First, way back when, I enjoyed Downton Abbey. I'm not one who takes to costume dramas, I feel some of them use pretty costumes and settings as an excuse for a lack of plot – and having been forced to watch some while at Mum's over the years, including one episode during which the sum total of plot was a young woman walking to market to buy an apple – I was quite reluctant to start Downton. However, start it I did, and enjoy it I did. So this isn't about bashing Downton, this is about saying I've discovered a televisual gem and thought I'd share it with others, so they can enjoy said gem themselves.
Oh, and obviously, this is simply a bit of fun and I am not looking to start an online argument with the Pro Downton Abbey group while simultaneously becoming wrapped up in some A Place To Call Home (APTCH) splinter group. Simply a bit of fun. OK? Then I shall continue…
I had a week at Mum's in February and she told me she was watching this costume drama, set in Australia, and did I want to watch some with her. I was a bit reluctant – see above – but after 1 episode, I. Was. Hooked.
After returning home, I set my tellybox to 'tape' the rest of the series (it was shown during the day so I couldn't watch it live) and over the following few weeks I've binged, gorged, dived into APTCH and now it's finished I really feel sad to be leaving the world. Anyway, without further mincing about, my reasons why APTCH is better than Downton Abbey:
- Unlike Downton, with its 2 minute long gay butler shows ankle to Lord storyline, APTCH has a proper, multi series, multi character gay storyline. Some of it's hard to watch – ECT and aversion therapy – but that's in keeping with the attitudes about homosexuality being an illness around at the time. What's really interesting is how it affects both the gay man and the woman he's married too, as well as the gay man's family.
- The script producer of APTCH Bevan Lee, was voted in 2007 one of the 25 most influential lesbian and gay people in Australia, so that may explain why this part of the series was done so well. Also, he was a script producer on Sons and Daughters and rewrote the first script for Home and Away – so evidently, he knows a thing or two about soap operas.
- The cars are much more car-like and sexy looking as it's set in the 1950s, unlike in Downton where they are basically horseless carriages and don't resemble much like cars.
- The setting is much more a part of the story than in Downton. Although Downton was meant to be set in Yorkshire (and was actually filmed mainly in Berkshire, but we'll park that for a moment) in APTCH you get long sweeping shots of beautiful Australian countryside; external views of the hospital, the houses, and a few streets in Sydney. The down side is they must have used the same double decker bus driving round a corner next to the Sydney Harbour Bridge 35 times before a Sydney set scene, but it is, in my view, a small price to pay for such a lot of beautiful Australian countryside.
- The women are much more independent than in Downton. This being the 1950s things have somewhat moved on from the early 20th Century when Downton is set; the women have – shock horror – jobs outside of the main house (Ash Park it's called in APTCH). This means we see women as nurses, journalists, general community busybodies (the character takes it upon herself to do this role so effectively and in such an all-encompasing way, it can only be viewed as a job I feel).
- The men all have dashing brylcreamed side partings and George is the ultimate Silver Fox.
- The controlling matriarch isn't played for laughs as Lady Grantham was especially towards the end of Downton. Mrs Bligh wants to control every move of every one of her children and grandchildren, and even great grandchildren before they even exist. This, as you can imageine, makes for wonderful conflict and a great story.
- A lot happens. All the time. Unlike Downton, in which some episodes not an awful lot happened, APTCH is very much like a soap opera; ongoing intertwined lies and backgrounds being revealed, lots of 'I wasn't expecting that' moments to keep you guessing. Something happens in every scene. There's no 'I'm going upstairs to take off my hat' moments here.
- There is a character so malevolent as to be almost Disney villain OTT, and she even dresses a bit like Cruella De Ville, but she is a sight to behold. She even makes the Controlling Matriarch shudder at the depths she will stoop to so she gets what she wants. As you can imagine, this makes for wonderfully entertaining drama.
- It's less about the upstairs downstairs dramas between servants and the aristocracy and much more about the in fighting and lies within the family, between different families, and with the society as a whole. For me the whole servants / lords dynamic became a bit tired in Downton, but with APTCH the conflict and dramas are sort of spread about a lot more, so it doesn't feel samey.
- There are some wonderfully wilful female characters, each of whom has her own issues and conflicts far wider and more interesting than simply 'get a man'. My favourites are Sarah, the Jewish nurse, who shows such strength, especially after what she'd been through in World War II, that you can't but warm to her. Anna, the younger of the children in the main house, longs to be a farmer's wife – especially when the farmer is a good-looking Italian man - but also so much more, having escaped into her romance novels, she wishes to make similar worlds of her own.
- One of the male characters, upon returning home after a day of farming says, 'I'm so hungry I could eat the arse out of a low-flying duck.' That is all.
- It has such warmth between the characters that you can't but cry. The character development is so well portrayed as they change from being enemies to friends, with a new found respect for one another. I don't think I cried many times watching Downton, but with APTCH it was at least once every 3 episodes; sometimes 3 times in one episode. I remember pausing one episode when I was at Mum's and launching into a long heated monologue about something or another and how wrong one character was to expect whatever it was she was expecting, and how the other character simply must do whatever it was and then it would be better. Mum, after I'd finished, simply said, 'It's only TV, no need to get worked up.'
The only disadvantage APTCH has over Downton is at the end of series 3, they've left an awful lot of things open for series 4, and I'm not sure they will actually make series 4 after ratings falling during series 2 and 3. Mind you, the network who decided, before an online campaign changed their minds, not to make series 3, is the same network who cancelled Neighbours in its first year due to low ratings. And Neighbours has been running on at least 2 other networks after that since 1986.
If you'd like to read more about APTCH here's Wikipedia, IMDB page and the official website
The second book in my Best Friends Perfect series has a long section set in Australia. So if you fancy some more period (1990s) Australian adventures, you could check out Best Friends Perfect Book 2 on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk which can be read as a stand alone, or can also be read as part of the series.
Liam Livings xx