Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Downton Abbey returns, plus Jane and Alice ...

No sun-dappled gardens or gentle rustling of taffeta greets viewers as they return to DOWNTON ABBEY for Series 2. We are blasted straight into the trenches, where a mud-covered Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is heroically fighting the Great War. The first series began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 when the Downton estate loses its male heir, and ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. It is now 1916 as we revisit Julian Fellowes’s “posh soap opera” featuring the Lords and Ladies of the Estate and their downstairs staff, who get equal screen time.

Previous classic costume dramas like UPSTAIRS AND DOWNSTAIRS were a bit staid, but the fascinating thing about DOWNTON is that is done in the modern zappy American style. Each character – and there’s about 20 of them - have their own story arcs and there are some marvellous bits of humour here and there, as in the first episode here, the uppity new maid wanted the cook Mrs Patmore to save her some of the crepes suzettes from “upstairs” but she annoys the cook who takes pleasure is tossing the pancakes to the dog – it’s a little moment but a satisfying one.
While Armageddon rages abroad, life at Downton remains stultifyingly the same for the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockerty). By moving the action from the relative frippery of country-house living to war, Fellowes has wisely raised the stakes and given the actors more to chew on. Lady Edith is still a bitch but apparently will change, ditto Lady Sybil. Then there is Mr Bates the valet and his evil wife, ladies maid O’Brien is still as poisonous as ever, as the house is presided over by the butler and wise housekeeper (Phyllis Logan). The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith in a late great role) still has some biting retorts as she and Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) try to gain the upper hand. But it is our star-crossed lovers – Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) the new heir and Lady Mary who fascinate.

Lots to look forward to here then as the Estate becomes a convalescent home, and will Matthew and that devious footman Thomas survive in the trenches? Overall, the sumptuous drama remains as inviting as before. Classic costume drama at it’s best then. Best though to record it and watch afterwards, zapping out the commercial breaks as there are too many of them, and how soon will the DVD be out?
During my recent hospital engagement I decided to read some old books which have become favourite films, so it was a pleasure to actually read the original BLACK NARCISSUS by Rumer Godden, first published in 1939 and never out of print, ditto her THE GREENGAGE SUMMER which became that intriguing 1961 film with Kenneth More, Danielle Darrieux and Susannah York, and also the 1950s novel by A.J. Cronin THE SPANISH GARDENER which became that popular Dirk Bogarde movie in 1956, but how they changed it! I was astonished to see that Jose is 19 and the father too is taken with his attractive physique, Jose though gets killed while trying to escape due to the father’s intervention. Bogarde was in his mid-30s then so Jose is a lot older (and provided with a girlfriend to keep his relationship with the boy innocent). The Rank Organisation were of course not going to kill off their 'Idol of the Odeons', so Jose not only survives in the film but sends the reconciled father and son happily on their way to their next posting - a total reversal of the ending in the book which is much bleaker with father and son now posted to Sweden and Nicholas resolved to get away from the unloved father and return to his mother as soon as he can! (Reviews of these at Bogarde, York, Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus labels).

I now see that Jane Asher (who played the younger sister in THE GREENGAGE SUMMER (LOSS OF INNOCENCE) is playing Lady Bracknell in a new production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and I imagine she will be terrific in the role. Asher is actually the same age (64) as Dame Edith Evans when she played the role. Several actresses have portrayed a younger sexier Lady Bracknell - Jane should be perfect! What a contrast to her dolly bird in Skolimowski's 1970 DEEP END, reviewed here (Jane Asher label), and just out on dvd.

Below: performers now have the internet in their dressing rooms!

Alice Krige has also turned into a fascinating presence - now in the BBC series SPOOKS as Peter Firth's lost love, and as Ralph Fiennes' ex-wife in PAGE EIGHT the recent film by David Hare (reviewed recently here). I did not see her Borg Queen in a STAR TREK film, but she has been quietly impressive so many different genres - that icy patrician Roman in the 2001 ATTILA (as played by Gerard Butler), SOLOMON KANE, and others since her debut in CHARIOTS OF FIRE.

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