Tuesday, February 10, 2015

TV Watch: Keeping up with "Downton Abbey" and "Grantchester" -- without flashing back to "Foyle's War" or ahead to "Better Call Saul"


Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas Barrow, talks about the fateful plotline for him which came to a climax in this past week's episode, No. 6 of Series 5.

by Ken

I hadn't intended to return, or at least not so soon, to Downton Abbey, and specifically the potent plotline of the life-threatening treatments self-adminstered by the famously, gloriously evil under-butler, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), by means of which he means to purge himself of his deadly but uncontrollable sexual attraction to men.

And I don't think I'm being overlly dramatic in describing those urges as "deadly." The series, remember began in 1912, and in Series 5 we're still in 1924. We've already seen Thomas's life come crashing down around him when he foolishly let his guard down in Series 3, and came perilously close to being prosecuted (remember, that short of behavior remained legally criminal for decades after the story takes place) or at the very least losing his place in the Downton household, with exceedingly dim reemployment prospects if he'd been given the ax.

If anything, Downton Abbey creator and mastermind Julian Fellowes has been awfully generous in peopling his cast of characters with people more tolerant of the abereration that afflicts Thomas than we might expect to encounter in 1924 Yorkshire. But then, the Crawleys are nice people, and tend to attract and associate with nice people.

As I said, I hadn't planned to return to the subject, even though this very week Thomas's precipitous health decline came to a climax, which was once again handled in, I thought, most sensitive fashion. Thomas himself finally acknowledged to himself the desperateness of his health, and having nowhere else to turn, literally begged his onetime spy-turned-nemesis (at least in his mind) Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), whom he himself brought into the house when Lady Grantham was in urgent need of a new lady's maid.

Baxter has been shown to us to be an exceptionally nice and kind person, with precious little to show for her niceness and kindness, and with her once, unfortunately large lapse from niceness and kindness being known, alas, to Thomas, who used it to blackmail her into doing his bidding -- until she managed to escape from under. At which point she became, in his mind, his enemy. I suspect that Thomas is especially discombobulated by niceness and kindness, which are incomprehensible in his world of dog-eat-dog viciousness, except as a weakness to be exploited as ruthlessly as he can manage.

It was especially fitting, then, that it was Baxter who first realized what Thomas was doing to himself and why, and with what deadly effect, and who reached out to him, urging him to stop it and offering her help in any way she could. Partly because he was in denial himself, and partly because he had trained himself so resolutely lo stand firm against the encroachment of seeming kindness, his response was disimissive and caustic. But when panic finally overtook him, having as I said nowhere else to turn, he threw himself at her mercy -- but at the same time, it seemed clear, had no real hope that any help would be forthcoming.

Except it was. Thomas was so thrown by Baxter's unaccountable willingness to hellp that he felt it necessay to come clean to her that even now he had done something more to harm her, obviously referring to the letter sent to the police suggesting her as a source of information in the death of Mr. Green. But of course she had already figured that out, and even so took immediate charge of the situation, insisting that she herself would take Thomas to the kindly Dr. Clarkson, and see him through whatever the diagnosis and treatment entailed.

All just beautifully done, I thought -- and some of it is reflected in the early part of the post-mortem clip at the top of this post. But what got me to writing this post was the overlap with the equally well done episode of Masterpiece Mystery's Grantchester, which at least in my town aired directly after the Downton Abbey episode.


Sidney (James Norton) and Geordie (Robson Green)
INSPECTOR GEORDIE: Don't be so shocked, Sidney. Our lot are just as corrupt as yours.
THE REVEREND SIDNEY: I wouldn't bet on it.
-- from Episode 4 of Grantchester
My guess is that the total number of people who watched Episode 4 of Grantchester as a result of my Saturday post is roughly zero. Nevertheless, we sometimes have no choice but to live in the hypothetical. Okay, we have a choice, and sometimes we choose to live in the hypothetical, and in the event that some poor soul somewhere might actually have been thusly alerted to Grantchester, I would feel vaguely smug, because the episode not only delivered on but perhaps exceeded the promise of the earlier episodes.

