Downton Abbey will never be the same guilty pleasure for me. Not because Shirley Maclaine is miscast as Mrs. Levinson or because Mr. Bates has become such a pitiful loser or because of Matthew and Mary’s cantankerous bickering. But because of the brilliant Red Nose two-part parody, Uptown Downstairs Abbey (part II here). Since last year it has coursed throughout the Internet and so devastatingly skewers every character with such spot-on accuracy that the real thing, which has bordered on self-parody anyway, has become a joke too. In fact, the real Julian Fellows (played as a self-absorbed egoist in the Downstairs spoof by Simon Callow) appears to be writing Maggie Smith’s Violet, Countess of Grantham with such a persistent rattle of quips that her mere presence on set is farce.
Parody is not supposed to upstage the original. Yet many spoofs have become more classic than the originals. Airplane forever undermined the once popular disaster film genre. Scary Movie (which became a franchise) took horror films down a notch. And parody became the bread and butter for a one-time leading man, Leslie Nielson, whose Naked Gun series spoiled the fun of cop dramas, at least for me.
Uptown Downstairs Abbey—starring Victoria Wood, Simon Callow, Kim Cattrall, AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders as grandmama, and Dawn French as the fake Mrs. Hughes, who believes she should be playing a grander role than dowdy head of the maids and housekeepers—seems to skewer all the annoying bits like so much lamb kabob. The fake Earl (Harry Enfield) says zingers like: “I love you, Mary, hard as it is for an Englishman to say those words in this era.” And when fake Matthew’s fake mother (whose real-life fictional mom is already insufferable) met the new footman, she asked: “Don’t I know you from Lark Pies To Cranchesterford?” “Yes, m’lady.” “Same character?” “I’ve added a limp this time.”
Just the other night I saw Downton’s butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), playing a doomed nobleman in Pompeii: The Last Day. “Same character?” “Yes, m’lady.”
Some series are meant to go on forever (Gunsmoke, for example), or at least for many fruitful seasons. Others ripen and get stale rather fast. Despite the changing character pool, Downton has reached the unenviable stage where the characters are gnawing at the bone. If the next parody is Downtonburg die Abtei, set in 1930s Barvaria and featuring the travails of a family of German Junker and right-wing nationalists, it might kill the show altogether.