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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.