Downton Abbey And Other Interesting Things Happening on British TV

"Just when you least expect it, the church comes stalking back." -- Dame Celia Westholme [Elizabeth McGovern*], Agatha Christie's Poirot: Appointment With Death

February 25, 2012
The Emmy award winning sensation Downton Abbey is being received by new generations of PBS viewers as five-year-olds receive toy trains.

Never mind that five-year-olds have been getting toy trains for over 100 years.

Indeed, to anyone who has watched public TV from the debut of Upstairs Downstairs through Brideshead Revisited and Jeeves and Wooster and a very forgettable production of A Handful of Dust, Downton Abbey is a great house the zillion rooms of which are furnished with cliches.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster got chased down the same Highclere Castle corridors through which Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley floats or marches depending on her mood. Lady Mary is a nicer Lady Julia Flyte and Sir Richard is a nastier, more ruthless Rex Mottram. Mrs. Patmore + Daisy = Mrs. Bridges + Ruby, although Daisy has more brains than Ruby did. In the third season she may head out and become The Dutchess of Duke St. As in another Evelyn Waugh plot, Bates considers getting caught in a hotel with a hooker to seed the grounds of divorce.

Tailored for 2010s viewers who have attention spans that are too short for a pace of the original Upstairs Downstairs, who are mostly interested in love affairs and who must have happy -- rather than hopeful -- endings, the series is also predictable and often so fast-paced that one can't blink lest one miss a crisis.

All this pointing out that Downton Abbey is not the wheel it may seem to be is not by way of knocking it. Tis a far, far better thing than Celebrity Apprentice or Desperate Housewives. In a way, Downton creator and writer Julian Fellowes is to be admired for knowing of so many sources of inspiration.

Whatever the series lacks in originality is more than compensated for by its positive depiction of religious faith.

Most of the upstairs and downstairs protagonists of Downton Abbey believe and pray. Examples: The mercenary, snooty Lady Mary kneels at her bed and asks God to bring Matthew through World War One. Lord Grantham leads prayers in thanking God when armistice is declared. Guilty war widow Daisy's child-bereft father-in-law tells her that she is someone he can pray for, not someone who can pray for him. The dead are spoken of in the present tense. Matthew tells Mary, "I don't think [his intended] Livinia [who died of Spanish flu] wants us to be sad."

Thus Downton goes far beyond The Brideshead Revisited of 1981, the last hit series in which religion was given positive play. Brideshead followed Evelyn Waugh's novel of conversion faithfully, but as the book was not convincing, neither, for all its sumptuousness, was the teleplay. Waugh was not capable of expressing the emotional need for faith.

Another noticeable thing about the Downton Abbey cast, certainly related to the characters' beliefs and the vision that created them, is that the protagonists are good, decent, principled people. The nobles may bristle if a maid lingers too long in the library, but they appreciate if she has been loyal and help if she gets into a scrape.

Temptation, weariness and isolation bring Lord Grantham to the brink, but he steps back and we are sorry that the real world is run by Sir Richard Carlisles. Actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, has a Theology degree from Anglican Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

This is radical stuff in an age when popular television drama plays out as if faith (that is believing in, praying to and heeding a God, not to be confused with seeing ghosts and angels) is irrational and toxic or that it doesn't exist.

One may think that it's even more remarkable that such a refreshing wind blows from the UK, one of the most atheistic countries on earth, a place ravaged by disbelief. England might as well replace its motto Dieu et Mon Droit with the words of a Tony Blair handler at a press conference: We don't do God.

The reason for belief and prayer in Downton Abbey? By all biographical appearances, series creator, The Rt. Hon. Lord [Julian] Fellowes of West Stafford, conservative member of The House of Lords, is a Catholic. He went to Catholic secondary schools and is related by marriage to Catholic nobility that remained faithful through centuries of persecution.

Another believer who is a familiar face to public TV viewers is David Suchet, star of Agatha Christie's Poirot (the series' post- 2004 title). Suchet seems to be a man on a spiritual journey. Jewish-born, the actor was an atheist until he converted to Anglicanism in the early 2000s. Shortly after he joined up he was griping about the conservative popes of late. More recently he has been heard in the chorus complaining that Christianity is being marginalized in Western society. This is something that the current conservative pope is also saying.

Hand-picked by The Christie Family to play the Belgian detective, Suchet is said to be the quintessential Poirot that Dame Agatha intended. Having read a few Poirot novels, I find it difficult to figure out what Christie envisioned. She is one of the dullest authors I've ever had to digest and the Poirot she writes of is a blank who has none of the quirks that Tony Randall, Albert Finney and David Suchet have given him.

I understand that in later Poirot volumes Christie declares her character to be Catholic and depicts him as such, but I have no stomach to partake of another insipid Christie dish to find out.

The Suchet Poirot of the more recent Agatha Christie's Poirot series -- the ones that are, sadly, lacking Capt. Hastings and Miss Lemon -- is overtly Catholic. He prays the Rosary before going to bed on The Orient Express. At the conclusion of Appointment With Death, Poirot presents the beads as a gift to Jinny Boynton [Zoe Boyle*], saying "Je vous salus." These are the first three words of The Hail Mary in French. He also tells her, "There is nothing so damaged that cannot be repaired."

A friend who has also noticed Poirot's pronounced piety complained that a real Catholic wouldn't let the murderers get away. However producers and screen adaptors of a famous story can only do so much. It was Dame Agatha who let the murderers get away.

In the series Inspector Lewis, the Oxford detective's sidekick, James Hathaway, played by Laurence Fox, studied for the priesthood at Cambridge before becoming a policeman. At times, the character Hathaway expresses scepticism; at others, he responds positively to religion. "Like your t-shirt," he tells someone sporting the Blessed Virgin. Perhaps he represents some smart young folks in England who are flirting with faith as are many of their American counterparts these days.

Critics who have noticed these Catholic trappings have set them down to the influence of Evelyn Waugh and Grahame Greene. Whether the presence of faith in popular TV shows is the original work of their creators or is lifted from dead, highly respected authors, it's about time and it's all for the good.

There is precedent. Because it works on the emotional level, storytelling reaches more people than yacking about the evils of running Christianity off the road.

Against the militant secularization of 1920s-30s Western Europe -- worse, by the way, than what we're seeing now -- George Bernanos posed his novel of an ordinary country priest's mundane and prayerful life to insist, "No! Religious faith is not irrational and toxic, it's normal and natural.

Come to think of it, William Shakespeare did similar under the noses of Queen Elizabeth and her henchmen. He loaded his plays, which were often cliched stories about Italians and secret lovers, with Catholic imagery and thoughts.

* Appointment With Death cast members McGovern and Boyle also appeared in Downton Abbey as Lady Cora and Livinia Swire respectively.

Other essays by Neal J. Conway about faith and culture

The Greatest TV Show Ever?
Whether it is or not, inaptly titled The Naked City is an early 1960s crime-drama masterpiece.

Human Nature Starts Over: Reflections After Watching The Bride of Frankenstein
How the monster came to be does not matter so much. In this movie he is human with a human nature. Neither can truly be made, or unmade, by Man.

Copyright 2012 by Neal J. Conway. All rights reserved.

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