It seems that Maggie Smith and I have something in common. Dame Maggie has never seen “Downton Abbey,” either. Not a single episode, as the glorious 78-year-old actress told Steve Kroft on Sunday night in a wonderfully thorny interview on “60 Minutes.” Over here across the pond, they keep pitching award statues at her for the show (which she never shows up to receive), but apparently that’s not enough to convince her to sit down and watch the bloody thing.
Her problem, she told Kroft, is that if she watches, she’s sure to pick apart her own performances – “Why on earth did I do that?” etc. I’d be willing to bet that, in hindsight, the performances of others might not necessarily thrill her, either.
“Downton Abbey” – an authentic hit on PBS – closed its third season Sunday night with what seems, so far, to be a shocking death in an auto accident well-mourned by the show’s devoted audience – Matthew Crawley played by actor Dan Stevens. One of my colleagues knew it was coming because the British press was full of complaints about it all during the Christmas holidays, when it ran there. To the Brit faithful, it ruined their entire Christmas.
Let me admit that I’m even less proud of never seeing a whole show all the way through than Dame Maggie is. I have a relationship to the show that, quite frankly, seems odd even to me.
I am, for one thing, surrounded by the show’s fans. It seems that three-quarters of the people I work with watch the thing, even those who wouldn’t seem at all likely. In fact, it seems that many of my favorite people in the world are hooked on it.
Even though I don’t watch it, I find myself strangely happy thinking about how large and devoted the “Downton Abbey” claque has become. As authentic TV phenomena go, I’ll take a groundswell for “Downton Abbey” any day over one for “The Walking Dead” (another cult hit I don’t watch).
So why, then, am I not among those on Monday mornings who are eager to rehash Abbey doings over coffee, the water cooler or whatever?
It’s a carryover from a largely humorless earlier “Masterpiece Theater” smash that I came to actively dislike – “Upstairs, Downstairs,” one of the few television points of major spousal disagreement that I had during the time the show was first seen.
It always seemed to me that I was asked to be nostalgic about a British class system that I never experienced in the first place. Every time I watched, I found the servility to be choking. So many members of the show’s servant class seemed convinced of the rectitude of their “station” in life that as a barbarous American of good standing, I found myself reacting badly. In a world where the remote control gives us all the ultimate power over a show’s life and death, I tend to use it vigorously when asked to applaud the point where servility – no matter how clever – and thoughtless privilege meet.
An extreme and hideous case of the kind of thing I’m talking about is the moment in “Gone With the Wind” – which purports to tell about a life of chivalry and “grace” in the Old South – when all the beautiful Southern debutantes have doffed their dresses and are in their bloomers having a nap during the oppressive afternoon heat of life on the plantation. As they do so, the poor little overheated dears are fanned with giant feathered fans by their sweating black female slaves.
This is not presented to us as Mel Brooksian comedy. Nor is it presented to us as a comprehensible reason later for someone to burn the plantation down. All this is presented to us as a tableau from the “graceful” life of white aristos in the Old South.
“Graceful” for whom? The rich sleeping brats? Or the sweating slaves cooling off the little dears?
So help me, it was a moment that disturbed me deeply the first time I saw the film as a pubescent boy in another century. As much as I like the film – Clark Gable, especially and that extraordinary crane shot by cinematographer Lee Garmes of the wounded bodies in the Atlanta railway station – I never had any trouble seeing Gen. Sherman’s point later on, which is not exactly the proper spirit at all in which to be watching “Gone With the Wind.”
“Upstairs, Downstairs,” of course, never presented such a thorny problem. but it was always a world I was delighted to dial out of existence, no matter what I may have thought about so many of the show’s fans.
“Downton Abbey,” of course, seems to present a different spin on an “Upstairs, Downstairs” world. When you have Maggie Smith playing the grand resident dowager, you’ve put naked class snobbery into the hands of one of the consummate comic actresses of our era, a woman who can put a hilariously wicked sting into any passing barb or gag a good writer can give her. And “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes proved how good a writer he is with Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (which also had a part for Dame Maggie).
You have to love a TV period that is so in love with 78-year-old Maggie Smith and 91-year-old Betty White, two grande dames whose comic mastery is a thing of beauty to watch, even in dreadful circumstances. (And Betty, bless her, seems eager to prove that. But then so heartening is her full employment at her age that we tend to forgive her anything, and I do mean anything.)
A TV show with Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern created by Julian Fellowes has me in its corner sight unseen. I have every confidence that if the time ever comes that I’ve got the leisure to do so, I’ll dispense with my own kneejerk snobberies and sit down with a few seasons’ worth of “Downton Abbey” and do what both Dame Maggie and I seem to have avoided thus far – watch one of the most popular shows on 21st century television.
In the meantime, let me recommend for those who equate her now with dowager snobbery my all-time favorite Maggie Smith comedy – “A Private Function”, a hilarious comedy of life on the farm written by “Beyond the Fringe’s” Alan Bennett in which the old girl is practically up to her clavicles in pig dung with Michael Palin.
No one on film, so help me, has ever been funnier under analogously ignominious circumstances.
FROM THE SUBLIME TO … Channel 2 has given local comic Rob Lederman his own show at 11:30 p.m. Sundays called “Late Night in the Buff.” Lederman is the 97 Rock mainstay with Larry Norton and the comedy club entrepreneur at Rob’s Comedy Playhouse, which is on North Forest Road.
The show kicked off by trying to get laughs out of ripping off Johnny Carson’s old “Carnac” bit (which was itself a ripoff of Steve Allen’s brilliant “Answer Man” bits) and wearing SpiderMan underpants in a tanning booth.
I can’t say the show made me laugh even once, but Lederman, as always, seemed cheerful enough with all his self-deprecating expectations of immediate cancellation. I don’t know how many of the actual shows I’ll return to watch, but I do know I’ll certainly watch it again before 12 episodes are up to see how he figures it all out.
I wouldn’t recommend to him barnyard droppings for laughs, though. Maggie Smith and “Monty Python’s” Michael Palin did that for all time.