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Down with Downton Abbey

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There's a bit of a hoo-ha over alleged plagiarism in the runaway successful Downton Abbey on Sunday night television. Viewers have claimed that author Julian (Gosford Park) Fellowes has lifted scenes from Little Women and Mrs Miniver.

In last Sunday's episode, Maggie Smith as the acerbic dowager and monstre more sacre than saccharine passed over her nomination as the winner of a flower competition in favour of a loyal old gardener.

That echoed a scene from William Wyler's 1942 movie starring Greer Garson, while the Little Women incident was spotted in a scene where the dessert was sprinkled with salt instead of sugar.

There has also been plenty of adverse comment about anachronisms in speech and expressions, all of which have left Fellowes depressed (despite being already commissioned to write a second series) and fulminating about "permanent negative nit-picking from the Left."

What no-one that I've read has commented on is the automatic way the show is composed, in twelve-minute gobbets to fit inside the advertising on ITV, so that you get a little cliff-hanger every few minutes. This is both immensely skilful of Fellowes and enormously undramatic, or at least, not what you'd call proper writing.

Nor is it very witty. Dame Maggie seems to be discarding her lumpen lines like so many irritating bugs that have materialised in her vast, Queen Mary-like costumes.

But Downton Abbey is what passes for "drama" on television these days, and where we see actors as good as Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter and Dame Maggie more or less wasting their time while earning good money.

The BBC's attitude to drama gets more perplexing by the week. The afternoon play on Radio 4 is now having to compete with a fortnight of new 45-minute plays on BBC 1, which seem to be themed around overtly social issues.

Thus, in the first one on Monday, Anna Massey played an Alzheimer's victim making it very hard for her divorced daughter, played by Susannah Harker, to take a holiday.

And yesterday, Claire Skinner gave a wonderful peformance as a childless youth community leader who is miraculously delivered of a baby of her own. There was much more in this role than Claire is able to find as Simon Russell Beale's wife in Deathtrap, though the level of writing is not much higher than Julian Fellowes'.     

And you can hear how good an actor Hugh Bonneville is -- as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey he simply pulls faces and behaves boorishly -- on Radio 4, where this week he is reading the letters of Philip Larkin to Monica Jones as the Book of the Week. You can almost hear the relish with which he has fallen on writing that is sharp, funny and full of flavour.

Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, just round the corner from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Court. Another fine old house, South Pavilion in Wotton Underwood, Buckinghamshire, has also been in the news this week.

The property, which was once owned by the historian Arthur Bryant and then by John Gielgud, has unfortunately now fallen into the vulgarian hands of Tony and Cherie Blair, who are planning to add on a steel and glass sports pavilion. 

At first, their plans were brought to a standstill by irate neighbours, the parish council and English Heritage. The Blairs have already levered in an all-weather tennis court and a gymnasium; now they want to add on what one critic has described as "a glorified bus shelter."

They have re-thought their plans and are now seeking to mollify everyone with a 91-page document justifying their barbarian proposals.

One almost wishes the dread Fellowes had alighted on South Pavilion, instead of Highclere, for his television Sunday night Horlicks serial. And he could have cast the Blairs as a pair of arriviste commoners with no sense of history, culture or even good taste.That would have given Maggie Smith something to get her teeth into.


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