Sunday, 23 September 2012

Review: Downton Abbey season three opener

My review for the Sunday Express...
WELCOME to “austerity” Downton Abbey (ITV1, Sunday). Who would have thought it possible? I really wanted to take a picture of the Earl of Grantham’s face when he discovered that his investments had gone belly up. It must have seemed a sure bet for dear Robert (Hugh Bonneville). He had invested all of Cora’s inheritance in the “Canadian Grand Trunk Line”, which appears to have been run by Thomas The Tank Engine.
This was ITV’s way of making us think that aristocrats are just like you and me. Toffs can have hard times, too. After all, writer Julian Fellowes is a sympathetic type and will have thought this through. Fellowes also knows how to bring a character through the Spanish Flu, with miraculous results.
The odd thing about this storyline is that of course the stock market crash didn’t come until 1929. In the world of Downton it has started in 1920. Fellowes has managed to deepen The Depression by nine years, so we’re clearly set for difficult times. The soup course might even be threatened.
Should it get worse Robert will be selling the Big Issue, Cora will be taking in ironing, and the Dowager and Carson will form a duo to busk their way around the villages of North Yorkshire.
There’s little doubt that, in plot terms, Downton has come to a shuddering halt.
 At the end of the episode, Matthew and Mary had made it to the altar, Branson had been taken in by the Crawleys and a shockingly tall footman had arrived. Downton is taking a breather if you like.
The writing is still terribly good with more crisp one-liners from grand dame Maggie Smith. “He’s still dressed as the man from the Prudential,” she said of Branson, the former chauffeur. Incidentally, I didn’t know that Dowagers opened the door to such types.
By far the funniest storyline involved Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst). The latter has the advantage of many years over the young lady.
The former has the advantage of four sound limbs. We don’t know what other physical disadvantages Strallan may be hiding. We can only hope for a full account of the honeymoon from Mr Fellowes.
I predict Edith will soon be back on the tractors and thinking fondly again of her near roll in the hay with the estate farmer.
There was blood on the kitchen floor in The Great British Bake-Off (BBC2, Tuesday). This is a fabulous series, with two fine judges in Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, and a bunch of wonderfully jittery contestants.
It’s genius to train cameras on what can be such a delicate and precise form of cooking, and set them against the clock. It is drama all the way, not least last week. It’s also the only cooking competition in which you want to jump into the television and start eating.
In the episode, contestant Paul, who’s a half decent “baker”, discovered that it’s impossible to stop a food mixer with your middle finger. Bravely, he pressed on, holding the injured digit in the air while he tried to knead a strudel. Oh, the brave sacrifices of modern man.
His namesake, Hollywood, was on splendid form throughout. “You might as well be chewing on a bit of card,” he said of one failed concoction. This man would find something wrong with boiled water.
Personally I can’t wait for him to take apart contestant Ryan, who said of the judges: “They wanted to give me a good kicking for putting in two raising agents.” Quite right. Do you know anything man?
Does anyone know anything about economics? Of course not but it didn’t stop me watching the excellent Masters Of Money (BBC2, Monday).
Stephanie Flanders, a BBC bean counter correspondent, told us everything we need to know about John Maynard Keynes, a “celebrity” economist who’s associated with pouring money into the economy so people can have jobs.
Silly thought really.
He turned out to be a mass of contradictions. Previously I had the impression he was something of a socialist but Flanders painted the portrait of a man who was up early every morning trying to understand stock market movements. He succeeded and made a fortune.
His famous phrase for economies in our shape was that we are dealing with “low animal spirits”. He doesn’t know the half of it.

THE MOST uplifting programme of the week was the inspirational The Choir: Sing While You Work (BBC2, Thursday). We know Gareth Malone is a gifted chap but he has surpassed himself in this series.
His first challenge was the NHS hospital in Lewisham, in south London. “Can’t sing” is no excuse for Malone, nor is “can’t do emotion” it seems.
He was particularly intent on making the two senior doctors in the choir give the appearance that they had soul. It was there somewhere but it was buried under layers of calm and years of bedside manner. Especially the surgeon who described himself as a “posh plumber”. Without the call-out obviously.
Malone had better luck with speech therapist Natalie who developed a wonderful voice at the same time as revealing her own daughter was deaf. She was chosen for the solo by Malone, which she belted out in a rendition of Everybody Hurts. Sung in the A&E department! It was wonderful, heart-warming television.
If it were possible for the country to sing its way out of recession, Gareth Malone would be our man. A (junior) national treasure.