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.”
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.