Downturned Downton? Shirley you can't be serious

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

TV REVIEW:LOSING A FORTUNE on shares, unemployment, the house at risk, a shouty Sinn Féin bloke arguing his listeners into demented submission. No, not your average current-affairs programme but Downton Abbey (UTV, Sunday), which returned laden with doom, gloom and endless exposition for the two or three people in the telly-watching world who don’t know what’s been happening.

Time has moved on. It’s 1920, so there are a lot of bicycles and cars pootering around, and Marcel wave hairstyles and shift dresses, but things are pretty much the same. Actually, they’re weirdly the same in the big house.

Money magnet Matthew has once again been bequeathed a fortune that might just save Downton – just like at the start of the first series, although this time Lord Grantham has lost his wife Cora’s fortune (“don’t worry, dear,” she soothed in her peculiar remote way, like a woman tranquillised up to her eyeballs) and there’s a new character, a big lump of a blond footman, to replace the big lump of a blond footman who died. But Edith is still making eyes at Lord Drippy Whatshisname, who’s proving so resistant to her brazen advances (Julian Fellowes, Downton’s writer, must be keeping him for some shenanigans with Thomas the butler).

The beauty of the family, Sybil, has come back from Ireland for Matthew and Mary’s wedding with her husband, the chauffeur turned journalist (and shouty republican) Branson. “He’s still dressed like the man from the Prudential,” said Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith), who had more than her share of clunky dialogue.

The below-stairs action centred on Bates, who is still in prison. I wish they’d leave him there. There are far too many repetitive, boring scenes of Anna visiting him, her little eyes shining, and swearing she’ll have him sprung before the series ends. She didn’t actually put it like that, but you can see it’s coming.

It was a feature-length opener, which just meant a long wait – worth it, though – for the arrival of Shirley MacLaine, as Cora’s American mother. Her smooth little Hollywood-old face peeked out from between swathes of fur, and in the most enjoyable scenes in the episode she and Maggie Smith batted some highly improbable dialogue back and forth on how tradition-bound the English are compared with the thrusting, modern New World.

As long as these two are in it, and Fellowes can come up with a decent plot to carry this series through to the end – though there wasn’t a whiff of one in the first episode – it’ll be worth watching. The posh soap is still ideal Sunday-night fare.

MORE POSH FOLKin Antiques to the Rescue (BBC Two, Wednesday): the Kavanaghs, in their huge stately home, Borris House, in Co Carlow, which needs lashings of cash to maintain. These are people whose concerns are not like yours and mine: they’ve had to abandon the crumbling nursery wing of their 50-room house, and their chapel has been giving them problems.

It costs €200,000 just to keep Borris House ticking over every year. The idea for this new series is an uneasy mix of all those big-house restoration programmes and (the pleasantly addictive) Cash in the Attic, a BBC programme you probably won’t admit to having seen, because it’ll mean owning up to lounging in front of the TV in the afternoon even when there’s no medical reason for it. In it, an antiques expert rummages around someone’s house, usually a bungalow in Clacton or somewhere similar, finding bits and bobs that will fetch cash at auction. The homeowners are usually thrilled to make a couple of hundred quid to realise their dream of a weekend in Bognor or a new tuba for their grandson. In this series the affable Antiques Roadshow expert John Foster does the same sort of rummaging but this time in a big house, with money going towards a restoration project.

The Kavanaghs wanted to make more than €20,000 to turn the laundry building into a visitor centre, but a curmudgeonly Morgan Kavanagh refused to sell most of the items Foster wanted to auction, which wasn’t exactly in the spirit of this awkward mishmash of a programme. Nearly everything Foster spied, the couple were either “loath to sell” or considered “intrinsic to the house”. It all looked unpleasantly tense. “They you’re going to have to let something go,” remarked Foster quite sharply.

And when Kavanagh did let something go he thought it was worth more than the expert advised, from Great Granny’s chipped china – “I couldn’t let it go for €1,500” – to the gun his parents gave him for his 21st. A gun? Really, the landed rich are different.

Foster did get some stuff to auction, and he got more than €20,000 for them, but the Kavanaghs – Morgan and his wife, Sara – still seemed too grumpy and distant for a viewer to root for them, and money they earned is obviously too little in their grand scheme of things. “Morgan can be frustrating to deal with,” said Foster as he left – code, one imagines, for, “If I never see Borris House again it’ll be too soon.”

IN REALITY BITES: GAY DADDY(RTÉ Two, Tuesday) the journalist and stylist Darren Kennedy was on an honest, engaging and informative quest to discover whether he should have a child with Aidan, his partner of 10 years. He was advised by his own, very sensible not-gay daddy that “the thought process would have to be much longer than ‘I fancy a kid’ just because you see other people with them.”

Kennedy visited gay daddies, including a couple who adopted and others who fostered. He found them living ordinary lives, doing the everyday things every parent does. To a man, they put the emphasis on parenting. “You’re not a gay parent, you’re a parent,” one said. It was all very positive.

He looked at the ways of actually producing a child. It would take a ream of paper to describe how loathsome was the patter of the owner of a UK surrogate agency. “We took him out the freezer and defrosted him and popped him into the uterus of another woman,” he said of the in-vitro process that produced his own son before showing Kennedy the choice of surrogates. “Do you want a plain Jane or sallow skin? This one’s a model.”

The reality check came when Kennedy visited a lawyer who explained that, in Ireland, surrogacy and coparenting leave the child and gay parents in a precarious position.

“There’s no legal framework for a gay man and a child in this situation,” he concluded. “We need the legal framework to reflect society.”

Get stuck into . . .JK Rowling – Writing for Grown-Ups: A Culture Show Special (Wednesday, BBC Two) features an interview with the notoriously private writer the night before her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, hits bookshops.

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