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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear