Why I Wish Matthew Crawley Had Had Two Hearts

There’s this television show called Downton Abbey. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I don’t mind admitting I am hooked on this distinguished soap opera, and that I think in a British accent for short periods of time after watching it.

I haven’t watched the most recent episode yet, but I came across its major plot development today, by accident. SPOILER ALERT: do not read on if you want to watch it yourself and haven’t yet.

You can go here to read a good refresher, some reactions, and a bit of explanation. To sum up, Dan Stevens, the actor who played central character Matthew Crawley, didn’t renew his contract with the show, and so the show’s creator Julian Fellowes chose to kill him off in a car accident in the last episode he would appear in.

But why can’t anybody else play Matthew Crawley? Maybe I’m too much of a Doctor Who fan, but I wouldn’t be overly disturbed to see Matthew with a new face (not to denigrate Dan Stevens’ fine face at all). It would take some getting used to, but I’m sure I would recover.

I know, because each time my beloved Doctor regenerates, I expect that the new one will never live up to the old one. I felt this especially strongly when David Tennant replaced Chris Eccleston, but by the end of Tennant’s time on the show, I felt just as attached to him. And now I just adore Matt Smith.

I grant that, in Doctor Who, the two-hearted time lord is actually regenerating, and each regeneration is unique yet the same, and besides it’s science fiction and lots of natural laws can be bent – wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff. But I still think it supports my point – that the character should be more substantial than the actor.

In this interview, Julian Fellowes said it was unthinkable to bring in a new actor for Matthew’s character, stating:

“You want viewers to think that it is kind of real, and changing actor would be like saying, ‘Hey, guys, it is not real at all’, and lose the show some of its authenticity.”

What?

I suppose there is more than one way to think about this, but I simply can’t grasp the truth of this statement. Wouldn’t Matthew Crawley – and the whole world of Downton Abbey – be even more real if another actor successfully played the same character? It’s some sort of pathetic reality if it can only be incarnated by one set of faces.

How many actors have played Othello? And does the “reality” and “authenticity” of his character diminish each time someone new takes the stage in his character? But, to argue with myself, a new actor doesn’t usually take the stage in the middle of a production of Othello. Yet, to further argue with myself, each episode of Downton Abbey is comparable – in length, that is – to a Shakespeare play, and I’m not asking for an actor swap right in the middle of an episode.

Maybe I’m too much of a book-reader. Maybe I don’t understand or appreciate the art-form of the television show. But allowing the story to be so significantly controlled by the career choices of its actors is, in my opinion, beginning to push this story beyond the limits of believability. I grieved the death in childbirth of Lady Sybil (precipitated by Jessica Brown Findlay’s decision to leave the show), but even then I wondered if we would be seeing more deaths or disappearances for similar reasons, and began to put myself on guard.

If the characters in Downton Abbey are to be fully alive (as the best fictional characters can be), they must be allowed to tell their own stories, not to have story lines pushed on them based on their actors’ life choices.

As much as I adore my favorite Doctor Who actors –  Tom Baker, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith – none of them is really the Doctor. Their brilliant acting has only heightened his reality in my imagination.

I only wish the same could be said about multiple actors for Matthew Crawley, may he rest in peace.

8 Comments

  1. Dear Julia,

    To further argue with you, I would suggest that the characters created in a television show exist first and foremost to the viewer through the creative work of the actors who play those characters. Unless, of course, the television show is based upon a previously-existing creation (book, movie, etc.).

    When you read a book, you envision the character in your mind, but when you watch a television show, the character’s physical appearance is already provided for you.

    Maybe you are expecting too much of us as television viewers. Since the character is standing right there in front of us, we don’t work as hard to create a perception of them distinct from the actor who is playing them. And so it becomes that much more difficult to accept a new actor in the same role.

    You have given us one example of a television show where multiple actors play a character – Doctor Who – yet the regeneration of the main character is a basic premise of the show. Can you think of other television shows where a main character’s actor gets replaced? And if so, how did that go for the show, for the character, for the viewers?

    Sincerely,
    Yourself

  2. happy to see you write about this VERY important issue, julia! 🙂 i have been debating in my head about some of these questions too… it’s just so ridiculous that he really had to be killed off! but would i like to have someone else take over his part? no, it would have been really strange and annoying. but, yes, i think i would have like it better than both him AND sybil being killed off. just seems a bit ridiculous. in a way, i’m almost dreading the first episode of season 4. do we get to see the family and mary in more shock and horrible grief… or will they skip a couple years to spare everyone the misery? did we really have to say goodbye to one of the most important characters in the show?
    anyway. end of my rant. thanks for giving me a place to say it.

    • . . . and if anything else goes wrong with Bates . . .!!!
      Thanks for honoring my blog with your rant, Sarah 🙂

  3. Well, it appears the Julia character is being successfully played by two people. No cruelty intended; I have a good dozen actors playing the part of me. 😉

    I’m one of those who feels annoyed when a new actor takes over a character without explanation. At the same time, I don’t think I’m as emotionally invested in DA as most people seem to be (after reading some of the reactions on Facebook, I’m a little nervous for Dan Stevens’ life), so it probably wouldn’t have mattered much to me. I mostly watch it for the Dowager Countess’ zingers—Maggie Smith is a treasure.

    Have you seen this? http://marshallramsey.com/?p=10102

    On a side note, I laughed when you said that you think in a British accent after watching an episode. My sociology professor is from India, and I think in his accent for a good two hours after one of his classes.

    • Ha, glad you got my little joke! You see, I believe there is a real Julia existing beyond all these actors playing her . . . 🙂

      Yes, that Marshall Ramsey comic is great. And Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess!! She’ll probably outlive all the other characters.

  4. Julia,
    I watched a little DA on DVD, I found it a bit fast moving and plot driven for my taste. Too much happens in one hour. But I must agree with the kudos for Maggie Smith. She is all I pay attention to when she is on screen. I recently re-watched Gosford Park, one of my favorite movies. Maggie Smith is just as wonderful in this film.

    I suppose, due to your enthusiasm, I am going to have to get into Dr. Who. I have this memory of being at an elementary school sleep over, and Dr. Who was on TV. People were turning into some kind of…slugs, or larvae or something. I was terrified. Maybe I could manage it now!

    • Hi Nnox! Doctor Who has changed quite a bit since our elementary school days. I did start getting into it by watching reruns from that era. When the show revamped in 2005, it had a much higher budget! And due to its success, that budget keeps growing, I’m guessing from the more elaborate sets, etc.

      The writing has improved substantially even since the 2005 episodes. Steven Moffatt writes some of my favorite episodes. An especially good stand-alone episode is “The Girl Who Waited” – a bit of a psychological thriller. (A philosophy professor friend of mine showed and discussed it in one of his classes recently.) I also love some of the ongoing story arcs that have taken shape over the past few years. And the love story of the Doctor and River Song. Really great stuff.

      But now I’m just gushing and geeking out 🙂

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