The week in TV: Downton Abbey; All Change at Longleat; The Naked Choir With Gareth Malone; Patagonia: Earth’s Secret Paradise

They’ll soon be tugging the final forelock at Downton, but don’t worry – there’s plenty of posho action to be had elsewhere

Downton Abbey (ITV) | ITV Player

All Change at Longleat (BBC1) | iPlayer

The Naked Choir With Gareth Malone (BBC2) | iPlayer

Patagonia: Earth’s Secret Paradise (BBC2) | iPlayer

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Fitzgerald’s words from All the Sad Young Men appear now to echo increasingly hollow (apart from that nice nod to correct grammar), more so with each subsequent decade, and one is tempted to retort simply, as did Irish literary critic Mary Colum (not fat Hemingway, whom this is usually boringly ascribed to), “Yes. They have more money.”

Downton Abbey is suffering now from this. We’re into the sixth series, set in 1925, which a number of today’s sprightly citizens can actually remember, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the very rich are only different from the rest of us in terms of spondulicks.

Maggie Smith, the token Edwardian throwback, has of course been given all the finest witchy-bitchy lines throughout, albeit mainly at the expense of: black people; the poor; the American mispronunciation of vase or anything else, including “and” and “but”; anyone not her; a son who is not quite up to it; travel; books; smiling. The dowager’s only pleasures are apparently hyphenating grape-fruit and pine-apple.

But come 1925, the classes were morphing, separated only by the fat hyphen of money. This series has been an astounding earner for ITV, an explicable talking-point in post-recession days, but it’ll all be thankfully over by Christmas. High points: almost never wholly dull. Photography and production entirely lovely. Low points: the bits where it lurched from “almost never wholly dull” to “wholly dull”. The interminable Bates murder trial, the dodgy Carson/Hughes marital bed, the Ladies Mary and Edith and why we should ever care. But over the years, the likes of Hugh Bonneville, Phyllis Logan and writer Julian Fellowes have draped across the gantries much style, delight and faint wisdom. It all ends soon, and that’s a phew from me. No more deference! No more mad scraping to money or “aristocracy”!

Ceawlin, Viscount Weymouth, with his wife Emma and their son John
Ceawlin, Viscount Weymouth, with his wife Emma and their son John. Photograph: BBC/Shine TV Ltd/Jacob Robinson

Except – gaagh – it’s all happening again, and happening now. All Change at Longleat tells the story of the transition from a father to a son, in perhaps the grandest, if silliest, house on our planet.

The raunchy (if uninteresting but for the raunch) Marquess of Bath has seceded to his duller son, who has to be dubbed Lord – oh, I can’t do it with the aristocracy, might as well be Lord Tit of Naugahyde, or the Duke of Thrumm – and who has taken a wife, as opposed to a wifelet. OK, OK, he’s the something of Weymouth. Niceish guy. Name of Ceawlin (soft c. Soft hands. Soft eyes. Soft brain).

He is in the process of inheriting, along with a gadzillion acres of prime England, a good few Hitler watercolours from his grandfather, who first had the idea of opening grand houses to hoi polloi. He says of one picture: “I didn’t think profiting from it would, um, sit well. So I’m wondering whether a Holocaust museum might want it… or not… I don’t know.”

Louis Armstrong was once asked by someone what “jazz” was. “If you gotta ask, lady, you’ll never know.”

But … I could almost take the poshos, particularly Ceawlin’s relatively spirited young, and now pregnant, wife (those loins of Longleat), who has reportedly caused a seismic family rift by having the appalling bad grace to be pretty and half-Nigerian. It’s just… the visitors. Hoi polloi. They’re the true problem. I’m sure Longleat’s worth a visit, if only to goggle at the beautiful old insanities unearned money can build, but there’s truly no need, folks, to crowd around like ox-people in a trance, gawping at the mere existence of modern framed photographs. A guide points out one, with a weary explanation that it depicts the heir, Ceawlin, and there is actually a physical gasp. “The heir!” Yes, with his wife. “With his wife!” They really aren’t different, honest injun. They just have more money.

Young pumas in Patagonia
Two young pumas in the secret paradise of Patagonia. Photograph: Rodrigo Moraga Zúñiga/BBC NHU

This wincingly watchable series also features the staff, notably a organiser woman named Daisy, who says things such as “At this current, precise moment in time at present”, and an asscrack evangelist Yank dimbubble called Bob Montgomery, who runs the whole caboodle with way less than Christian charity. And a nice guy called Lee, who used to help run, with fine dedication, the miniature railway. He also quietly expected a little more money for a sudden increase in his duties, so obviously had to be sacked. Pasty-faced Bob burbles about Jesus, quotes the Bible bit about (I think) Jesus having to sack people from miniature railways, and preaches, “I believe that can be really good for them… it doesn’t mean we care less about them.” Days later, the wee train crashes. I’m not necessarily suggesting a causal link to co-workers left resentful and busier in Lee’s wake, mainly because lawyers may be watching. Personally, I wouldn’t have blamed Lee for going postal with an Uzi.

Gareth Malone is on another winner with The Naked Choir. Like a little cartoon mouse in yellow trousers, he’s again up and down the country exhorting, this time, local a cappella groups on to greater things. All four groups in this opener were feisty, charming and talented, but Gareth unerringly seizes on their single weakness – the basses too dynamic, the whole too unsexy, a certain lack of glee – and magically sorts it with one flick of his little mouse-wrist. We also got three terrific songs. And something by One Direction which, inexplicably, didn’t lose.

Producer/director Tuppence Stone takes wildlife filming to extraordinarynew heights, even for the BBC, with a simply ace new series on the chill rainforests of Patagonia. I watched with dropped jaw and marvelled anew at the simple capacity for life to out. Expect puma cubs to usurp the hackneyed meerkats in everychild’s wishlist. These programmes are rare and beautiful things, worth more than all the baubles of Downton and Longleat.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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