Let me be possibly the last person commenting on TV to say something about Downton Abbey. The truth is I didn’t watch first series because there was something better on the other side (BBC 1). There is again this autumn because Kudos Productions’ Spooks is showing on BBC 1 at 9pm on Sundays and Stephen Fry is doing a programme about language at exactly the same time on BBC 2 so I’m spending my time catching up with those things on the iPlayer.
But Downton Abbey suits me, as it does roughly 9 million other people, on a Sunday night when I’m in the mood for its sense of history and nostalgia, sweeping gowns and brocaded drawing rooms.
I do keep catching my shins on the language though, like so many commentators before me. In one of the first episodes of this second series I was moved to look up the use of “chuck it away” when lady Sybil was learning how to cook and ruined some kind of sauce. It just jarred, but our shorter Oxford English dictionary does say the word chuck was probably used by workmen to mean throw or toss as early as 1593. God, it’s hard being a pedant on a Sunday night. Last week I tripped up over someone, the Countess of Grantham or lady Mary, asking “So what?” in conversation. ‘Humpf’, I splutter into my hot chocolate. ‘They wouldn’t have said that in 1916.’
You only have to look at this Christmas speech by our present Queen, the first televised Christmas message shown in 1957, and compare it to last year’s delivery to see how speech patterns have changed, even among the very posh. What we’re getting in Downton isn’t a true reflection of how people spoke at the beginning of the 20th century.
But of course true authenticity has no place on TV and almost certainly none in Sunday night ITV drama. If the actors in Downton Abbey delivered dialogue as people in country houses actually spoke at the turn of the century no one would be watching. TV audiences want a reflection of how they see the past and certain people of the past more, in fact, than they want the reality. The reality would be a bunch of very dull black and white films. Downton Abbey is colourful, beautiful to look at, moves along at a decent pace and just very easy to watch on Sunday evenings.
Spooks, meanwhile, is another matter. Thank goodness for the iPlayer; if only I could watch it on my TV and not my laptop.