REVIEW: Downton Abbey, Tuesday, 8.35pm, Prime.
As PG Wodehouse said of the era that is the subject of the wonderful Downton Abbey, back on Prime last night, the action is often dictated by "aunt bellowing to aunt like mastodons across the primeval swamp".
Men are notionally in charge at Downton, but it's the redoubtable matrons whose shifting alliances and autocratic edicts cause the most mischief. This is why, as the new series enters World War I, the heroine, Lady Mary, and the hero, Matthew, middle-class accidental heir to a title and fortune, are still estranged.
She listened to one too many mighty-hatted mastodons, and fatally dithered before accepting his proposal waiting to find out whether his inheritance was secure or not. It was, but he was too proud to give her a second chance, and both are now hooked up with inappropriate alternative squeezes, but convincing nobody, save each other, that it couldn't matter less.
If there's a theme to this programme, it's that honour is a very fine thing but it sure as hell isn't its own reward. Honour was a very important principle to live by in this era, but from a modern viewpoint, it's often hard to distinguish from cutting one's nose off to spite one's face.
In fact, when the evil butler Thomas deliberately courts a German bullet so as to be sent home from the Somme, his strategy of getting one's fingers shot off to spite one's hand seems a reasonable alternative to acting honourably.
The honourable of Downton of whom there are many are repeatedly punished and made miserable, while the poorly behaved are only sporadically brought to book.
As we rejoin the family, Matthew is commanding troops against the Hun from muddy, bloody tunnels and trenches in France, but during time off in England has found himself a new fiancee, Lavinia nice enough, in a milk-and-water sort of way, but no substitute for the dark and daring Mary. Or, as Dowager Countess Violet sniffs: "Looks aren't everything, I suppose."
But there is hope. There are portents, if only from the jaundiced eye of Violet, the alpha mastodon, that the new fiancee is a tarty little gold-digger underneath. Wouldn't that be something to look forward to? But meanwhile the veneer of honour must be maintained at high lustre, and Lavinia seems all pink and white virtue.
We've yet to meet Lady Mary's new chap, but she has taken the shrewd precaution of choosing the heir to a newspaper fortune a provenance that even the supremely honourable and tolerant Lord Grantham finds quite beyond the pale. (There's no denying that this show, despite its meticulous period detail, has a modern sensibility.)
Downstairs, Cupid is being thwarted by the return of the inconvenient wife.
Bates, the valet and former distinguished soldier, once married, as we learned last series, a thieving shrew called Vera who flogged the regimental silver. A slave to the H-word, he took the fall for it and went to prison, even though his comrades knew he hadn't dunnit.
Now that his mother has died and left him some modest property, he expects to be able to "buy" the shrew's co-operation in a divorce, so he can marry lovely Anna the maid. But no. Mrs Bates turns up with a different ultimatum: he will return to her forthwith as a husband of modest property or she will go to the newspapers with the story of Lady Mary's scandalous affair with the Turkish nobleman from last season.
Here, it is beginning to be possible to develop a little impatience with the almost masochistic subservience to honour that Bates displays. Hasn't he had enough smug martyrdom already? Still in his heart the loyal Boer War batman to Lord Grantham, he decides to protect the household's good name, at the expense of his and Anna's happiness.
But again, there is a glimmer of hope. The wily housekeeper Mrs Hughes makes sure to eavesdrop on the appalling Mrs Bates' interview with her husband, and reports back on the ugly blackmail threat to His Lordship. Surely, we imagine, Something Can Be Done.
As before, the housekeeper and butler are at least as in control of the stately home and its inmates as the earl and countess probably more so. But a new and fascinating dimension is the depiction of the conduct of World War I, with its peculiar "working abroad" flavour. The men get sent to hell in the trenches, but are also regularly ferried back to Britain, where, aside from extra charity knitting and an increasing shortage of male labour, life goes on as usual. Life, and parties.
So it is that, having dodged bullets and bayonets, Matthew is able to hobnob in London society and take a surprisingly full part in Downton intrigue, before being sent back to risk his life and live worse than a rat again.
Another new feature is the potentially terrifying alliance growing between the Dowager Countess Violet and Matthew's mulishly sanctimonious mother Isabel. At entertaining loggerheads last season, we can now see them subtly scoping the prospects for world domination by combining their mighty forces.
However, doubtless Violet (Maggie Smith) continues to get all the best lines. There are a few off-moments, such as when the vile Vera taunts Bates with the suspiciously modern phrase, "As if!" And it's nearly incredible that everyone seems to know about Lady Mary's indiscretion with the Turk except for Lord Grantham. Also, Thomas' injury trick brandishing a lit cigarette lighter above the trenches to attract a Jerry bullet was just a bit slick. Realistically, he would have got his whole hand shot off and bled to death or died of resultant infection.
In its sprightly balance of goodies and baddies, warm fuzzy moments and terrible disappointments, payoffs and cliffhangers, Downton Abbey is still one of the most cleverly plotted, scripted and cast drama series ever.
And while Violet may be right that looks aren't everything, the sumptuous costuming and art direction go an awfully long way.
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- The Dominion Post