In two current British television series, a handsome scion of landed-gentry fortune crashes his convertible twenties roadster into a ditch on a country road near the family estate. One of these vehicular mishaps occurs, as you know, in the final episode of season three of Downton Abbey, whose fourth season premiered last night on PBS. Matthew Crawley — third cousin twice removed of Robert Crawley, the fifth Earl of Grantham, and the heir presumptive to that title — has just left the hospital bedside of his wife, Mary, who that day gave birth to the couple’s son, George. Matthew is happier than he has ever been; his soul is suffused with a feeling of cosmic well-being. Naturally, he must die. He rams his AC Six into an oncoming delivery truck — which, Downton being Downton, isn’t really a delivery truck, but rather a lumbering metaphor for the Modern World Which Will Soon Obliterate the Aristocracy and Lay Waste to Family Dinners in Formal Dress.
The other car-crash sequence comes early in the pilot episode of Blandings, a BBC One comedy series based on P.G. Wodehouse’s incomparable Blandings Castle novels. Freddie Threepwood, the feckless party-boy son of Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth, the ninth Earl of Emsworth, is barreling down a country road in Shropshire, when he spies the family homestead rearing up on the horizon — an even more majestic “noble pile,” as Wodehouse often put it, than Downton. Freddie takes his eyes off the road and the car veers sideways. In Downton, the last time we see Matthew, he is lying beside his wrecked roadster, cold and dead, with blood trickling out of his ear. Freddie Threepwood’s crash ends a bit differently. He plows into a tree, a few sparks flash, and smoke billows out of the automobile’s hood. “The tree was traveling far too fast!” he exclaims. “And on the wrong side of the road!” Cut to the next scene, in which Freddie is shown swigging hooch straight out of a cocktail shaker while doing what he does best, hitting up his dimwitted father for a loan: “I find myself in Queer Street. I put a bit of crinkle into a show at the Pink Pussy Club — the star being a lady I regard rather highly — and the damn thing closed.”
Blandings, which completed its first season in February, is the anti–Downton Abbey. To be more precise: Blandings is the antidote to Downton Abbey, the mint julep you can gulp down to wash away the taste of Mrs. Patmore’s, or rather Julian Fellowes’s, increasingly overcooked and unpalatable kidney soufflés. Blandings has the same trappings as Downton; its dramatis personae and plotlines are much the same as well, give or take the odd air-gun assault on an earl’s personal secretary. Blandings’ stories, like Downton’s, are laid on a sprawling country estate, presumably between the wars, a setting bathed in crepuscular glow of fading aristocratic glory. There are the upstairs-downstairs intrigues; there are the romantic entanglings of young heirs and heiresses; there are the redoubtable butlers, and the imperious aunts. Downton has its rabble-rousing Irish chauffeur; Blandings has Angus McAllister, a Scottish gardener with an incomprehensible brogue and a fanatical fixation on graveling over a moss walk on the castle’s grounds. As in Downton, there is the earl, Lord Emsworth — per Wodehouse “that amiable and boneheaded peer” — played by the great English actor Timothy Spall. There is a haughty matriarch, too, Lady Constance (Jennifer Saunders), who could easily keep pace with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in a slice-and-dice battle of wits, e.g., “Keep lips shut. It stops the drivel from coming out,” and “When you have finished irradiating that pig with your imbecilic conversation, I would like a word.”
Speaking of pigs: Blandings has one — the greatest pig in all literature, in fact — around whom many of its plotlines farcically whirl: The Empress of Blandings, a Berkshire sow, perennial contender in the Fat Pigs competition at the Shropshire Agricultural Show, and the apple of Lord Emsworth’s eye.
In other words, Blandings is the delectable opéra bouffe version of Downton Abbey. Actually, that’s putting it backward: It’s more accurate to call Downton the stolid and joyless Blandings, since Wodehouse’s manor estate farces — the Blandings Castles stories, the Jeeves novels, and many others — preceded Downton by decades, and should be the guidebooks for all those who journey back down those garden paths.
It’s unfair, of course, to compare Julian Fellowes to P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse was a genius, and a Wodehouse novel is the most perfectly calibrated pleasure-delivery technology ever devised. What’s more, Downton, at least in its first season, had its soapy, soppy pleasures. But the show quickly sputtered out. This isn’t because, as many have argued, Downton got “too soap opera” in seasons two and three. (I mean, season one turned on the untimely demise of a Turkish playboy, who schtupped himself to death while depositing Lady Mary’s maidenhead on her bedside salver.) The problem is that Downton takes itself and its characters way too seriously.
This may be a question of historical distance as much as of sensibility. Both Wodehouse and Fellowes were to-the-manor-born; both have noble bloodlines, and presumably did their writing beneath the glassy gaze of a great-great-uncle baron or earl, staring down from a heavy gilt frame on the study wall. But Wodehouse actually lived in the Edwardian era, actually tooled around in those twenties roadsters, actually shared tea and cucumber sandwiches with those doddering peers and fire-breathing aunts; he knew first hand that England’s titled toffs were some of the most ridiculous — often, the stupidest — people on Earth, a fact that is confirmed, incidentally, by another current British show, the “scripted reality” hit Made in Chelsea. Wodehouse knew that decline and fall of these boobs was a musical comedy, not a melodrama.
Fellowes, of course, knows no such thing. (Cue Downton Abbey’s swooning strings.) Fellowes is so nostalgic about the glorious Twilight of Empire — so besotted by those butlers bearing brandy and those ladies rustling into the dining room in their Parisian gowns — that he’s practically American. If Woody Allen is the only man afflicted with penis envy, Julian Fellowes may be the only Englishman to suffer from Advanced Consumptive Anglophilia.
Fellowes has also made some very dodgy showrunner decisions. When Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew Crawley, announced that he was leaving Downton, Fellowes promptly steered Matthew’s car into that truck. It was a perverse move, since Matthew was the show’s raison d’etre, the guy who set the plot in motion in the first place, not to mention the closest thing the program had to a sympathetic character. Why not spare M. Crawley, and simply replace D. Stevens? Because there is a shortage of weedy blue-eyed English thespians? If the world’s television viewers were capable of processing two Lionel Jeffersons, surely they could make sense of a replacement Matthew Crawley.
When it comes to cast shakeups, the Blandings brain trust is more sensible than Downton’s. If you watch Blandings’ first season — American viewers can do so, for a few bucks, here — you will undoubtedly be awed by the charisma of the Empress, the “pig actor” that portrays her namesake on the program. This past winter, the Empress died. Kristian Smith, Blandings’ executive producer, said all the right things: “We were very lucky to have found such a characterful and humorous pig … We are saddened to hear of her death.” And yet, the show goes on: A second season of Blandings will begin airing soon, and the Empress of Blandings will be there, in her sty, eating and farting in the soft blue gloaming, as the sun sinks low behind the Shropshire Hills. See, they hired a new pig.