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How Downton Abbey gets away with breaking all the rules

Downton Abbey returns to Australian screens shortly. Expect writer/director Julian Fellowes to keep messing with the conventions of screenwriting. Channel Seven

When Downton Abbey finally returns to our tellies for a fourth season (we hope it will be “soon” but Channel Seven is keeping its powder dry) it’ll be sans its scheming troublemaker. Australian fans are eagerly awaiting the new season – as reports from the UK and the US indicate there are big changes in store. The malicious Miss O'Brien is going to do a moonlight flit in the very first scene, leaving Lady Grantham to confront the dismaying prospect of lacing her own stays.

Actress Siobhan Finneran, who rendered magnificent O'Brien’s malignance for three fun seasons, opted to hang up the glassy looks and ill-placed Palmolive Gold in search of pastures new. At least that’s what the PR spin is telling us.

Here’s another reason, wildly conjectured by me: Finneran reached the conclusion, just as I have, that Oscar/Emmy/BAFTA winning writer/creator Julian Fellowes doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing half the time.

Trailer for the fourth season of Downton Abbey.

The rules of screenwriting

In a previous life I worked on soaps.

With one of them, Neighbours, reaching its 30-year milestone in 2015, even the most rabid hater must acknowledge it’s doing something right.

It’s from the perspective of one who slaved in the soap-mines that I say Downton Abbey could do well to take note of Neighbours’ Serial Storytelling 101. Not that it will. And not that anyone cares anyway.

The formidable Miss O'Brien (centre). Channel Seven

Fellowes is a genius at dialogue and scene construction. The zingers he slips inside Maggie Smith’s gob deserve gongs alone. He’s got a God-given gift for sob-inducement that could wring tears from Scott Morrison.

But when it comes to effective character creation, and its by-product, the long-running serial storyline, Fellowes occasionally fumbles. By no means does he do so all the time, but when he does do it it’s akin to Daisy dropping a tray of spotted dick down the back stairs. You can hear it all the way to Dartmoor.

The mystery of Miss O’Brien

Miss O’Brien owes everything to Finneran’s inspired performance. Her cod-eyed stare knows no challenger this side of the Foreign Minister’s fridge. Finneran’s is a portrayal without histrionics; she makes the maid’s wickedness feel real. Yet this is no mean feat.

Siobhan Finneran as Miss O'Brien. Channel Seven

Downton’s scary domestic is unique among pivotal characters in contemporary TV drama for having not one skerrick of backstory. We have no idea who she is or where she has come from. This is so rare in the current telly landscape that when I first realised that an absence of past was one of O'Brien’s key elements I posited theories that Fellowes was attempting something new. I now think differently.

When we met her in Season One, Miss O’Brien shares a bond with Downton’s matching black hat, footman Thomas. We have no idea what binds them, only that something does. Are they mother and son? It would seem not. Are they cougar and toy-boy? Thomas’s love-gone-wrong with the dishy Duke of Poshpants puts paid to that theory.

Whatever it is, it’s more than enough for Miss O’Brien to swear unremitting enmity against good-guy Bates, the gammy-legged valet, just because Thomas wants his job. This gives us Episode One’s standout shock moment: O’Brien boots Bates’ walking stick causing him to fall flat on his face. The viciousness of that kick made viewers everywhere gasp.

From this moment on the mystery of Miss O’Brien is compelling.

What has made her so vile? The hatred she feels for Bates is unrelieved and escalating. The lengths she is prepared to go in Thomas’s name are chilling. Something dreadful must have made her this way, but what?

Towards the end of Season One the plot takes a detour when O’Brien wrongly believes that Lady Grantham wants to upgrade her with a sexier model. The focus of her malevolence shifts from workmate to employer.

With judicious placement of a bar of soap, O’Brien prepares one of Downton’s most destructive reversals. In the brief sliver of time between cause and effect she then experiences what we in the trade like to call a “mirror moment”. Transfixed by her own grim visage she suddenly sees herself clearly – and dislikes what she finds. But by then it’s all too late, as shrieks from off-screen attest.

The final image of Miss O’Brien at season’s end is a haunting one – stark and staring at a garden party.

