TV Review – Downton Abbey, Comedy World Cup, Big Fat Quiz of the Eighties, The Thick Of It
September 20, 2012 Leave a comment
Trying Too Hard
Parade’s End got to episode four with virtually nobody left to watch it, bar the odd Benedict Cumberbatch fetishist. People should be watching it for Rebecca Hall as Cumberbatch’s wife, Silvia Tietjens, who regards the First World War as a terrible inconvenience. Silvia and her scandalous hobble skirts have only got one more episode of husband-torturing left. “I’ll make that wooden face splinter yet.”
Perhaps the reason nobody is watching Parade’s End is that everybody watched Downton Abbey (ITV1), despite it being Nickelback to the more sophisticated Parade’s End’s Steely Dan. Downton Abbey is a knuckle-dragging stew of aristocrats and revisionist history, served up with a beautiful Instagrammed look that stuns the brain even after the dialogue has removed most of its function.
When it originally started, Downton Abbey had relatively modest ambitions. Despite taking place in the sort of real estate today only occupied by Russian Oligarchs, it was a standard soapy drama about life above and below stairs. Once it became a hit, writer Julian Fellowes panicked a bit and delivered a second series set during the First World War so risible it might have been written by Silvia Tietjens.
Okay, the first series might have had the daft Affair of the Dead Turk, but the second series featured a man who claimed to have survived the sinking of the Titanic and acquired a Canadian accent in the process, plus the saga of Matthew’s war-damaged penis and whether it could spurt new heirs. A Christmas special steadied the ship but provided us with the prospect of a dreaded Matthew and Lady Mary marriage, precisely the sort of thing that should never be resolved in sudsy nonsense like this.
Fellowes has yet to come to his senses, so the marriage is still on, despite the last man she took to her bed (the aforementioned Turk) dropping dead as a result. Pretty much everyone else has managed to survive the war and the Spanish flu outbreak, except Matthew’s poor fiance Lavinia, carried away by a special disease that only affects people who are In The Way Of The Plot.
So all, including the viewers, are desperately waiting for the arrival of the stunt casted Shirley MacLaine. “Is your grandmother coming over from New York?” people say, apropos of nothing. “When does grandmama arrive?… I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again… Do you think we should say something to your mother when she gets here?… Don’t worry, she’ll bring enough drama when she gets here.”
Before the drama arrives, Hugh Bonneville is still around as the Earl, looking only slightly less irritated by the ditherings around him than he did in Twenty Twelve. He’s got a significant meeting in London that’s only flagged as significant by him trying to treat it as insignificant. “It’s nothing to bother you with,” he tells his glamorous American wife Elizabeth McGovern, who still looks about 26 despite being in Once Upon A Time In America.
But it’s got a lot to do with her, because he’s managed to invest all his money into Canadian trains that have gone off the rails. “Are you really telling me the money has gone?” he anguishes to his banker, because the lord of the manor doesn’t do angry. He’s very decent. McGovern is forgiving and prepared to fall back on her raw Wild West upbringing. “Don’t worry about me. Have gun, will travel.”
In a huge dramatic irony, Matthew – already nailed on to inherit Downton, despite being a third Cousin (once removed) and a solicitor – stands to inherit a huge amount of money when another distant relative dies. “How can I possibly profit from her death?” he agonises, ever the decent cove even if he seems to think he has to kill this aged relative personally. This is the normal Fellowes blueprint: dramatic ironies that unfortunately render every plot movement utterly unbelievable.
Still no Shirley, so here’s another of Bonneville’s daughters who has had the gall to marry, gasp, an Irishman. They normally live in Dublin on a diet of potatoes and Guinness, but they’re here at Downton for the wedding and to scandalise Maggie Smith, who does excellent scandalization. “He’s still dressed like the man from the Prudential I see,” she says, peering through her lorgnette.
It doesn’t help that the Irishman in question, Mr. Branson, was not only a chauffeur at Downton but as Republican as Michael Collins. “You really think you can recruit Cousin Robert for Sinn Fein?” asks a mildly amused Matthew, ignoring the centuries long struggle for Home Rule.
