Age against the routine
Or, Dame Maggie Smith as herself
Dame Maggie Smith is to Downton Abbey as Statler and Waldorf are to The Muppet Show. But unlike her fellow superannuated curmudgeons, Dame Maggie is the same in and out of character. She’s above the material, whereas Statler and Waldorf are the material, and that material is foam rubber and fleece.
All of this is to say they went and made another Downton Abbey movie, a phenomenon roughly parallel to the Star Trek films: A neverending cross-platform costume drama featuring a ragtag bunch of lovable heroes who get into some episodic scrapes with Americans/Klingons, neatly resolve things and resume their dull, orderly lives in Yorkshire/deep space. The stories are worth telling financially if not narratively, and you can imagine a studio executive calculating that a country estate of polished silverware is ideal counter programming to a multiverse of madness.
Which is why, as David Sexton points out in his New Statesman review of Downton Abbey: A New Age, Dame Maggie Smith’s role as Violet Crawley, The Right Honorable The Dowager Countess of Grantham (one of those titles so proper it requires two definite articles) saves the whole enterprise.
The Dowager Countess is a quip machine, delivering snide commentary on the events of the day both as comic relief and bearer of standards. “What is a weekend?” she asks in the first season of the TV series, a snappy reminder that the past and England are both different countries. From there the writers kept it flowing:
“No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.”
“Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.”
“That’s the thing about nature; there’s so much of it.”
“Principles are like prayers: noble, of course, but awkward at a party.”
“An unlucky friend is tiresome enough, an unlucky acquaintance is intolerable.”
The character fits neatly into The Unified Theory of Great Aunts outlined back in GWQ No. 30: Queen Victoria’s reign, in the words of H.G. Wells, “was like a great paperweight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow all over the place haphazardly.” And so you had the cloven-hooved great aunts Lady Bracknell and Aunt Agatha ruling over the works of Wilde and Wodehouse.
Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, proudly claimed this lineage in 2011 when he confirmed that the character was inspired by both Victoria and his own great aunt Isie, a “woman whose dry wit concealed a good deal of personal suffering and who was no tougher on the rest of us as she was on herself.”
Dame Maggie is also tough on Downton Abbey, which makes her a meta great aunt in and out of character.
“I didn’t really feel I was acting in those things,” she said of Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter series, noting that her main duty was to film horrified reaction shots. And before they made the first Downton movie, she pointed out the lack of any urgent need to continue the franchise.
“I just think it’s squeezing it dry, do you know what I mean?” Dame Maggie said. "I don't know what it could possibly be. It was so meandering, what would you [do]? Anyway, that’s not my problem.”
Quick quips; lightning
“I’m sick of these conventional marriages. One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother. But who wants to marry your grandmother?”
— Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers, speaking a line by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
“The classes that wash most are those that work least.”
— G.K. Chesterton
“Never having to think of yourself as white is a luxury that makes you deeply stupid.”
— Leonard Michaels
Like the current monarch, Get Wit Quick No. 149 continues to experience episodic mobility problems. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is not available at the fruit market, not even for ready money. I will double down on the assertion that the royal family peaked with Her Majesty’s 1988 appearance in The Naked Gun, and we are perennially amused when readers tap the ❤️ below.