Downton Abbey Versus Spooks: Who Will Win In The Great Aristocrat-Agent War?

Posted by September 12, 2011 Comment

In the first in an occasional series Bleeding Cool’s man at the multiplex Michael Moran previews the big battle of the new season on British TV.

For a short time every week, our Masters allow us an illusory sense of freedom which blossoms on Friday evening, reaches its full flowering on Saturday, and decays into a sense of dark foreboding around suppertime on Sunday.

In order to anaesthetise us against the ineluctable drudgery of the next five days, the shadowy conspiracy that controls our world has devised Postcard TV.

The recipe for a Postcard show is simple, and inflexible: Most importantly there should be countryside, and plenty of it. The function of the scenery is twofold; first to distract the vast majority of us that live in filthy cities from the entirely unnatural nature of our existence, and secondly to fill our screens with a calming green hue which tends to make us more suggestible and controllable (snooker and football have a similar purpose).

In addition to the countryside, it’s also advisable that there be a period setting: The years immediately preceding the First World War are best but any milieu which encourages the virtues of ‘making do with what you have’ and ‘knowing your place’ will suffice. Some maverick TV producers overlook this rule, but compensate by making their ostensibly contemporary characters such simple-minded rustics that they might as well be living in 1912 anyway.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best Postcard TV ever is Downton Abbey.

It’s got it all. Lovely scenery, implausibly decent toffs and a moral clarity which enables the first-time viewer to discern which are the good characters and which are the evil ones by dint of counting how many cigarettes they smoke.

The impeccably decent Hugh Bonneville heads the central aristocratic family of clear-complexioned lovelies, who attended by a carefully-cast  domestic retinue of staff rich in potential story-lines.

The trouble with Downton Abbey is, it’s on ITV. The state-sponsored BBC have naturally been the masters of Postcard TV since the dawn of the colour television era. To allow the upstart commercial broadcaster to dominate this socially important function must be exquisite agony for the loose cabal of Bilderberg operatives and Media Studies graduates that run our National Television Broadcaster.

So it’s only natural that they’re going to schedule against Downton Abbey the most powerful weapon in the BBC armoury.

Well, second most powerful. If they moved Saturday night stalwart Doctor Who to Sunday evenings there would be a revolution that would make the Arab Spring look like a Rag Week flashmob.

No. They’re sacrificing Spooks.

Spooks, in case you have been out at some sort of macramé evening class or millennial cult jamboree every Monday evening for the past decade, is a supremely silly and stylish spy drama which has long provided that essential adrenalin kick to weary workers after their first day back at the clerical coalface.

It’s essentially a low-budget version of Tony Scott’s Enemy Of The State played out in the Apple Store.

It derives much of its its power and longevity from the fact that any character can die at any time. With the exception of camel-coated MI5 supremo Harry Pearce, played by proper thesp Peter Firth, few of the eponymous Spooks have lasted more of a couple of series in the show’s 10 year run.

And a major character almost always dies in the first or last episode of every series.

This series is likely to be the bloodiest yet. Now that the writers have wrung every possible drop of drama from IRA terrorists, Animal Rights terrorists, Militant Islamic terrorists, surprisingly angry right-wing poshos and assorted other terrorists of miscellaneous motivation this series of Spooks is set to be the last.

Which means it’s going to be like Titus Andronicus with iMacs.

But it is Monday night television.

It just is.

Scheduling Spooks on Sunday night is akin to, I don’t know,  putting a Liberal Democrat in the Cabinet.

Perhaps that’s a bad example, but you know what I mean.

The Spooks cocktail of intrigue, betrayal and unashamed Mac porn is far too stimulating on an evening when most of us are expected to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for five days of dutiful labour.

To be reductive about the choice we’re being presented with, some might characterise Downton Abbey as women’s television, and Spooks as being more TV for the chaps.

That, I’d suggest, would be an oversimplification. There’s a powerful cross-gender (not necessarily transgender) audience of sarcastic telly addicts on Twitter who watch both series assiduously, enriching the shows with an online commentary of curiously affectionate mockery.

If you follow any of those people your timeline is likely to be a boiling babel of frustrated hashtags on this coming Sunday evening.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to do the right thing.

I’m going to watch Downton Abbey on Sunday, as nature intended, and record Spooks for Monday night viewing. And woe betide the first careless Tweeter who tells me which spy dies.

(Last Updated September 12, 2011 4:58 am )