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10 March 2016

Julian Fellowes is back – and this time it’s Trollope

Though my loathing for Downton borders on the pathological, I am keen on Trollope - but while Doctor Thorne is not bad, it's not great, either. Plus: Cooked.

By Rachel Cooke

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Julian Fellowes adapted Anthony Trollope for television. With Downton Abbey shuttered, its silly, contingent plotlines covered with dust sheets at last, what better vehicle for his particular brand of misplaced nostalgia than his favourite Victorian writer, whose novel Is He Popenjoy? he apparently took on his honeymoon? Fellowes has long adored Barsetshire and all who sail in her – especially, one assumes, those with titles. These days, he feels a special affinity with its creator, too. “Like me,” he recently wrote in the Radio Times, “he did not, for the most part, charm the artistic sensibilities of his own generation of intellectuals.”

I’m not claiming to be one of these intellectuals. Nevertheless, I was more than ready for my artistic sensibilities, such as they are, to be charmed by Fellowes’s adaptation of Doctor Thorne for ITV (Sundays, 9pm). Though my loathing for Downton borders on the pathological, I am keen on Trollope, or on the idea of him; clearly my husband’s continuing obsession with the BBC’s 1974 adaptation of the Palliser novels, a series that set him on the path to the reading (and writing) life, has rubbed off on me. “How bad can this be?” I thought, as I settled down to watch the first episode. Gosford Park, the acclaimed film that Fellowes scripted for Robert Altman in 2001, is a distant memory. But surely its (rather good) writer must still lurk somewhere inside him?

Doctor Thorne is not bad. But neither is it good. Its flaws include some of the younger members of its cast, who seem bland – pretty but unimposing – beside their elders and betters; and its soundtrack, which never lets up, even when silence would be just the thing. Why don’t TV people grasp that audiences neither need nor want a load of violins to tell us how we should be feeling at any given moment?

On the plus side, the heroically decent Dr Thorne is played by Tom Hollander, an actor who deploys a half-smile in the way some dictators do devastating bombs, and Sir Roger Scatcherd, his rich but low-born patient, by Ian McShane. The memory of Lovejoy – or, to be precise, the memory of one’s middle-aged mother’s abiding lust for the roguish antiques dealer – makes one forget what a brilliant, energetic actor McShane is. A thrill, too, to see Alison Brie – who was Trudy in Mad Men – as Miss Dunstable, a wealthy American to whom every mother in the county would like to marry her son; and Phoebe Nicholls as the Countess de Courcy, a woman who can sour milk at 800 paces. I would watch Doctor Thorne for these four alone. Rebecca Front plays Lady Arabella Gresham, and nicely, too. But she is also the new Jim Broadbent, cast in everything lately, as if it were the law. I love what she does but I’m also a little weary of it.

The plot has to do with money and illegitimacy. Dr Thorne and Scatcherd share a niece, Mary (Stefanie Martini), who is in love with Lady Arabella’s son, Frank (Harry Richardson). They cannot marry because his father’s estate is in hock, the family needs money and Mary has none. Fellowes doubtless feels bad for Mary, just as we do. Yet you sense that his heart lies with the three great estates of this story: the scene-setting shots in which these grand houses appear are straight out of a promo for Knight Frank. Those turrets, those windows, those vistas . . . I ask you: what is a girl’s broken heart compared to the need to keep the barbarians on the other side of one’s ha-ha?

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On Netflix is Cooked, a series based on the food thinker Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. It’s a bit National Geographic, by which I mean that it’s lavishly made but rather dull. Still, I am pleased to see that Pollan seems to have taken on board the criticism I made of his book when it was first published (I noted that I was growing rather tired of the foodie male’s laborious, DIY attitude to dinner). “The male desire to complicate simple things is very much on display around the pit,” he admitted, as he constructed a pork “oven” in his backyard. “There is so much bullshit [around it].” You said it, mate. On Mars, men barbecue and make recherché stocks. Meanwhile, on ­Venus, women get the tea ready. Again.

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho