Is there any stopping Downton Abbey?

Julian Fellowes's obsession with the ruling class continues to pay off.

Seriously, what is it with Downton Abbey? Eleven million of the credulous suckered in the States, a valise full of Emmies and now the Golden Globe panellists all hoodwinked by a derivative soap opera with pretensions. The septic melodrama seems guaranteed to take the National Television Awards gong for most popular drama on Wednesday. Is Downton unstoppable?

Downtonistas jack into a gleaming, fantastical world, barely on nodding terms with reality. The crippled walk again, it snows at Christmas and your regular heir presumptive, with just a touch of inbreeding, gets his Lady (there are only so many toffs to go around). The most troubling event to disturb the stagnant pond in the last episode was the "Labrador in mild peril" plot.

This pageant of neo-feudalism reads like a glossy promo for the Big Society. Who needs a welfare state when a nod and a wink from Lord Grantham will see you right? After all, "We're all in this together": the fragrant aristos have to throw their prewar style parties with no footmen, damn it, and Captain Crawley has a perfectly beastly time of it on leave without his soldier-servant.

I heard, with some surprise, Julian (you can call me Baron) Fellowes describe the portmanteau upstairs-downstairs premise of Downton as "innovative" (on Desert Island Discs on 18 December). He was referring, I imagine, to its remarkable insight - hold the front page - that servants, just like us, have inner lives that are worth documenting. Well, innovatory I suppose if you discount English writers from Chaucer onwards, who were really quite good at showing us that cooks have feelings too.

The tumbrils might be rumbling for his nobility (the war, ghastly business), but Fellowes is no indifferent tricoteuse. He's deeply, luxuriously in love with the imagined theatre and romance of the ruling classes. It's as though, when Julian looks in the mirror, he fondly imagines the doubly fictitious Colin Firth-Mr Darcy composite. In the show the lens lingers, pruriently, on the starched linen, the lustrous brass, the polished silver. The lens lingers slightly less over the horny-handed ones doing all the starching, the lustre-ing and the polishing.

When we go to Downton, we're given stories of the upper class in the upper-case to help us understand that the fragile symbiosis is under threat. In heaving majuscule, we find out that war is BAD. We also discover that times are CHANGING. In future there will be more congress between the beautiful people and all the horny handed ones. In its queasy chronicle, we're shown the beneficial openings in the world of work that the First World War provides the foxy, bored heiresses. They're allowed to slum it a little. But those bounders who try to navigate their way upward, like the self-made magnate and the ambitious footman, are cads, villains and all-round bad eggs. Downton will NEVER be theirs, sir!

Simon Schama got all Jacobinical on Downton's ass last week, accusing Fellowes, amongst other things, of "cultural necrophilia." You might well think that a historian would be the last person to throw stones in mausoleums and attack another for their love of dead things. But one sees his point.

Except that we could no more use Downton as a guide to deceased Edwardian Britain than use The Lion King as a travelogue on Africa. Or imagine ourselves to be emergency medicine practitioners after mainlining ER repeats on Sky Atlantic. Fellowes, like a dodgy medium channelling those from the farther shore, is dishing up fakeries: the quavering voice, the smoke, the mirrors, the flame. It's fraudulent Sunday night Mogadon.

I'm not altogether immune to its chiffon charms. I understand the power of a sensational, sentimental, rip-tide of a narrative. Maggie Smith, who, as the Countess of Grantham, looks increasingly to have been hewn from a single oak, has a truly magnificent way with condescension. Her retorts are stiff-backed, straight drives - which rather show up some of the cast's agricultural shots.

And master-servant tensions have had a fabulously high yield in the theatre since pre-classical Rome, via sixteenth century Commedia. A rigid hierarchy practically sits up and begs for drama, especially when the strata are pushed and pulled out of shape a little. What characterises Downton, though, is the author's palpable love and desire for one particular stratum. His nose is pressed at the pane, and his hot breath is steaming up the view.

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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