A Very Special Agatha Christie Downton Abbey
Several months ago I read about this horrible, horrible disease. So horrible that I dare not speak its impossible to pronounce name. It features the emergence of small threads from under one’s skin, resembling the fibers of a cheap, plaid polyester sofa that someone’s rarely washed dog claimed ten years ago with no plans to surrender any time soon. A theory has been advanced that this disease comes from outer space. Is this possible? I have to say Yes, because ‘possibility’ is pretty much the cornerstone of hypochondria; and while I’m not a world class hypochondriac but more of a talented amateur, I should know. (This personal state of affairs is not helped by access to the Internet and possessing a novelist’s imagination.)
Which brings me to Dr. Clarkson, M.D., the preferred physician of the family and staff of Downton Abbey, at which point I’d like to refer you to the photograph. Take a good look, linger if you like, because when they eventually fall into the care of the esteemed Dr. Clarkson, you won’t be seeing their likes again. Dr. Clarkson is the exact locus where Downton Abbey and Ten Little Indians (the 1960s film adaption of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) meet.
In Ten Little Indians, ten people are invited to a mountain retreat by a mysterious host calling himself Mr. Owen, who never seems to arrive, exactly. Unless he is the person picking off all the guests, one by one, their deaths punishment for having literally gotten away with murder themselves. The whole thing is a basically a kind of low-budget, 1970s, New York City vigilante affair, if Charles Bronson were some sort of scold, greeting his guests with a taped voice that gets the accusatory tones of someone’s mother just right.
Predictably, the actors playing the ten guests react to the information that they are all killers by acting as if they had just enrolled in a beginning Method class and were told to “access the time in sixth grade when you were caught red-handed pulling a classmate’s chair out from under him as he went to sit down after saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school assembly, landing hard on the floor. And even though your little hand still gripped the back of the folding chair, you still vehemently denied your guilt, which no one believed.” It may help, too, to know that three of the actors were Shirley Eaton, notable for her willingness to be naked in Goldfinger; Fabian, an American Idol contestant before American Idol existed (such is the sadness of peaking before the wave, creatively speaking), and Hugh O’Brien, one of those handsome-ish TV actors who starred in a series about Wyatt Earp during the Golden Age of Television and who, I discovered on Wikipedia, married for the first time at age eighty-one to a women not much older than I, with Debbie Reynolds singing at their Crystal Cathedral wedding—all of which sounds like a Disneyland attraction located in the New Orleans section between Frontierland and Adventureland. Spoiler Alert (if my memory serves): Shirley “Goldfinger” Eaton survives; Fabian “I’ll Never Achieve Cinematic Legitimacy” does not.
Mr. Owen Dr. Clarkson began the first season of “Downton Abbey” with a seriously ill young farmer in his care. Isobel Crawley, new to Downton and someone who knows her way around a surgery by virtue of her husband (a London doctor) and her position as a physician’s assistant, tells Dr. Clarkson that the young man needn’t necessarily die due to the amazing success with a revolutionary treatment now being used in London.
Dr. Clarkson rejects her suggestion (and the medical wisdom of the MDs in London), explaining that, no, this young man is going to die and they should simply allow him to die. The young man says, weakly, Uh, if I’m dying anyway, what’s the harm is giving it a go? This is met with the doctor’s patented condescension due to the man’s social status and, an admonishment that death is death and that’s your final destination, pal. Then his young wife, who is not at all taken with the prospect of being a destitute widow with children and the very real possibility that she’ll be selling herself on the street in no time thus shortening her own life span by about sixty years, also timidly asks if they might try it?
No, says Dr. Clarkson, sighing and vexed, as if to say, What part of I’m going to let this young fellow die are you not understanding? Do you not know the meaning of the word “expendable?” If you had gone to Oxford, you would, but instead you
were born to a life of decided to muck stalls. And now I must go dress for cocktails with Lord Grantham.
When Isobel Crawley cures the young farmer with the procedure she suggested is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He complains to Lord Grantham that “this sort of thing will not be tolerated in his surgery,” as if she had broken out the laudanum, then went for a joy ride in his brougham.
Next up in the Ten Little Downton Abbey: Matthew Crawley. Son of Isobel, hero of the first World War where he sustained a spine injury that left him unable to walk, and unable to “truly be a man.” Unfortunately, Matthew is engaged to Miss Swire, a delicate girl with whom he has no discernible sexual chemistry so it could be argued that she may not take the bad “man” news as hard as the doctor thinks.
Months of Matthew in a wheelchair pass, until the day in drawing room when Miss Swire trips on a corner of carpet and Matthew leaps from his chair to catch her. I’m no Doctor Clarkson but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some physical stage between paraplegic and leaping? Wouldn’t there be some small increments of change, some inkling of improvement that one would notice?