Now burdened by her secret of just what a soap cake can do, Season Two seems alive with story promise for the sorry maid. “She’s gunna go mad with guilt!” I announced gleefully to my other half when I watched it. Well, if it had been Ramsay Street, frankly she would have, but this was Downton, and as viewers discovered, Fellowes dislikes playing by the serial drama rules. Either that or he doesn’t actually know what they are.

Gallingly, Miss O’Brien forgot about her guilt until, oh, 1919.

Sure, she behaved with a degree more protectiveness toward unwitting Lady Grantham in between, but as to going mad, no dice. Rather, it was back to her old shenanigans tormenting peg-leg Bates. We did get brief hope of a delayed pay-off when Lady Grantham, delirious with flu, was judged sufficiently off her head for Miss O’Brien to make a confession. But Lady Grantham missed it, as you would, yet that mattered not to Miss O’Brien, who bounced back into bad-ass with abandon.

By this point, of course, I, along with others no doubt, was starting to wonder whether the mystery of what made O’Brien tick would ever be answered.

Season Three merely magnified the intrigue when great mate Thomas abruptly became her new enemy. Well, she needed one, having got Bates banged up in chokey. With her absence confirmed in the imminent Season Four, the O'Brien question must now be consigned along with the polar bear from Lost. We will simply never know why she was such a mole.

The world goes mad over Downton

Something happened to Downton in the crucial period between Season One and Season Two: runaway success.

Season four of Downton Abbey. Channel Seven

The world went nuts for the Abbey and Fellowes went nuts trying to deliver eight more episodes in an eighth of the time it took him to write the first lot. And then he wrote eight more. And then eight more still.

Word from the UK is that Season Five has recently been commissioned.

The carefully crafted, frankly exquisite episodes of Season One gave way to something splashier, with lots of instant gratification for Downton junkies, and plenty of attention to detail still, but with a notable absence of eyes upon the big picture – Fellowes’ eyes.

It is my personal theory that in order to meet his harsh deadlines, auteur Fellowes, whose background is in feature films, after all, and not television, cast his eyes around for a more workable model to get gold out fast.

He seized upon serial melodrama – and why not? – but in doing so saw only the showy surface and not the great depths of the form. He’d never worked on soap before and now here he was running one. The results were storytelling that was entertaining, absolutely, but puddle deep.

There were simply too many storylines in Season Two, jostling for oxygen in Julian’s writerly womb, with some popping out so half-baked as to be ridiculous. Storylines that might have been placed front and centre and milked for an entire season – such as Patrick’s return as an amnesiac, or Lord Grantham’s below-stairs shag – were sucked and spat out barely savoured.

Other strands, such as Sybil’s hots for the chav chauffeur, did little but tread water, serving up the same suspended horniness for episode after episode. Things seemed to settle down a tad in Season Three, with less stories offered and more explored in depth, but still the lovely jewel that was Season One remained unmatched.

The black hat without a backstory

Throughout all this there was O’Brien, the black hat without backstory. Perhaps Fellowes once intended to illuminate his dark creation, before the success of the whole caused him to lose track of the individual parts. Instead he chose to stick with a shtick that worked: O’Brien as bitch.

The result has been an antagonist whose antagonising is wholly unmotivated; a baddie who just is for the sake of it. This sort of storytelling was sack-worthy back when I was on Ramsay Street.

The curious thing about Downton’s downgrade is that it has far from deterred its audience. It remains among the most widely watched dramas on the planet. The first episode of Season Four drew 10.2 million viewers in the US when it aired earlier this month, up 22% on the first episode of the last series. And that’s nothing on the more than 120 million viewers globally.

People adore it so much – and I place myself among this number without embarrassment – that story and characterisation howlers little dent their pleasure.

The acting is never less than superb; the score is so lush you could lick it; the production values set a bar by which all other shows are now measured. It is, in short, great telly. But the soap hack inside me knows it could be that much better.

I will be among the million or so Aussie viewers settling down for a nice night in when Season Four begins. I won’t miss it. And while I remain hopeful that the O’Brien vacuum will be filled by a character equal to the skills of whichever fine actor gets the part, I will forgive the show if it falls a little short. Just as everyone else will.

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