Masterpiece Theater on PBS is running the seven-part “Downton Abbey” (already available in DVD, if you simply cannot wait), a pre-World War I confection in the Gosford Park style. No wonder, since its author is Julian Fellows, who won awards for Park, of which my favorite line is Kristin Scott Thomas’s cynical “I’ll be bored to sobs”, which Fellowes admits to borrowing from an aunt.
It’s a pity his aunts couldn’t all be so deliciously well-spoken, as “Abbey”’s dialogue suffers in comparison with Park. Oddly, lines for the Abbey’s people, both upstairs and down, seem to have been written by Americans – they’re so dreadfully earnest and contemporary. Odder still, since Park was set between the wars, and “Abbey” is set twenty years earlier, when hierarchy was even more rigid. The First World War (1914-1918) did much to erode divisions between socioeconomic levels, but the folks who live in the 1913 Abbey already approach each other with a candor nearly unthinkable at the time.
Perhaps the Crawley family is a bit more liberal than the rest. Yet you wouldn’t know it by their initial treatment of attorney Matthew Crawley, the third cousin to whom the ancestral pile will fall, since Lord Crawley has sired only daughters. Poor Matthew is looked upon by nearly everyone – Lord Crawley himself respects the law of primogeniture – as an upstart, even a sort of bounder.
It soon becomes clear that Matthew may be the family’s savior, if only one of the Crawley daughters – Mary, the eldest, is the betting favorite – can steel herself to marry him. As the plot thickens (sisters snipe at each other, Matthew’s mother takes on medical duties, and the Turkish ambassador’s son inconveniently falls dead in Mary’s bedroom), character is revealed, and the characters move well out of their 1913-approved spheres.
I do like “Downton Abbey”, and am faithfully scrutinizing each episode (the script was not derived from a book; Fellowes wrote it especially for the small screen), but in between the fitting of BBC-authentic corsets and the training of period-perfect service, I wish Fellowes had paid more attention to what his Crawleys and their servants actually say.