Is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He tells Lord Grantham and the rest of clan who are questioning him in the drawing room that upon reading the x-ray it was his educated opinion that the spine was severed. Severed, he explains, to the point where one will no longer truly be a man. However, a doctor in London (again with the London medical community) also read the x-ray at the same time as Dr. Clarkson and diagnosed a “bruised spine” meaning that recovery was possible. Yet Dr. Clarkson felt it would be cruel to offer Matthew any shred of hope. And, as you see, Dr. Clarkson finishes, It was, and it is, and what about those cocktails? Carry on being a man, Matthew.
Unfortunately, the Spanish Flu is laying everyone to waste. Lady Grantham gets sick. Very sick and who do they call? Dr. Clarkson tells the family that She’ll probably expire in the night. Unless, of course, she doesn’t. But I really think she will. Yes, look at her bent over the bed, sick and sweating and delirious. Gather round, Granthams, because it isn’t like she should be quarantined or anything because it isn’t like this flu is contagious and killing a third of the planet’s population and—oh, by the way—could you get a couple of the servants in here, too? If only because they eat in the kitchen, near the food.
Miss Swire takes ill at the same time but the doctor says she has just a touch, not even a cough and I’ll see you in the morning…when rigor mortis has set in.
As he stands with Matthew and other family members, looking at Miss Swire’s sweet, lifeless form while the doomed Lady Grantham is recovering nicely down the hall, is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He says Ah, yes. Tricky business flu. Hard to predict. Cocktails?
(At this point, one wonders why Bates didn’t refer his inconvenient and vindictive ex-wife to Dr. Clarkson for a check-up.)
In the Season Three opener, when Mrs. Hughes discovers a lump in her breast and it’s off to the man who cannot tell the difference between a bruised spine and a severed spine. As Mrs. Hughes sits in Dr. Clarkson’s office, Mrs. Patmore by her side getting increasingly agitated, Mrs. Hughes says, “Mrs. Patmore, please allow me to be the hysterical one.” Now I believe that Mrs. Patmore was attempting the verbal equivalent of kicking a spouse under the table when dining with friends that you really don’t like because of their pretentious utterances, and backhanded compliments yet you can’t avoid them because, you keep claiming to be too busy for dinner, they finally say, Okay, then when can we have dinner? and replying Never is never an option. There is Mrs. Patmore in Dr. Clarkson office, figuratively kicking Mrs. Hughes under the table, speaking with her foot, “Listen, Mrs. Hughes, remember when I was going blind in the first season and was trying to keep it a secret even though I was working all day with knives and boiling water and open flames and no one really noticed I was going blind and making culinary mistakes because I was cooking English cuisine? And when I was found out I said that I hid my condition because I was afraid I would lose my lucrative Downton Abbey kitchen job? Well, really it was because I’m friends with the young farmer’s wife and she told me what happened in the surgery, her fears of destitution and descent into that kind of really unsanitary Edwardian Era prostitution. Then there was the confab of overexposure in the sick room of someone with Spanish Flu. And maybe I didn’t go to Oxford but even I know a severed spine when I see one. After all, I work with joints of venison and butchered lambs and pheasant and it isn’t rocket science to see when something is severed. And, by the way, you’ll notice that Lord Grantham sent me to LONDON, where I was treated by doctors in LONDON and now I don’t even need contacts.”
But Mrs. Hughes, not unlike a spouse who turns to you and says, “Why are you kicking me?” causing you to smile nervously at your hosts while secretly feeling astonished as such cluelessness, says to Dr. Clarkson, “When can we do the biopsy?”
He tells her now, and Mrs. Patmore exclaims, “Will it hurt?”—trying desperately to get her friend on board here. Instead Mrs. Hughes replies, “It doesn’t matter. Whether it hurts or not, it must be done,” effectively releasing Dr. Clarkson from any pretense of medical competency.
Post-biopsy, Dr. Clarkson tells Mrs. Hughes that—big surprise—he can’t tell what’s what. He uses the word “inconclusive” the way other people say, “who the fuck knows?” He’s decided to send it on to London for a second opinion, which would be heartening except this is the same doctor who had a second opinion (from London) on the condition of Matthew’s spine. So, it doesn’t matter what the other doctor says since Dr. Clarkson Owen will be drawing his own conclusions anyway.
It will be over two months before he hears anything—long enough for Mrs. Hughes to be untreated and well on her way to becoming part of the cast of Ten Little Indians. His advice? Take it easy and don’t work too hard, clearly ignoring the fact that all those cocktails don’t pour themselves, something he may want to consider once he’s done “treating” everyone.
(Downton Update: As of last week Mrs Hughes has been given a
death warrant clean bill of health by Dr. Clarkson. Nice knowin’ ya, Mrs. H.)