Yes, it happened that the episode also had as an important plot element the hidden homosexuality of two central characters -- in this case homosexuality in the England of 1953, which turns out to be not all that different from that of 1924. Grantchester vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) is supremely nonjudgmental, as he is generally in matters that don't harm others and in his mind ought to be nobody else's business. But more to the point, the show, having established a cast of strong characters, and in particular such a precise network of relationships, the episode was in a position to test them.

And so Sidney's new best-friendship with Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) is beset by: (a) the near-death state of Geordie's infant son David from whooping cough, which he deals with by not dealing with it, absenting himself from his family and resorting to even heavier-than-usual drinking and (b) Geordie's already-established authentic 1953 homophobia, but also (c) Geordie's policeman's understanding that the homosexuality of the victim and the chief suspect can't be kept "private," as Sidney imagines, when there's a murder to be investigated.

Then there's the flaring up of the already evident, but previously mostly comical, tension between Sidney and the vicarage housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones, seen at right), an individual of uncompromising mind who disapproves of most everything "modern" or independent-minded about Sidney, but who also watches over him and steers him through the not-always-obvious complexities of his job. It's pure Mrs. Maguire that when Sidney rushes into a burning house to try to rescue its mistress, and everyone else is celebrating his heroics, all she can think of is that the vicar appeared in public in his nightclothes.

Or when Sidney's current almost-romantic interest, Hildegard Staunton (Pheline Roggan), the widow of the victim in Sidney's first murder case, returns from Berlin, all Mrs. Maguire can see is that she's German. As underlying tensions eventually do in real life, the tensions between them explode and have to be dealt with by both of them -- a wonderful plotline made possible by the care with which both the characters and their relationship had been established.

For that matter, the return of Hildegard has a marked effect on Sidney's, er, "special friend" Amanda (Morven Christie), two people who seem so close that you'd thnk she ought to be marrying him rather than this awful fellow Guy (Tom Austen), except that their various social positions are arranged such that there is apparently no possibility of such a marriage -- which, to make matters worse, Sidney has agreed to perform. Then there's Sidney's new vicar, Leonard (Al Weaver), who everyone knows is gay, but who turns out in this episode to have imprinted on his won existence his society's attitudes toward who he is.

For all of which, abundant credit to the Grantchester creative team. These are folks I'm not familiar with, and I really don't know who has contributed what, so let me just throw out the listed credits: Diederick Santer and Masterpiece as executive producers, Emma Kingsman Lloyd as producer; Daisy Coulam as writer of all six Series 1 episodes, based on James Runcie's Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death; and Harry Bradbeer, Tim Fywell, and Jill Robertson as directors of two episodes each.


It happens that my watching of the latest Grantchester episode overlaps my watching of the early episodes of Foyle's War, created and mostly written by Anthony Horowitz and produced by Jill Green, which has not only the period English-village setting and law-enforcement theme in common with Grantchester, but also a determination to produce a "British mystery" series that resonates beyond "whodunnit," and also springs from a bedrock of respect from human decency.

For that matter, I was tempted to mention that although I did start watching Episode 1, I still haven't really watched the much-heralded premiere episodes of Better Call Saul, for which I want to clear a block of nice relaxed time for straight-through viewing. I'm not going to mention that, however, or at least say any more about it than I already have, because they might enmesh me in the craft and artistry in co-creator Vince Gilligan's history of TV-making. I think that's worth talking about, but some other time.



At 5:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Count me as one who first watched Grantchester because of your earlier post. I found the treatment of homosexuality very sensitively done. The story line could have been sensationalized but this was not the case at all. It was, rather, a very sad story that reflected the bigotry of the time.

At 6:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have watched Grantchester from the beginning, mainly because I always watch Masterpiece Mystery. I enjoyed reading your interest in the show and felt you and I were "of a mind." Not every show has to bombast us with violent murder and mayhem and this show manages to present the mystery with subtlety and class. I think the British really have the best mysteries that I have ever watched and really hope they continue to provide us with these excellent shows. Support Public television!

At 7:12 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for piping up, commenters! It's a class show, and I'm delighted to hear that you're enjoying it too.



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