Department of Soap Operatics: ‘Downton Abbey’ and Decay

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With the premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey, it has become clear that the rest of the show (no matter how long it remains on the air) is likely going to some extent be centered on one thing only: The fighting of rearguard actions against the inevitable march of modernity, dissolution of class barriers, and the wrecking of aristocratic fortunes and the privileges they once bestowed. There will be more of the expected soap opera theatrics—one hopes for a couple good cases of selective amnesia, perhaps an evil twin to Cousin Matthew who pops up after spending a few years debauching in the Far East and now has eyes for Mary—but in the main it will keep coming back to the house, the staff, and the great tubs of money needed to keep it all running.

downton2It’s now 1920 in the show, with the Irish Civil War about to hot up in earnestness, England still mostly devastated from the losses of war, and the Great Depression and World War II waiting just around the corner to knock off what was left of the nation’s imperial largesse that sustains all those estates and their to-the-manor-born inhabitants. History insists that it will come to an end. But for all the show’s characters who carp from the sidelines about the new era and increasing freedoms, it’s clear that going forward the background emotion will be a reactionary sort of nostalgia for a time when servants and the lower classes knew their place. (For all those pining to work downstairs, PBS’s site has a truly horrible quiz here: “Which Downton Abbey Job is Right For You?“)

James Parker has a short, sharp rumination on the show and its “magnificent badness” in the Atlantic. It’s memorable, among other things, for his take on how Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham (“…he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury”). Parker goes on to note, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that no matter how long the show continues, the end fate is certain. To that point, he pulls out a sad little gem from, of all places, Rod Stewart’s autobiography, where the singer is describing a time in 1971 when he and his fiancée Dee Harrington were looking over Cranbourne Court, a Georgian estate west of London they wanted to buy:

Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.

Safe to say that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes will give the Crawleys a more dignified exit than that. Whether or not they deserve it is another point entirely.

The Happy, Happy Poors of ‘Downton Abbey’

Danny Boyle’s Industrial-New Wave mashup of an Olympics opening ceremony aside — which, for all the pomp still included strong references to labor struggles and protest that would be unthinkably left-wing were it being held in this country — a yearning for the supposedly simpler and more dignified England prior to World War I still holds a powerful sway. Never mind the brutal working conditions or harsh class divisions, there is a curious nostalgia among Americans (likely the Brits as well) for a time when, for better or worse, everybody knew their place, whether they wanted to or not. Call it the Downton Abbey effect.

Consider this from Judith Flanders’ caustic review of Paul Thomas Murphy’s new book Shooting Victoria:

British television has a lot to answer for. From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey,” it has perpetrated an image of “historical” Britain as a country filled with a loved, even revered, upper class that gracefully patronizes the lower orders, who in turn are thrilled to roll over and have their tummies tickled by their social superiors. Absent is any sense of political, much less social unrest—there are no bread riots, no Luddites, no machine wreckers. Thus many PBS viewers might be surprised by the violence that accompanied the 19th century’s extreme political instability. And they might be positively shocked to learn that no fewer than seven of Queen Victoria’s subjects made attempts on her life.

As viewers of Downton Abbey know well, the villains are just about never the well-mannered (if occasionally clueless or bratty) owners of the great house itself. Chaos and distemper always appears in the form of the servant who’s getting above themselves or the nouveau riche interloper who thinks he can simply buy his way into the upper class. This fictional world is not one where the downstairs crew might ever be shown to have a true grievance against a mostly nonworking aristocracy that’s been feeding off their labor for centuries.

But then if BBC America started pitching a series about suffragists and the Jarrow Marchers, it might provide fewer opportunities for petticoat eye candy. So serious, those protesting types.