Entertainment TV & Radio

Thursday 21 November 2019

Smith draws first blood in battle of the 'Downton' dowagers

Billed by Downton Abbey's publicists as the clash of the titans, the sparring match between Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith turned out to be a lamentably one-sided contest, largely because screenwriter Julian Fellowes had given all the best uppercuts to the duchess-in-residence.

"I'm so looking forward to meeting your mother again", she told her daughter-in law during the first episode of the new series (TV3/UTV). "When I'm with her I'm reminded of the virtues of the English". "But isn't she American?" dopey Matthew asked in puzzlement. "Exactly" was the riposte.

And when the much-trumpeted icon of Hollywood royalty finally got round to making her grand entrance, her role was simply that of unwitting stooge to her English rival -- the conciliatory, "Oh dear, I'm afraid the war has made old women of us both" being met with the withering retort: "Oh, I wouldn't say that, but then I always stay out of the sun".

As in the previous two seasons, Maggie Smith's regal delivery of haughty putdowns remains the best reason for keeping faith with a soap opera whose plot twists have become so mechanically engineered that you can also hear the cogs grinding.

And thus, a cad's tampering with the newly aristocratic Tom's drink turned him back into the fiery Irish republican who couldn't be trusted to behave himself at posh dinner tables, while the revelation of Lord Grantham's imminent bankruptcy coincided all-too-neatly with news of the fortune that his future son-in-law stubbornly didn't want to inherit.

Meanwhile, morose manservant Bates, who may or may not have murdered his wife, acquired a sinister new cellmate, while a recently hired menial was causing extra friction among the already bickering servants, one of whom was threatening to go on strike -- though in Downton Abbey such matters remain perfunctory plot devices rather than indications of interest in wider social issues.

For such things, you'd need to have been watching Parade's End (BBC Two), which last night concluded its five-part adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's elaborate story of honour and betrayal and which might be loosely described as the thinking person's Downton Abbey.

The problem here was that the hero, Christopher Tietjens, was not so much a character as the embodiment of an ideal -- his old-fashioned decency and principle requiring him to stand by unfaithful wife Sylvia, whose treachery and malice caused him constant grief.

You could just about accept his old-Tory stoicism in the pages of Ford's four novels, but when Sylvia was played by someone as gorgeously alluring as Rebecca Hall, Christopher's stuffy disregard of her sensual charms seemed inexplicable. In one scene, as he primly averted his eyes while she lay naked and inviting in the bath, you felt like shouting at him to grow up and get some fun out of life.

He'd probably have got on well with writer and publisher Diana Athill's granny, who believed that "no lady could possibly let a man kiss her unless they were going to get married". And he'd certainly have approved of Diana's father, who nobly helped to rear the child born of an affair his wife had embarked on -- indeed, he was especially considerate towards her, Diana recalled.

These reminiscences occurred in the first instalment of Love and Marriage: A 20th Century Romance (BBC4), one of those sociological trawls through the past that you somehow feel you've seen before, even though you haven't. Here the focus was on the early decades of the last century, made vivid to the viewer by the recollections of people who are now very old but were very young at the time.

Needless to say, gay parenting wasn't an option then and it still has its opponents, even among gays themselves, with Rupert Everett recently declaring "I can't think of anything worse than being brought up by two gay dads".

Fashion and style presenter Darren Kennedy wouldn't agree and in Reality Bites: Gay Daddy (RTÉ Two), he investigated the ways in which he and long-time partner Aidan might become parents, whether by means of surrogacy, adoption or fostering.

This was interesting enough up to a point but from early in the proceedings you sensed that the programme was simply a what-if vehicle for the personable presenter, and so it came as no surprise at the end to learn that he'd no intention of becoming any kind of a parent. And from the outset partner Aidan had clearly come to a decision of his own by not participating in Darren's quest.

This week's episode of China on Four Wheels (BBC Two) was full of astonishing sights, not least the ancient town of Fenghuang, teetering on a misty river's edge like some half- forgotten, magical image from a childhood picture book.

Justin Rowlatt tackled the rough, rural terrain in a rickety van, while Anita Rani opted for a plush 4x4 as she navigated urban life -- chatting to bling-obsessed housewives and getting very queasy in a vast seafood restaurant that offered her dishes of jellyfish and crocodile legs.

In the city of Changsha, Chinese tourists thronged to a giant sculptured head of Mao, causing Howlatt to ask the leader of one tour group why such devotion remained to the former Communist leader. "He's denying Chairman Mao's achievements", she fumed before storming off with her party.

A film more concerned with analysis than with arresting images might have explained why.

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