Dusting off the costumes


TV REVIEW:  Downton AbbeyUTV, Sunday WhitesBBC2, Tuesday Panorama: The Secrets of ScientologyBBC1, Tuesday The HomeRTÉ1, Tuesday

WITH SUCH gorgeous-looking escapism on offer, it’s little wonder the viewing figures for Downton Abbey were stratospheric. Nearly eight million tuned in on Sunday to be transported (the opening shot was of a steam train puffing through bucolic English countryside) back to 1912 and the astonishingly huge home of the Grantham family. Beautiful velvet costumes, lush interiors, posh types and hard-working underlings – and the fabulous Maggie Smith, who’s usually hardly ever on the TV unless it’s Christmas and there’s a Harry Potter movie on.

Written by Julian Fellowes, who wrote Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning Gosford Park, the megabucks ITV series is pretty much Gosford Parkin weekly instalments – with a touch of Upstairs, Downstairsthrown in. Landed gentry governed by a rigid social code upstairs who can only function because downstairs there’s an army of servants, with their own strict hierarchy, slogging away. And there are hints that this finely balanced social order is about to change.

Smith plays the dowager countess of Grantham, who is of course a wasp-tongued, hatched-faced snob – and that’s the other lazy attraction of tuning in: it’s so full of costume-drama types that there’s none of the brain strain of working out a character’s motivation or place in the narrative. Predictable sorts include the three idle daughters, including, of course, a plain one, who must find husbands; a well-upholstered head housekeeper in unspoken and doomed love with the sexually repressed head butler; fortune hunters; a gay footman (distractingly played by Liam from Corrie) hoping that one of the floppy-haired toffs will rescue him from drudgery; and a wide-eyed junior housemaid who sees everything but knows nothing.

The only surprises in terms of character are the earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who’s not your usual dim aristo, being both decent and a little melancholy, and his American wife (Elizabeth McGovern), who he married for her money to save the then-impoverished estate. Setting up the plot – Grantham’s cousin, the heir to Downton Abbey, has gone down with the Titanic, and unless Grantham challenges the entail on the estate he’ll lose all to the next male heir – took some time and left little screen room for Maggie Smith and her hilarious snobbery, but that changes from episode two on.

The BBC is remaking Upstairs, Downstairs– more gorgeous escapism to look forward to without the astonishing number of ads that very nearly spoiled the first episode of Downton Abbey.

THE PERIOD DRAMA lived up to the considerable pre-broadcast hype, while Whites, the BBC’s new sitcom, arrived on screen with little pre-publicity – always a little suspicious, especially as it stars the BBC regular Alan Davies. Set in the kitchen of an upmarket hotel, Davies plays Roland White, an ambitious chef in the throes of a midlife crisis, dreaming of celebrity, a Michelin star and a cookbook deal. Instead of working the lunch shift he’s in his office, coming up with titles – An Offaly Big Adventure being the funniest. (Offal, geddit? Oh dear, if you have to explain . . .)

Davies’s last big TV drama role was as the eccentric sleuth Jonathan Creek, and he’d do well to solve the mystery of why nobody bothered including a few decent jokes in the script and why it was all sit and very little com. We’re all so up to speed on life in a professional kitchen (thank you Masterchef et al), I suspect no one shouts “dinner’s ready” at home these days when barking “service!” is so much more authentic. The cheffy action in Whiteslooked real, apart from the trainee who kept dropping things, presumably for comic effect.

Davies’s co-star is the hilarious Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd, and Peep Show’s Isy Suttie is the kooky waitress, so this has the comedy credentials. Maybe it’s a slow cooker. Worth a look next week, anyway.

GOING BACKfor a second helping and relishing the dish that’s best served cold was Panorama’s John Sweeney, who in 2007 made a holy show of himself while making a documentary on Scientology. Then, the normally calm investigative reporter lost his temper and shouted with such in-your-face abandon at the Scientology spokesman that it became a YouTube sensation. This Panoramadocumentary was his revenge, and his ammunition was Mike Rinder, one of the spokespeople who had so thwarted him the last time but who has since left Scientology and is willing to spill the beans – sort of. All that Sweeney really got out of him and the others he spoke to who have left Scientology was that Sweeney wasn’t being paranoid in 2007 – he really was being followed by Scientologists who filmed his every move. Furthermore, they developed (obviously excellent) psychological strategies to make him lose his temper so that he’d look ridiculous.

The Church of Scientology still denied everything, of course, although this time the surveillance was obvious. Everywhere Sweeney went, so did several camera-carrying Scientologists. So far so creepy; this bizarre behaviour added weight to Sweeney’s contention that this is a brainwashing cult, not a religion. He talked to the actor Jason Bighe – Scientology is big in Hollywood – who had given over €1 million to the organisation but has now left it. Sweeney asked if he thought it was “a cult or a racket”. “They’re not mutually exclusive,” Bighe said.

By the end I don’t know if it was the swanky headquarters, the celeb converts, the fact that it was sunny everywhere he went or that everyone looked handsome in a clean, toothy Tom Cruise sort of way, but Scientology looked quite attractive – that’s if you don’t mind having your thoughts “audited” by an “E-meter”, a gizmo Captain Kirk might have had in his drawer, and paying a fortune to rise up through the ranks and make yourself believe in Xenu and his intergalactic confederacy that existed 75 million years ago. At least you get to live for a billion years or more, which is about how long we’ll be paying for Anglo Irish Bank.

RTÉ SCHEDULESwere dominated by its Coming of Ageseason of programmes, made to coincide with Age Action’s Positive Ageing Week. What’s with the season’s title, though? Isn’t it a bit patronising, or just silly, given that all the people featured “came of age” more than 50 years ago? And what was the story with the logo, a set of children’s building blocks? Alan Gilsenan’s documentary The Home(part two is next week) explored a day in the life of St Monica’s, an old people’s home in north inner Dublin. The film was beautiful to look at, though maybe occasionally overly self-conscious in terms of lingering shots and moody lighting. I wonder, though, if the people with dementia would have liked being filmed, had they understood what was going on.

While this home looked good and well-run, the people who lived there seemed happy, and Gilsenan lined up some great talkers, it struck a different tone from the others in the Coming of Ageseries. The interviewees emphasised the positive aspects of growing old, but, for me anyway – and Gilsenan’s skill is that his documentaries are so heartfelt they elicit a personal response – watching the Alzheimer patients and the once-independent people living in a home, it was difficult to find a single positive about being old and infirm – except perhaps that the alternative isn’t so great either.

And the winner isn’t . . . Model behaviour at botched announcement

It’s safe to say that Sarah Murdoch has had a bad week. On Tuesday the glamorous host of Australia’s Next Top Modeldid what every TV presenter of a live game show has 3am cold sweats about: she announced the wrong winner. As the two finalists stood waiting, she named Kelsey Martinovich (centre) the winner, and, as the crowd went wild, the 19-year-old embarked on a long and excited thank-you speech. Then the smile on Murdoch’s face disappeared, and you just you knew she was hearing something awful in her earpiece. She then announced that the actual winner, as voted by television viewers, was in fact 18-year-old Amanda Ware (left). Kelsey was gracious, Amanda thrilled and Murdoch apologetic.

Rumours of a publicity stunt were quickly scotched (though it was season six of a tired-looking reality franchise, so who’d blame them?) and Murdoch went on Australian TV claiming that when the moment came to announce the winner, her earpiece went dead and she just winged it. The P45 is unlikely to be in the post: daddy-in-law Rupert owns the network.