Despite a certain amount of delay compared to the rest of the country, I’m in the process of watching the entirety of Downton Abbey and am, as expected, falling pretty much in love with it. The combination of this – combined with the screening of The King’s Speech on C4 a couple of weeks ago – has led me to wonder about the characters in these types of productions. Indeed it was during a read-through of The King’s Speech screenplay during my MA last year that my lecturer pointed out its greatest achievement: it makes you care about the characters.
The King’s Speech is not a film about a King or Queen where the central story, at least, is related to the royal family in disarray. There are no wars, affairs or deaths to deal with – at least not in the crux of the narrative. Whilst it’s true that the periphery of the story does deal with these matters – the abdication of Guy Pearce, the death of Michael Gambon, and the arrival of Timothy Spall (or King Edward VIII, King George V and Winston Churchill, if you want to give them their full names) – the main issue is concerned with curing a stutter. Remarkable when you think about it.
Similarly, Downton Abbey is concerned with matters of class and wealth and over-indulgence, at least in the big fancy rooms anyway. But to see it as a black-and-white rich-versus-poor assessment of the 1910s and 20s would be too simplistic a view. Fortunately the characters aren’t given one-dimensional brushstrokes as either bad rich people or the brave working classes. Instead it dares to be bold: many of those living upstairs are the best characters in the show. They are honest, have integrity, and are humorous, kind and fair. Some of those below – Thomas and Miss O’Brien we’re looking at you – are not lumbered with such virtues. But there’s more to it than that.
What makes Downton work is precisely the fact that it doesn’t shy away from the excesses of those who are rich. Instead, we’re treated to horses and carriages, wealthy men from exotic places afar, luxurious dresses and fabulous events. Though this is undeniably part of the glitz and glamour of the show that an audience can revel in with less guilt than in many other shows, it’s also part and parcel of the DNA of these characters. It is, as they say, how the other half lives. It’s true that to keep them grounded we’re served a healthy dose of tragedy for starters, war for main course and numerous domestic troubles for dessert but the reality is that we like their little bubble as much as they do.
What this helps us to realise then is that a well-written character will flourish irrespective of the situation. Even though I do think there’s something to be said for our enjoyment of these upper-class situations even if we don’t want to admit it, the characters themselves are what make us keep coming back. Take Spring Breakers which is currently at cinemas: it’s an odd, divisive film that has a wholly unlikeable set of female protagonists (apart from one, maybe) which are the very antithesis to royalty, and yet they still entice you into watching and keep you engaged the whole way through. This isn’t because of any empathy we feel with the characters, but rather because we find them utterly fascinating.
A character has the same set of principles be it a King or a Queen, a Lord or a butler, a girl on Spring Break or a James Franco gangster. Making them infuriating and contemptible is a good thing. But don’t make them unoriginal, don’t make them bland and don’t make them one-dimensional. Because whereas despicable, spiteful or un-relatable characters are sometimes problematic, these issues can be overcome and forgiven – the former issues, I’m afraid, cannot.