Why I don't care that it's a sad week for Downton Abbey and Poirot

Let's hope that that ITV grasps just how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is soon, and locks him in a room for a month with only Chris Morris and some classic Coronation Street on DVD for company.

Downton Abbey;
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain
ITV

A sad week, should your tastes extend to dotty costume dramas. (If they don’t, you’ll want to crack open the prosecco and pork scratchings.) At Downton Abbey, the big house of ridiculousness and anachronisms where this column begins, Julian Fellowes’s cheap little rape plot line reached a feeble denouement in the final episode of the series (10 November, 9pm) when Bates (Brendan Coyle) pushed the valet who’d attacked Mrs Bates in front of a bus and killed him – an excellent use of his precious day off, one has to admit.

Meanwhile, Violet, the dowager duchess (Maggie Smith), having somehow intuited that her unwed grand-daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is up the duff by her bounder of a newspaper editor boyfriend, decided that the best solution all round –pass the smelling salts! –would be an all-expensespaid, five-month-long trip to Switzerland. At least there, she’ll be able to blame her swollen belly on too much Toblerone.

Most unexcitingly of all, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) now has two hot-ish chaps dancing her attendance: Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake, both of whom must first have appeared in an episode I missed (that is, all of them) and both of whom look like Thunderbirds puppets, only with fob watches instead of strings. Dullards, the pair of them; Lord “Tony” Gillingham’s only claim to fame is that it was his valet whom Bates so swiftly despatched.

Some viewers will perhaps be hoping for a threesome in series five, though how Dockery’s acting skills would cope with such a scenario, one can only imagine. Would a sex troika in the king-size she once shared with the ineffably boring Matthew Crawley render her any the less plank-like? I fear not. I’ve seen walnut commodes more animated than Lady Mary.

What is to be done about Downton Abbey? I don’t know! ITV will, I fear, keep flogging this particular dead horse – “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Lord Grantham, but your favourite hunter was knocked down early this morning by Tom Branson, who was in a particular rush to get to a political meeting where he hoped to meet Miss Bunting, who had promised to show him her red bloomers; yes, I’m afraid these socialist girls are terribly easy, m’lord” – until such a time as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (one of the groups that hand out the Emmys) begins to ignore it.

So let us hope that is soon. Or that ITV grasps just how bad a writer Julian Fellowes is and locks him in a room for a month with only Chris Morris and some classic Coronation Street on DVD for company. Or that Maggie Smith storms off (I don’t believe the show could survive without her). Or that Fellowes is made the new presenter of Daybreak, which would leave him too knackered to worry about butlers at a Time of Great Social Upheaval.

As for all of you people who still watch it, what is wrong with you? Seriously. Are you gripped in an ironic, postmodern, sneery, let’s-count-the-extras-at-Lady-Cora’svillage- bazaar, tee-hee kind of a way? (On this point, I spotted two: one in a sack race, the other manning the test-your-strength attraction.) Or are you simply waiting to see if Lady Mary’s expression is ever going to change?

In other news, ITV also screened – after 25 years and 70 such films – Poirot’s last case: Curtain (13 November, 8pm). It started off well enough. David Suchet’s turn as the Belgian detective is, I have to admit, a remarkable thing: his beady brown eyes, his yellow, egg-shaped head and his slug-like ’tache combining to make him resemble a caricature by Max Beerbohm.

When he yelped, “Eet’s not a wheelbarrow!” at poor old Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), who was loyally pushing his wheelchair around the grounds of the castle-cumboarding house where they were unaccountably marooned with the usual cast of jealous, thieving, poison-hoarding social climbers, a weirdly Proustian feeling washed over me. I must have been a student when the first Poirotwas screened. Ah, those were the days.

But after this, it was downhill all the way. So very boring. In Agatha Christie Land, one knot of vipers is much like another. The bully. The hen-pecked husband. The cad. The invalid. The adulterers. By way of atmosphere, ITV gives us little cardigans and wide-legged trousers, rustling trees and arguments heard from the other side of a closed door. Scratchy strings signify the approach of the murderer, the click of Poirot’s pince-nez as he removes it from his sallow beak that the mystery is about to be solved.

The murderer inevitably suffers from a very English kind of madness: thwarted but mild mannered, his or her malady is most commonly born of covetousness. It’s comforting to watch, if you have flu, or your boyfriend’s left you. Yet even its greatest fans must know that it’s possible to go off to make tea and a cheese toastie – chutney on the side and maybe a salad, too – and not miss any vital piece of “evidence”.

Still, never mind. This is it now, for Poirot. No one can follow Suchet, who accomplished the detective’s penguin-like waddle by imagining he had to carry a coin between his buttocks. Au revoir, mon amis – at least until the repeats.

Flogging a dead horse: the cast of Downton Abbey

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times