Hazel McHaffie

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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