It’s going to get better, but the first outing for Downtown Abbey (ITV1 Sunday) had too many intrusive ghosts whispering along the corridors. Ghosts of the early 1970s Upstairs, Downstairs (London Weekend, reruns now on ITV), with Gordon Jackson as the perpetually anxious Scots butler, and the staff, neurotically observant of status, at once protected by the house they serve and oppressed by it.
Ghosts too from the film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1993), where the housekeeper develops a tenderness for the butler, as seems to be happening in Downtown Abbey. And ghosts from Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park, where Maggie Smith is the hideous Countess of Trentham; here she plays the merely reactionary Dowager Countess of Grantham. She is a ham in both – in Park beautifully, in Abbey more obviously, the script too emphatic in underlining her snobbery.
Yet Julian Fellowes did the scripts for both: indeed, all these class-based dramas had classy writers. Fay Weldon wrote for Upstairs, Downstairs and Harold Pinter had the first pass at Remains of the Day, but when the Merchant-Ivory duo who produced the film rewrote it, he took his name off the credits.
At the centre of Downtown Abbey’s action, which will sustain it throughout, is the awkward fact that Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has three daughters by his American wife: his estate and her wealth can only pass to a male heir. The series opens with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, in which that heir, a close relative, perishes; next in line is a far-removed cousin, a young, middle-class solicitor. The dowager and Grantham’s wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), unnatural allies, agree to fight this – the first prompted by disgust that a mere bourgeois should pollute Downtown Abbey, the second by a plutocratic early American feminism, determined to put spine into Lord Grantham, who wishes merely to cede gracefully.
Below stairs, the servants are disciplined into proper subservience and respect by butler Carson (Jim Carter) and housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan); as in Gosford Park, the contrasts between them – dignified, batty, ruthless, comic, sinister, independent-minded – play out against a common imaginative life populated by the handful of nobles they serve.
That vicarious life is an early, richer version of the contemporary, more promiscuous, habit of living through celebrities. One of Fellowes’ writing strengths is to show how much the daily soap opera of nobility, in which they have walk-on parts, frames the servants’ thoughts, narrows their horizons and cements their loyalty – a loyalty as much to their own inner narratives as to their outward duties. The quiet dissenter, the lame valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), preserves independence by a refusal to succumb to the narcotic of others’ lovelier lives.
There is nothing here – at least not yet – to match the moving moment in Gosford Park when the servants, peeping through the door, dance in hushed delight in an antechamber to the piano playing of Ivor Novello, a guest for the weekend; or, in Remains of the Day, the intensity of the blind absorption of butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) in his professional duties, serving one who turns out to be a noble English fascist. But Downtown Abbey has a sturdy dramatic motor in the issue of the succession, fired up early.
Iraq remains, as it should, somewhere near the centre of our political life, even if Britain has cut and run from the country, leaving the decisions to the easily blamed Americans. Secret Iraq (BBC2 Wednesday) is a jarring and horribly fascinating two-part reminder of the horrors of the post-invasion jihadist upsurge, with interviews taken from men who remain proud to have organised the slaughter of American and British personnel. It’s a shame that the programme shares the shallow approach to the matter taken by the new leader of the Labour party – portraying the grim (and continuing) struggle as a mere Anglo-American mistake, assuming an active lack of interest in the acute (and continuing) danger posed by dictatorships that seek weapons of mass destruction.
Among other beginnings this past week, another two-parter, Inspector George Gently (BBC1 Sunday), shows the well-named officer uncovering a many-layered family gone rotten, as violence, incest, revenge and murder compost themselves into a reeking mass. Gently unpicks it with delicacy – and the tolerance of a little 1960s beat-it-out-of-them torture (as it would now be called).
Whites (BBC2 Tuesday) promises to be a wonderfully funny sitcom built round a celebrity chef (Alan Davies), his garrulously slavish deputy, an aggressively ambitious assistant and a dizzy waitress with a great talent for non sequiturs. Its makers probably didn’t know it would debut as the channels are clotted with the “real” thing – Master Chef: The Professionals (BBC2 Monday-Wednesday), Jamie’s American Food Revolution (C4 Monday), Ramsay’s Best Restaurant (C4 Tuesday) Food (C4 Wednesday) Nigella Kitchen (BBC2 Thursday) and Come Dine with Me (C4 Friday). It offers a welcome sardonic commentary on them, even if Davies’s wit and timing could never prick the towering banality and pomposity of the rebarbative restaurateurs. But somebody must like them.
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd