TV review: York’s Death Comes To Pemberley trumps Downton

Pemberley people: Wickham (Matthew Goode), Darcy (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth Darcy (Anna Maxwell-Martin), Lydia Wickham (Jenna-Louise Coleman). Photograph: Robert Viglasky for the BBC / Origin
2 Jan 2014 @ 9.09 pm
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Pemberley people: Wickham (Matthew Goode), Darcy (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth Darcy (Anna Maxwell-Martin), Lydia Wickham (Jenna-Louise Coleman). Photograph: Robert Viglasky for the BBC / Origin
Pemberley people: Wickham (Matthew Goode), Darcy (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth Darcy (Anna Maxwell-Martin), Lydia Wickham (Jenna-Louise Coleman). Photograph: Robert Viglasky for the BBC / Origin
Death Comes To Pemberley, BBC1
Downton Abbey, ITV1
Borgen, BBC Four

A Shakespearean expert once asked “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” It’s now viewed as a joke about the tendency for some academics to get carried away and over-analyse what they like to call “the text”.

But I agree with John Sutherland, writer of Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, that it’s a reasonable question. We do speculate about the life of characters outside the novel or play, as well as what happens to them afterwards.

Death Comes To Pemberley (BBC1), the big beast in BBC’s Christmas line-up, scored heavily by being faithful to the spirit of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. We were shown the marital bliss of Elizabeth and Darcy before there is a murder on their doorstep and the dastardly Wickham becomes prime suspect.

Some of Darcy’s less appealing characteristics come to the fore during the investigation, putting a chill into his relationship with Elizabeth.

The nature of Wickham’s life with the air-headed Lydia was particularly well drawn before the real murderer was identified. Perhaps, in National Lottery style we should say confirmed – most viewers will have got there well before the end.

Darcy eventually comes to his senses and all is well again as the credits roll.

Anna Maxwell Martin, an actress who can be relied on to light up the screen in any role, was a fine, intelligent Elizabeth.

And for York residents there was the added pleasure of seeing our own patch brought to the screen so splendidly.

Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess, Violet and Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. Photograph: Nick Briggs / ITV
Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess, Violet and Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. Photograph: Nick Briggs / ITV

Meanwhile, ITV’s most trumpeted festive offering, Downton Abbey, disappointed. Downton, like a good Country and Western song, usually manages to stay on the right side of banality. But on Christmas Day, it was closer to a Hank Wangford wind-up.

This was a heavy-handed affair in which Mrs Hughes should and surely would have thrown away the old train ticket that confirms Bates as the murderer of the man who raped his wife.

To have her showing it to Lady Mary was suspending disbelief outrageously, although the housekeeper had to do so to serve the clunking story-line in which Bates ultimately “saves the monarchy”.

So that’s it for 2013, folks, a year in which, for me, Danish political drama Borgen has to go down as one of the supreme highlights.

The third and final series started with former Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg on the international lecture circuit, the political-limbo equivalent of ageing rock stars doing cabaret. But she fights her way back with a new party. As the series ends, she will be foreign secretary in a coalition government.

Speculating à la Can Jane Eyre be Happy?, it’s not out of the question that she will one day return to the top of the greasy pole.

After all, as we said farewell to her, we all hoped that she would make it. Denmark deserves no less. Birgitte has been the most attractive fictional leader of a major political party since 1988, when Harry Perkins became UK PM in Alan Plater’s Channel 4 adaptation of the Chris Mullin novel, A Very British Coup.

Borgen: Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Jeremy Welsh (Alastair MacKenzie). Photograph: Mike Kollöffel for BBC / DR
Borgen: Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Jeremy Welsh (Alastair MacKenzie). Photograph: Mike Kollöffel for BBC / DR

Politically, there are no immediately obvious similarities. Birgitte Nyborg occupies the centre ground, some might say centre-of-centre ground. Harry Perkins, a former steel worker from Sheffield, was the head of a genuinely socialist government.

However, both Nyborg and Perkins give politicians a good name. Birgitte manages to be a pragmatist and an idealist. She has occasional errors of judgment and now and then, when stung by injustice or devious opponents, comes close to fighting dirty.

She is, after all, a politician. She knows when to smile insincerely and how to handle the media, but she never loses a sense of the need to do the right thing.

In much the same way, Harry Perkins (played by the late Irish actor Ray McAnally) continues on his socialist path with something as close to integrity as politics allows, before the Establishment decides that he has to go.

There were real heroes and villains on the left and right in A Very British Coup and such polarities are easier to dramatise.

Arguments between Denmark’s New Democrats and Moderates about who came up with a certain agricultural policy first might sound like small potatoes. However, the intensity of rivalries among people who are hard to tell apart tells us a lot about the nature of politics.

Aneurin Bevan, despite rising from trades union groups in South Wales to the Labour Cabinet under Clement Attlee, used to say that he never “quite found the power”.

This is the quest that unites all politicians, irrespective of ideology and we got all that in Borgen, together with a wonderfully warm performance by Sidse Babett Knudsen.

BBC Four has made a name for itself with its drama imports from Europe, especially Scandinavia.

Borgen 3 will be remembered as one of the best things on our screen in 2013.