Friday 24 September 2010

Downton Abbey by Julian Fellowes

When I heard that Ben Aaronovitch had been invited to the BFI screening of Downton Abbey, my immediate reaction was to try to wangle an invitation for myself. It wasn't the exclusive pre-screening drinks or the lavishly catered afterparty that attracted me — or only to the extent that they boded well for networking. Ben has had great interest in his soon to be bestselling series of novels and I've been commissioned to write an episode of Midsomer Murders. So now seemed like a good time to go networking. Ben had garnered his invitation through the good offices of Carnival, one of the great British independent TV companies. They were responsible for Simon Moore's Traffik, which remains a high water mark for television drama. So of course I wanted to lig along. It
sounded like fun. Ben didn't have any trouble wangling me an invitation. I arrived at the BFI fashionably on time and Ben introduced me to Gareth Neame, former head of drama at the BBC and now a honcho at Carnival. Also, a man who clearly has an eye for writing, given that's he had the uncommon good sense to commission Julian Fellowes. The pre-screening drinks were scheduled to commence a full hour and a quarter before the screening. I arrived wondering how I could possibly fill that yawning void of time. But as interesting people surged into the bar we introduced ourselves around and ate the little cheese biscuits provided (black napkins — classy touch). Ben was soon deep in schmoozing mode and I set about striking up a conversation with the nearest beautiful woman — who proved to be an internet executive. Before you knew it, it was time for the screening. We filed into NFT 1. This is one of the finest cinemas in London, with certain towering caveats. For a start it was designed by someone who clearly thought the sightlines for a movie are the same as for live theatre. Oh no, my friend, I am afraid to tell you that they're not.This is why great swathes of the seats on the left and right of the screen give a weirdly angled view with fatal quantities of parallax and distortion. And don't even get me started about the time they screened Barry Lyndon. At the end of Kubrick's misty masterpiece, after 184 minutes of film, the projectionist was still trying to get the focus right. Stanley would have been foaming at the mouth. Anyway, like I said, certain caveats. But if you're lucky enough to be sat in the sweet spot in the centre aisle, the NFT1 is a great cinema. And when Ben and I consulted our tickets we found we were seated dead centre. And the dishy internet exec was in the row behind us. There was a good humored sense of excitement, a subdued buzz in the audience as the lights went out. Julian Fellowes wrote Gosford Park, a film for which he won the Oscar. And like Gosford, Downton Abbey concerns an English stately home and the people who live in and their servants, and it's dynamite. We're instantly acquainted with a large cast of characters and immediately made to care about them. The way Fellowes channels our sympathies is masterful. Plus that redhaired undermaid is really cute. After the triumphant screening there's a Q&A. It's obvious Downton Abbey is going to be a huge hit. Not least in America. At the after party, attended by cast and crew plus numerous hangers on (me, for instance) we meet Andrew Morgan, who worked with us on Doctor Who, directing Ben's Dalek story. "Canapes?" says Andrew, "I thought they said cannabis!" We also meet a Tierra del Fuegian banjo player who is the only person present who isn't ecstatic about Downton Abbey. He dismisses it with lofty contempt. I listen politely to his specious vapourings before moving off. I make a point of meeting Julian Fellowes, who it turns out is an old friend of Andrew Morgan. We chat briefly and I convey my great admiration for his script . "Well done on the Midsomer," he tells me. Walking back along the Thames around midnight, the bright circle of the London Eye looming in the night above, I reflected that it was a great TV drama and a great evening. My only regret is that I didn't speak to the redhaired undermaid — or punch the Tierra del Fuegian banjo player.