Costume Drama. December 2013.

Dear Rowley,

Heading back to London after a really rather lovely sojourn in Derbyshire for Christmas and pondering how heroic parents of young children are. We’ve got a dad travelling on his own with two very young daughters sharing my table in 1st who would have had me reaching for the blowpipe. But he’s patiently feeding them, making sure the iPad volume is kept to a minimum and just getting through it with patience and dignity. As I said, I’d have resorted to the Peppa Pig sweeties laced with Night Nurse before we’d pulled out of Derby.

Much talk about the BBCs adaptation of P.D.James’s Death Comes To Pemberley reaching its Christmas conclusion tonight. I don’t approve of sequels as a rule and, though Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice comes a close second. But from the pen of P.D.James, imagining the next chapter of Pride and Prejudice as a murder mystery was ingenious. When I read the book earlier this month I thoroughly enjoyed with what relish P.D.James echoed Austen’s measured, cynical tone and deceptively light, lovely prose. I also enjoyed James introducing characters from Austen’s other novels however brief the cameo role.

As I never tire of telling you, my parents live on the Chatsworth Estate and I grew up enchanted by the house and gardens so it was a joy to see Chatsworth as the primary location for Pemberley. The unexpected arrival of Lydia Wickham (Jenna Coleman) in a carriage drawn like a cyclone by black horses up to the West Wing of Chatsworth should wine prizes for cinematography alone. Having seen two of the three episodes, I also have to say Miss Coleman effortlessly outshone her much more experienced co-stars and stole scenes as the feckless, flirtatious and vacuous Lydia.

Death Comes To Pemberley hasn’t been universally well-received not least because of Anna Maxwell Martin’s Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett). Jane Austen makes perfectly clear in Pride and Prejudice that Lizzie is not the beauty of the family but is the quickest wit, soundest mind and most naturally charismatic of the Bennett sisters. I adored – adored! – Miss Maxwell Martin in her first major BBC costume drama Bleak House and thought her perfectly cast but as Elizabeth Bennett less so. The costume designer certainly didn’t do her any favours making Lizzie wear the dullest of green dresses throughout almost the entire story and a bonnet as ugly as a coal scuttle.

In fact the costumes as a whole don’t live up to the grandeur of the Chatsworth House and Castle Howard locations. I fear to criticise costume designers because they are invariably some of the hardest working people on a film set and usually give an intelligent reading of the character through the clothes. In Pemberley’s case I did notice the villains got all the best frocks. Lydia always looks glorious from the moment we discover her dressed as a military wife. Her wicked husband Mr Wickham (Matthew Goode) sported a magnificent white linen cravat and exquisitely fitted Beau Brummell tailcoat in his prison scene.

Perhaps the point is that people who take pride in their appearances are the shallow characters while Lizzie and Darcy (Matthew Rhys) care less about personal adornment because all of their passions and energies are devoted to the Pemberley estate and its family of workers. It’s a fair point well made but doesn’t make for a sumptuous costume drama. Strike me down as a shallow Hal but while Miss Maxwell Martin gives Lizzie quiet strength of character, I’d rather the character displayed more passion and looked like the Mistress of Pemberley. Imagine what Gillian Anderson could have done with Elizabeth Darcy were she ten years younger.

I needed another viewing of the Christmas Downton Abbey before forming a clear-headed opinion. Watching it on Christmas night through a warm misty glow of booze and bonhomie wasn’t conducive to concentration. What I absolutely adore about Downton’s Christmas specials is the commitment to take the characters both upstairs and downstairs away from the comfort zone of Downton and place them in a potentially dangerous situation. This time it was London at the height of the season for Lady Rose to be presented at court to King George V and Queen Mary: a social minefield when as Lady Mary says ‘Rose is a flapper’.

Having spent the best part of this year researching the history of Royal St James’s for my last book I recognised so many of the locations. Lancaster House was used as a stand-in for Buckingham Palace (not for the first time) with Lady Rose being presented in the Music Room at Lancaster Houser. The exterior shots of the Crawley family’s London mansion was shot outside Bridgewater House opposite St James’s Palace: London home of the Latsis family. I was rather charmed that the various story lines over the last season of Downton Abbey were allowed to resolve themselves or rest on a cliff edge for the next season.

It was terrific that none of the leading characters were killed off or anything terribly sensational happened…if you didn’t count the Crawley family saving the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) from scandal by retrieving a compromising letter written to Frida Dudley-Ward. Any niggles? I wish they’d found an actor who looked even slightly like the Prince of Wales and the romance between Bates and Anna isn’t half as cutesy and endearing as Julian Fellowes clearly thinks it is. As for Lady Mary’s monotonous tone of voice! Reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s verdict on Katherine Hepburn: ‘she runs the gamut of emotions from A to B’. Until next time…