Katherine is a Lecturer in English at the University of Ulster, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and women’s writing. She is the author of Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Edwardians on Screen: From Downton Abbey to Parade’s End (Palgrave, 2015).
As it has been some weeks since Julian Fellowes ended his domination of our Sunday night viewing schedules with the Christmas ending of Downton Abbey, it was inevitable that he would soon be back with a new period drama in the slot. Going up against BBC1’s thriller The Night Manager, also shown at 9pm, Doctor Thorne offered a very different viewing experience from the gritty and fast-moving adaption of John le Carre’s novel, one which was clearly designed for those, as Andrew Collins put it in the Guardian, “suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal” (6/03/2016) who like something gentle for the end of their weekend.
Anthony Trollope’s novels have had a long history of adaptation for the small screen, perhaps most famously via the BBC’s epic The Pallisers in 1974, a 26-part series with a huge cast which echoed The Forsyte Saga in scope and popularity. More recently, Trollope has been an object of attention for that godfather of adaptation, Andrew Davies, who wrote screenplays for The Way We Live Now in 2001 and He Knew He Was Right in 2004. Hence Julian Fellowes is in good company for this, his most recent project, and this scaled-back, three part version of the novel does recall Davies’s, which attempted to foreground the most modern aspects of this author while keeping the glossy heritage settings. Critics have suggested that Fellowes was “just the chap to rehabilitate the author” (Collins), and his treatment of Trollope involves removing many of the complicated subplots of a work which famously apologises to the reader for its long dull opening descriptions.
It also is designed to appeal to fans of Downton by plotlines recognisable to those who’ve watched that show: it centres on an aristocratic estate and family whose privileged existence is under threat for financial reasons. Greshamsbury Park has been mismanaged by its likable but ineffectual owner, Francis Gresham, and is now heavily mortgaged via loans by a rakish working class neighbour made good, Sir Roger (played by Ian McShane, who looks like he enjoys every brandy-swigging minute of this over the top character) who has made his new money on the railways. The only way out of this crisis is the possibility of young Frank Gresham making a good marriage, but he is already in love with the penniless Mary Thorne. There may be none of the “upstairs downstairs” dynamic between servants and their employers which made Downton so successful, and set it apart from most other recent period dramas, but questions of class, and interdependency between classes, are still of central concern to Fellowes here. The idle and frivolous lives of the Greshams can only be preserved through the goodwill of those well beneath them on the social order, namely Sir Roger, who may call in his loans at any time, his angry and socially resentful heir Louis, and their advisor and go-between, Doctor Thorne himself.
The middle-aged, and mostly middle-class Thorne is in many ways a rather unlikely hero for a period drama otherwise concerned – as they usually are! – with the love affairs of the young and beautiful, but his role is crucial in humanising and democratising the privileged society portrayed here. In this regard, the casting of the rather lovable Tom Hollander as the doctor is one of the main strengths of this adaptation. Hollander is no stranger to the period drama, having appeared in numerous supporting parts, from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters to Fellowes’s own Gosford Park, but it is unusual to see him as the central character. Hollander does seem to become more handsome and compelling the older he gets, however, and in recent BBC comedy Rev he finally played the hero. As the all-too-human Rev. Adam Smallbone, he charmed viewers who warmed to his attempts to overcome his own small vices and weaknesses and to his fundamental decency and determination to do his best in a flawed world. The later traits seem to be recalled here, for Fellowes’s Doctor is the moral compass of a society preoccupied by money and position: unlike Trollope’s more snobbish source character, he tries to rise above their fascination with social class.
However, the adaptation reminds us repeatedly that the Victorian village physician is low on the social scale, for Thorne is frequently bullied or ignored by the wealthy families he visits, who are always aware of his humble status. It is clear that he is above the servants, but nonetheless aligned with them: for a modern viewer, the contrast with the respected professional a local GP would be today is striking. Indeed, the adaptation reminds us of the many shortcomings of Victorian medicine, given that Thorne’s practice as a physician is generally unimpressive here. In none of the cases in which he is called in can he make much difference to the outcome, after all. It is tempting to speculate that Fellowes may have enjoyed reminding his audience how recently the medical profession evolved into the position of power and respect it currently enjoys, and how humble its origins were. it is difficult to view this drama without recalling current topical issues surrounding the NHS and in particular the pay and working hours of junior doctors, which has recently led to a number of highly contentious national strikes. By stressing the humble and uncomplaining nature of his physician hero, who never answers back and always puts his patients’ wellbeing ahead of his own, Fellowes, himself a Tory peer always unafraid to air his views, may well be hinting at a Conservative political message.
In other ways too, of course, the adaptation is conservative with a small c, in ways which clearly recall Downton Abbey. The novel may have been written in a time of industrial expansion, and the growth of the railways form an important backdrop to the plot, but the rural tranquillity and beauty typical of the classic “heritage” drama are foregrounded here instead. There is no attempt to depress or challenge the Sunday-night viewer with reminders of the approach of modern life. Instead of shots of the railway, we have shots of the stately homes of the wealthy, and village always looks green, leafy and sunny, and generally reminiscent of an Austen adaptation: a look which Fellowes stuck to determinedly throughout Downton. This is appropriate enough given the pastoral setting and nostalgic tone of Trollope’s novel, which was written while the author was travelling abroad, and possibly homesick for the home he had left: his longing for the peaceful English countryside may be echoed by the nostalgia of the modern viewer.
It is this general tone of harmony and beauty which, for me, created some shortcomings in the drama, however. It did feel saccharine, and lacking even the external pressures which occasionally threatened the sheltered and idealised world of Downton. There are some significant darknesses in the adaptation: its opening scene is a Dickensian one of manslaughter in the village square; one of the main plots deals with the alcoholism of father and son, which is finally fatal in both cases; and another is concerned with the social vulnerability of a young woman whose parentage overshadows her future happiness and marital prospects, Pride and Prejudice style. But the beautiful and angelic Doctor’s niece Mary, who suffers from being born out of wedlock, not only lacks the spark and edge of Elizabeth Bennet – or indeed of the deliciously sarcastic Lady Mary – but there is never even any fleeting doubt for the viewer that she and her relentlessly faithful pursuer Frank will have a happy ending. Thus even the deaths in the drama cannot be especially poignant, for they are so transparently devices to secure Mary’s financial wellbeing and her bright future as an heiress. We are not invited or encouraged to mourn the waste of life because of alcoholism that the deaths of Sir Roger and his son represent. Most disappointingly, even the adaptation’s final moment of triumph falls a little flat: after Mary inherits Sir Roger’s fortune, she and Thorne, now rich, can have their revenge over the Greshams, whose mortgage they now hold – but they are too nice, and too respectful, to really revel in that opportunity. Thus even the mercenary and scheming Lady Arabella Gresham, who has previously banned Mary from her house, is toyed with only momentarily, then forgiven and rewarded with future security, rather than punished for her snobbery. Any social or personal criticism here is without bite, and the ending is one in which money brings harmony and happiness for all. Hence this adaptation provides a pleasant Sunday-night escape into an idyllic Victorian world – but, despite the hard work done by many of its excellent cast, one which is somehow not as satisfying or all-absorbing as it should be.