocy that habitually dribbles from the mouth of some celebrity I couldn't care less about. Not even the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of Russell Grant being fired from a cannon could rouse my interest last year, which means that I'm either suffering from a clinical case of ennui, or that the mere idea of the roly-poly astrologer hurtling through the air in a shower of glitter is entertainment enough for me. Either way, it's back, and there if you want it.  

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