Television: Gobby shrews and dodgy dialogue as Downton bows out blandly

‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Reality Bites: Born Addicted’, ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’

Servant class: Phyllis Logan and Lesley Nicol display some comic spark in the final series of Downtown Abbey

Servant class: Phyllis Logan and Lesley Nicol display some comic spark in the final series of Downtown Abbey


So Downton Abbey (UTV, Sunday; TV3 Tuesday), which is back for its sixth series, has turned into Acorn Antiques, that inspired 1980s soap opera parody by Victoria Wood and Julie Walters. On the evidence of the first episode, writer Julian Fellowes intends this final run to be a knowing spoof on the upstairs downstairs period drama.

The proof is everywhere. There’s the moment when the central-casting bobby comes in to tell Mr Bates and Anna that the real murderer of dastardly Mr Green has come forward. Just like that, even though we’ve suffered two seasons of that dreary and implausible plot, with its “will Anna hang” (oh get on with it) cliffhanger. Then there is the blatant recycling of a storyline from an earlier series – Dowager Grantham and Cousin Isobel go to battle over the local hospital – which no viewer could possibly care about.

In the best subplot of the episode, Mrs Patmore has to intervene on Mrs Hughes’s behalf to clarify Mr Carson’s post-wedding intentions in the bedroom department. These are terrific comic scenes, but ones where all three have to act entirely out of character.

And then there is the common-as-muck scouser (Downtown tends to portrays urban working-class women as gobby shrews) who stomps around the house in a foretaste of what will happen to these vast piles once the toffs are too poor to run them and must open them to all-comers.

The scouser tries to blackmail Lady Mary, who is now is so wooden that only her eyebrows move. Yet somehow Lord Grantham, on hearing how his daughter signed her real name to the hotel registry when she was having it away with Tony Gillingham, can see that yes, she is the right person to manage the estate. And the dialogue repeatedly invites you to spot anachronistic howlers, such as when Danker, the sly lady’s maid, channels Doris Day with her “que sera, sera”.

Downton’s first two series were terrific. Then it became a fabulously good-looking but deeply repetitive (“Everything is changing,” says everyone, all of the time) shadow of its sparkling self. Now it’s just silly. I can’t not watch it, though.

The new Reality Bites strand (RTÉ2, Thursday is good on arresting titles, and Born Addicted fits the bill. An observational, intimate film, it tells the stories through personal interviews with a number of Dublin women who have given birth while on opiates, and a man whose mother was a heroin addict when he was born.

The opiates weren’t as might be expected: the women take methadone, supplied by the State, as a way to treat their heroin addiction. They explain how the daily maintenance doses of methadone allow them to live what look to be ordinary, settled lives.

One woman, a longtime methadone user, gives birth to her seventh child during the making of the documentary. He is born premature, as most babies to addicted mothers are, but luckily doesn’t have to go through withdrawal. She stays with him in the Rotunda for five days to make sure he’s drug free.

The intensive care nurse explains what withdrawal is like – basically, it is horrifically painful for the tiny baby. This raises questions, unexplored in this film, about methadone as a long-term treatment for addiction,about protecting the unborn, and about where that fits with our national drugs policy.

All the mothers come across as intensely vulnerable. This imposes an additional layer of responsibility on the film-makers, whose sensitive interviews look to be the result of a solid trust-building process.

I wonder, though, about the editorial decisions made around the searingly honest interview with the woman who was born to an addict mother. As a toddler she had to be detoxed from the alcohol and drugs put in her bottle. She went on to become a heroin addict working as a prostitute to feed her addiction.

Now on methadone and a mother to a 12-year-old-girl, and while clearly fragile, she has turned her life around. But her daughter is on camera in their home, easily identified. It seems an unnecessary intrusion into the child’s life.

If Fr Jack had been wheeled into the middle of the Tonight with Vincent Browne (TV3) set on Monday, red-faced and dribbling, shouting “drink, feck, girls”, he would have fitted right in to the mood of the bizarre show. Which is not something you should ever be able to say about the flagship current affairs programme on a national broadcaster.

Browne’s team decamped from Dublin to be close to the National Ploughing Championships, so of course the broadcast focuses on farming and rural life. A gloomy, hollow-sounding hotel function room serves as a studio.

The audience of 25 or so soon have that soul-sapped look of an A&E waiting room at 4am. They don’t get to contribute much, though two men sitting behind Browne attract attention without speaking. One sports a tweed hat festooned with badges and a dashingly eccentric Tricolour cravat; the other is dressed as Elvis.

Browne sits at a high round table on the dance floor. There are four panellists: politicians Éamon Ó Cuív (Fianna Fáil) and Michael McNamara (Labour), and two farming folk who don’t get much of a look in.

In his own distinctive way, Browne tees up an agricultural/current affairs-related question: “Putting one of his private parts into the mouth of a dead pig!” (One? Does Browne know something about David Cameron). “That would never have happened to a Fianna Fáil leader.”

“Never,” agrees Ó Cuív gamely.

“Did you ever put your private part into the mouth of a dead pig?” Browne then asks McNamara.

“How do you expect me to respond to that,” answers the Clare TD with the look of a politician revising his media policy. Television offer vital electoral visibility, but sometimes the price is just too high.

After some discussion on country living and related matters, apropos of nothing Browne gets on to what he’s clearly been itching to talk about all night and embarks on a lengthy diatribe about the Fennelly Commission. It’s a real grandstanding performance, but really boring television. The audience look blank. The politicians refuse to engage because they came to talk farming. Browne sighs many times.

Then there’s a “hands up who wants to repeal the Eighth Amendment”. Elvis votes for change.

Ones to watch Wexford thriller, west Cork location

The new four-part Irish drama Clean Break (RTÉ One, Sunday) centres on a tiger kidnapping in a small town that may or may not be Wexford (it’s written by Wexford playwright Billy Roche). A used car salesman and single dad (Adam Fergus, right) is in deep debt. His solution is to put together a gang to kidnap the wife and child of his smug bank manager for ransom. What could possibly go wrong?

In Hollywood in Éirinn (TG4, Sunday), actor Denis Conway looks at what happened in local communities when international film-makers rumble into town. For the first in the four-part series, Conway heads to west Cork and the Gaelacht village of Cúil Aodha, which was taken over by director Ken Loach for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in the summer of 2005.

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