Below stairs amongst his former workmates, Carson the jippy Butler is even more offended. “I’m not dressing a chauffeur,” he grumbles. Later, at dinner, Carson snaps a wine glass in half at Branson “insulting the King” over Mrs. Pants’s tempting delicacies. Fellowes loves slipping in historical references with all the subtlety of a bailiff delivering a summons. Branson gets wildly drunk at another dinner party (“Is there any way to shut him up?” asks Maggie) but it turns out he’s been spiked by a jealous rival. Oh Julian and your dramatic ironies! Imagine, a drunk Irishman.
Shirl still hasn’t turned up so let’s stay below stairs amongst scum class and see what they’re up to. There’s a new footman who is quite tall, and Carson is not happy. “I have no time for training young hobbledehoys.” And that’s enough of them. Fellowes has no real interest in the working class, and has only included them in order to stave off accusations that he’s wallowing in poshos at a time when they got proper respect. Certainly, the biggest villains of the series so far have been an uppity gay footman and a sour-faced Northern maid.
But wait, here’s another potential villain. Shirley MacLaine has arrived! You know, Shirley MacLaine – Hollywood superstar, won Oscars, was in good Billy Wilder films and bad Frank Sinatra films. The first Shirley that comes up when you type it in IMDB. She’s bound to be a match for the crotchety Maggie Smith, and not just because she’s the only actress on the planet who is actually older than her. What’s she going to say? “Mary, tell me all your wedding plans, and I’ll see what I can do to improve them.” Vicious!
Downton Abbey is visual gloop. It looks amazing, practically every frame making Ridley Scott weep with joy. No establishing shot is left unfiltered, un-misted and filled with loads of extras. But the writing is cack-handed and the acting is terrible, as normally decent actors have to spout terrible lines like “Be silent this instant sir!” in front of an audience of tens of millions.
Talking of decent actors slumming, what on earth has happened to David Tennant? At one point, he was Doctor Who and the RSC’s Hamlet, heading to Hollywood for possible American TV or film glory. Then he disappeared for a year and now here he is, presenting a panel show. Comedy World Cup (Channel 4) has big ambitions though.
Wearing an unhappy beard like Paul McCartney when the Beatles broke up, Tennant has got oddly dead eyes as he reads the autocue, the eyes of someone who once learned all of Hamlet and now can barely be bothered reading out lines scripted by the hackiest of hacks. Somehow, he comes alive during the bits where he isn’t staring down the barrel of the camera, perhaps because there’s a huge studio audience.
A braying crowd is not conducive to panel shows, which are essentially dinner parties. As with Downton Abbey, on Comedy World Cup everyone is trying too hard. Panel shows shouldn’t be an hour long either and, above all, they shouldn’t have lots and lots of clumsy cutaway shots of the panel laughing at something they’re clearly not laughing at. There is no way in the world Jo Brand is yukking that hard at a pathetic Kirstie Alley is a Scientologist joke.
The inspiration for Comedy World Cup was clearly Jimmy Carr’s annual Big Fat Quiz jamboree, now retooled for some reason as Big Fat Quiz of the Eighties (Channel 4) with subsequent decades to follow. But at least Big Fat Quiz is intimate, and is not really a panel show anyway, more a glorified pub quiz. Guests are not expected to entertain, so it’s great when someone like Adam Buxton is just allowed to be himself.
Moment of the week, maybe moment of the decade, came on The Thick Of It (BBC2), where the finally returned Malcolm Tucker described “that film you like” to a baffled Ollie: “The one about the fucking hairdresser. The space hairdresser and the cowboy. The guy, he’s got a tin-foil pal and a pedal bin. His father’s a robot and he’s fucking fucked his sister. Lego. They’re all made of fucking Lego.”
“That’s the one.”
If you thought they couldn’t top Peter Mannion’s Twix line from last week, think on.