On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Downton Abbey Revisited

Branson and Sybil
    Allen Leech, Jessica Brown-Findlay, Dan Stevens, and Michelle Dockery: who’d a thunk those actors’ names would become household words to the PBS audience in a few short months?  Certainly not I, even though I am a long-time devotee of Masterpiece Whatever–Theater, Classic, or Mystery.  Although we in the Nashville viewing area haven’t had access to all the offerings, I’ve watched many programs through the years with great pleasure.  But of all those presentations, never have I, along with millions of others, been so taken with any show as with Downton Abbey.
    A beautiful setting, authentic costuming, many interwoven and compelling stories as well as an interesting transitional period in history all combine to keep viewers enthralled.   I’ve read pans on this series that call it a “soap opera”even as news stories tout it having a record audience of any PBS program in its history.  Pretty good soap opera, I’d say!  Upon seeing the initial episode, I was delighted with the excellent casting.  Nothing ruins a dramatic work for me more than actors playing  inappropriate roles.  Speaking of well-played roles, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham is the one American with a regular part.  Yea!  As for the characterizations, I was a little put off at the outset by the unpleasantness of Lady Mary and Lady Edith, the two older daughters of the Earl of Grantham, portrayed convincingly by Hugh Bonneville.  Of course, these unhappy girls had much to worry about with the oldest needing a new husband since her betrothed was a casualty of the Titanic, and her sister, the jealous and less pretty one, seeing little hope of catching any man for herself.  During the course of the dramas, however, both daughters would become changed and thereby redeem themselves.
    But despite these early blips in likability, I became entranced with the emerging circumstances that would inform the plots.  Scenarios began to unfold, one upon the other above and below the salt, quite a daunting task for the author, considering there are sixteen main characters.  A new heir to the title comes on the scene, the smooth and handsome Dan Stevens as Matthew, who fails initially to appeal to Lady Mary, and later has another personal difficulty to deal with.  Then Branson the chauffeur, well played by the engaging Allen Leech, finds himself attracted to the lovely Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), the youngest, most liberal, and most charming of the daughters.  Their slow-burning romance is fascinating, since Branson has decided views on the aristocracy, but ultimately satisfying, as well it should be, considering how daring it is.
    Downstairs, amid a kind of continual chaos, other romances are taking place, one between a housemaid, Anna, and a valet, the long-suffering Bates, with their complicated relationship; the other romantic alliance is one between a dying footman injured in World War One (a traumatic and important event in the story) and the kitchen maid.  Also among the servants are a couple of ruthless plotters who make life difficult for anyone they don’t like.
    If all this sounds impossibly complicated, I can assure you it is not, mainly because of the writing talents of the creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, whose credits also include Gosford Park.  In Downton Abbey, Fellowes uses a dramatic technique that works well in keeping the viewer always engaged and able to follow various plots and sub-plots.  Never was I confused as to who was doing what, mainly because each dramatic segment was never more than a few minutes long, cutting from one scene to the other.  Thus, it was easy to keep up with the different plots; longer scenes might require an update or review when going back and forth. 
    I was so enthusiastic about the series that I purchased the DVDs and have played them almost compulsively over and over.  Because of this, I have become aware of certain amusing authorial quirks, which writers seem prone to do in their writing.  One of my sons, for example, noted that in my mystery novel, Murder at Toll House, I said “anyhow” way too much.  Since it is an e-book, I was able to easily correct my habitual use of the word.  Julian Fellowes has virtually every character say, when surprised or shocked, “What?” rather than an extended question such as “What do you mean?” or “Is that so?” or “Why do you say that?”  No, everyone says, “What?”  In addition, I seem to have heard “quite right”  and "fetch" a few too many times.  This isn’t a big deal, and I don’t really criticize it as a serious fault, but I found it interesting as a fellow writer that even one as experienced and clever as Fellowes falls into inadvertent repetition. Sometimes I noted anachronistic intrusions, too, such as Matthew telling his mother that his fiancĂ© Lavinia was “sucking up” to her.  Really?  I doubt that was an Edwardian expression.  There were other glitches, but so few and so unimportant to the whole they do not bear mentioning.
    Altogether, as I have said from the start, I love the two productions so far, and I’m looking forward to Series Three, unfortunately not appearing on the PBS schedule until next January.  I and the other souls addicted to Downton Abbey will simply have to watch the first two series again and again on disks until our desire for more can be satisfied with the new production–and then hope for yet another and another.