Hazel McHaffie

Downton Abbey

Nothing new under the sun

Poor old Julian Fellowes must be heartily sick of smart alecs telling him about the anachronisms they perceive in his TV drama, Downton Abbey, and my sympathy is definitely with him. You can bet your socks not one of his lay critics could write anything half as good as Britain’s most successful TV screenplay. As a friend of mine in the Scottish Office used to say, for every 100 critics there’s only one person who can really write, and that ratio’s sure to be a whole lot higher when it comes to writing that achieves the success of DA.

I do watch the programme. I find the Dowager Countess’s acid one-liners delicious. I’m interested in how Anna and Bates resolve their differences following her rape below-stairs. I’m speculating with everyone else about what’s happened to Lady Edith’s editor chappie who’s supposedly gone to Germany to try to hasten their marriage plans. I’m enjoying the glimpses into attitudes and prejudices of the time in relation to class and colour, abortion and the death penalty. I’m even vaguely wondering who will eventually melt the heart of the ice widow, Lady Mary.

But for me it’s pure escapism; I’m not looking to obtain a degree in the subject. So the occasional anomaly – a song, a word, a piece of clothing ahead of its time, really doesn’t matter hugely. I can shrug my shoulders and say, so what? Even the veritable army of folk who must surely check things for Fellowes get it wrong sometimes, and the author’s surely big enough to take the criticism. OK, you’re right: I’ve been known to be more sniffy about accuracy elsewhere, and I’m bordering on obsessive about checking the authenticity of my own writing, but I don’t have millions of folk poised waiting to crush me with their cleverness. Maybe it’s the price you pay for fame.

Fellowes has protested that some of the words he uses which sound modern were actually in use long ago. And it’s true that there’s very little new under the sun. I had a real sense of this when we visited the Asklepion (or the health centre) at what used to be Pergamon in the west of Turkey recently. Asklepieion signIt dates back to the 4th Century BC and the well known physician Galen practised healing there in 2 AD. It’s a marvellously serene place and you can wander around and over it freely without barriers. The ancient siteI even washed my face and hands in the sacred spring that was visited by the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius! (No noticeable difference to report as yet!) Sacred fountainBack in its heyday patients put on comedies in the theatre because their doctors realised laughter is a good medicine. The theatreThe sound of water was used to soothe patients and allow private consultations. Dream chambers gave doctors an opportunity to induce dreams and suggest things to patients as an early form of psychological therapy. Hot and cold mud baths, special diets, herbal remedies, massages … they were all on offer. And we thought these were relatively new discoveries!

So you won’t be surprised to hear that someone has recently unearthed a recipe for doughnuts (actually dow nuts) dating back to 1800. Pause then before you criticise, all you Downton-bashers. Are you quite sure of your facts?

 

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Interviews

You may or may not be aware that I’ve recently added a new page to my website: Interviews. Obviously not all interviews are available in an accessible format, but the ones I’ve done this year that were recorded can be seen at the click of an icon, giving folk an idea of what I think and how I come across. Apparently I do a lot of hand gesturing!

Having added a third interview this week, I was watching other interviews on TV with more than usual interest. And one with Fay Weldon, the veteran novelist, jumped out at me – not just because she has very large hands which she uses a lot close to her face, but also because I’ve actually met, and subsequently corresponded with Fay. We appeared together at a Literary Salon at the Brighton Festival many moons ago, and she gave two of my novels very kind endorsements back in 2005. I was particularly pleased with her comment that they were ‘…medical, ethical, romantic and fascinating. An entirely new genre for fiction‘. Back then it lent credence to my contention that there was an unfilled niche in the market for these stories. Fay Weldon said so!

Anyway, she was on BBC Breakfast this week talking about her new book, Habits of the House, and Bill Turnbull and Susanna Reid asked her lots of good questions. Some interviews come across as very superficial and rigged, don’t they? but this one wasn’t; they seemed genuinely interested and engaged. I discovered that she chose the title because a much-travelled guest in her own home once said, the secret of being an accommodating guest is learning the habits of the house. Fay’s ears pricked at this: an excellent title for a book. I agree, but I like the concept behind the comment too.

There’s a sticker on Habits that says, if you enjoyed Downton Abbey you’ll love this book. No, Fay admitted, she hadn’t watched Downton Abbey – she was ‘too jealous’ to watch it ‘without pain’ – but she was happy with the caption as a marketing ploy. She was also quick to chip in that she was there first, and this I can believe. Publishers have their own speed of working, and the time lapse between conceiving a book and its appearing in the bookshops is considerable, usually years. It’s frustrating when you the author are then thought to have copied someone else’s idea. I’ve had news items as well as TV dramas mirroring points in my plots before my books reach the bookshelves. However, Fay’s an experienced interviewee, and she managed to make all her responses sound amusing and faintly self-deprecating, and she kept her toothy smile fixed firmly in place.

Habits of the House is about a large household with servants and rich masters. I haven’t read it (yet) but the first paragraph sets the tone:

In late October of the year 1899 a tall, thin, nervy young man ran up the broad stone steps that led to No. 17 Belgrave Square. He seemed agitated. He was without hat or cane, breathless, unattended by staff of any kind, wore office dress – other than that his waistcoat was bright yellow above smart striped stove-pipe trousers – and his moustache had lost its curl in the damp air of the early morning. He seemed both too well-dressed for the tradesmen’s entrance at the back of the house, yet not quite fit to mount the front steps, leave alone at a run, and especially at such an early hour.

I draw a veil over the scathing comments my editor would make if I used that many adjectives and parentheses! But then I don’t have Fay’s credentials or track record or sales figures.

She was asked, why this subject? Haven’t upstairs/downstairs stories been done to death? (Now, you might not know it but this question had particular resonance because Fay wrote the first episode of the legendary BBC film, Upstairs Downstairs, broadcast in the 1970s, a fact which I’d forgotten.) Not a bit of it, she said, we’re all interested in injustice, and the haves and have-nots in these large households are just one expression of that kind of inequality and unfairness. Besides this, her personal fascination with the period around the turn of the 20th century, fuelled by her grandmother’s stories and her grandfather’s writing, make such choices natural ones for her.

Habits is the first of a commissioned trilogy and Fay has already finished the second one, so Bill asked her, did she know what happened in the third book? No, she admitted, she had no idea. Wasn’t that daunting? ‘Very frightening!’ Fay admitted. But her laugh and bounce said she would soon crack that little conundrum. And indeed, I know myself that by the time you’ve written two books about characters, they’ve got passports and birth certificates; indeed it can be hard to keep pace with their antics and decisions.

Watching this interview I concluded that I should try to

  • write an episode for a landmark TV series
  • sit on my hands, or at least keep them low
  • find a very good manicurist
  • come across as warm and witty and humble
  • pretend I’m all at sea and it’ll take a miracle or my huge talent to resolve this situation
  • make sure interviewers give my credentials not me
  • read Fay’s book.

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