The final episode of Downton Abbey, or at least the final episode before the really final episode at Christmas, proved to be the best Downton in ages. Probably because there was so much to do, and so little time, we got Downton at fever pitch. It dispensed with any notions of being some kind of historical document or meaningful artwork and instead went full soap.
The Mary vs Edith showdown, concluding with Poor Old Edith throwing off the punctilious shackles of Ladyship and calling her prune-faced sister a ‘nasty, jealous, scheming bitch,’ was straight out of the Albert Square playbook. It was an expostulation every bit as surprising as Robert’s volcanic ulcer explosion a few episodes ago. In case we didn’t hear her first time, Edith bookended the aristo-spat with another ‘bitch.’ This was as good as Dirty Den and the divorce papers. The Mitchell brothers couldn’t have mustered a better showdown. Edith wasn’t even sorry that she’d double-bitched her sister – ‘We should have had that row years ago.’
Amen to that – there are several things that should have happened on Downton Abbey years ago, not least amongst them Lady Mary getting a good slap. By virtue of there being no room for dilly-dallying, they all came at once and it was like the whole Anna/Bates prison saga or this season’s pass-me-the-polonium hospital plotline had never happened.
Everywhere you looked something was actually happening. There was the above-mentioned Rumble in the Boudoir. Thomas was found in the bath with slit wrists. Henry Talbot tried to woo Mary with a chat up line taken from a slasher flick (‘’If you’re trying to get rid of me I’m going to make this as hard and as horrible as I can’). Mrs Patmore’s B&B was being used for illicit couplings. The Dowager Countess returned having suddenly discovered she had a soul and wanted to slather Mary with sentimental soupcons. It was Downton does Dynasty. Bertie Pelham went from being a flappy-eared drone to the 7th Earl of Hexham. Edith could thus become ‘a genuine copper-bottomed Marquess,’ a line so wonderful and yet awful that I barely noticed when Robert, that wellspring of duff dialogue, came out with ‘Golly gumdrops what a turn up,’ (as Edith Blyton turned in her grave.)
Downton has always been soap opera first and foremost, and at its best, like this week, it’s been a really good one. When it has wavered has been when plotlines have been allowed to meander, or characters evolve and grow. Neither happens in good soap. Characters suffer the slings and arrows of really, really outrageous fortune and then turn up the next week and do much the same again. No one really learns anything. In truth, that may be why soap is actually a better reflection of real life than supposedly more weighty drama, but that’s another matter.
I’ve sensed in recent weeks that as the end has drawn near writer Julian Fellowes may have taken a step back from the characters that have made him the toast of Hollywood and started to laugh at them. Episode six, when the lumpenprole were invited up to the Big House and the aristos revealed themselves to know absolutely nothing about all of the fine art and books they had been blessed to be surrounded by, was a comic classic. I don’t think Fellowes could have dared admit that some of his characters might be a few claws short of a lobster bisque in series one, but he seemed to take real pleasure in showing us Dunceton Abbey.
But another feature of soap is that it goes on forever, and here Downton faces a quandary. In an ideal world Edith and Mary would be tearing strips off each other week in week out, but come Christmas Day the Abbey will close its doors forever. There are precedents in soap and sitcom – Downton having been both, at times – for spin-offs to keep the whole thing alive. I would welcome reader suggestions but personally I could watch Kevin Doyle in ‘Molesley’ (with some kind of wha, wha, wha whaaaa comedy trumpet soundtrack) all day. ‘Beryl Patmore’s House of Ill Repute’ would also have legs and Maggie Smith as ‘The Dowager on the Riviera,’ with lots of snarky remarks at the expense of the French, would be a perfect Sunday night soother.
Peep Show, the flatshare sitcom, is also coming to an end. It began its ninth and final series this week with an episode that wasn’t as hilarious as some, but it still reminded you why it has endured. Essentially it’s very good writing, condensed in to a half hour that never drags. The titles are short and from there on it is, as David Mitchell’s Mark put it ‘hard hats on – time to descend in to the depths of depravity.’
Mainly, what Peep Show does well is be almost exactly the same as it was before. I mentioned above that in good sitcom and soap the characters don’t really change, and Peep Show is a perfect example of why you wouldn’t want them to. The series began with Jeremy (Robert Webb) having been booted out of Mark’s flat. Most of the first episode was concerned with how to get him back in there. The Odd Couple set-up – and Mark and Jeremy are essentially the slob and the neatfreak reprised – only works when the couple are in close confines.
In the nine years in which Peep Show has been a critical hit I’m still surprised that its central ruse – the point of view camera combined with interior monologue voiceover that gives the show its name – has not been more widely copied. It’s still brilliantly effective. The simple device of allowing a character to say what they’re really thinking about what they’re seeing and hearing is not only a great joke delivery system, it also gives the audience a deep affinity with a character. One reason, perhaps, that we’ve been able to stay interested in Mark and Jeremy for so long.