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

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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