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Downton Abbey is a fantasy of the past. That’s why we love it

In it we watch the only aristocrats on earth who seemingly never care about money

By on Monday, 19 September 2011

The costumes, the architecture and references to the First World War serve only as window-dressing

The costumes, the architecture and references to the First World War serve only as window-dressing

So, how was it for you? I mean, of course, Downton Abbey, the one television programme that gripped the nation last night, and the one staple of conversation today, indeed, possibly all week, until we reach episode two.

Why are we all drawn to Downton, I wonder? It can’t be because it is good – for it isn’t. This is not high class, serious drama, like, let us say, Brideshead Revisited was, broaching serious themes. Yes, the second series brings in the First World War and the horror of the trenches, but only as a background to a continuing soap opera: the war was considerably less interesting than what nasty Thomas was up to with his near self-inflicted wound, and the question of whether Cousin Matthew would survive and marry Lady Mary. There were a few nods to the theme of social change and servant class ambition, the new character Ethel taking over from where the last parlour maid-turned-typist left off. But all this is icing on the cake, like the costumes and the architecture – pretty window-dressing to disguise the drug of soap opera and the one thing that keeps us viewing, namely the nagging question of what is going to happen next.

Not only is Downton not good, it is positively bad. I am much taken with the evil O’Brien, the satanic lady’s maid, who seems to have some inexplicable hold over her otherwise very nice mistress Lady Grantham. The actress Siobhan Finneran takes a whiff of sulphur to this part, and spends her time channelling the late, ever to be lamented Mrs Danvers. It is a triumph of over-acting, and quite puts melodrama back on the map. Finneran even puts the absurd self-caricature of Dame Maggie Smith in the shade.

These delights apart, Downton must cause most believers in social progress to despair. The Abbey is a happy commonwealth, a microcosm where paternalism really seems to work, both the paternalism of butler and housekeeper and that of Earl and Countess. The greatest snob of them all is of course the butler, who notes that Matthew’s new fiancée is not to be found in Burke’s Peerage or Burke’s Landed Gentry. No one is planning to march up the driveway to burn the place down; no tumbrils are being prepared for the noble inhabitants or their working-class lackeys; in fact quite the opposite – the picture is one of paradisiacal stability.

Downton assumes that we are in love with our past, though it is a past that perhaps never existed. By the time the First World War broke out many of the landowning aristocracy were long convinced that they were doomed – not just by the repeal of the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century, but by the legislation passed by Asquith and Lloyd George’s Liberal government, in particular the People’s Budget of 1909. This complete lack of reference to the economic conditions of the time makes Downton a fantasy, much more than the raft of historical errors and the general lack of verisimilitude. We too live in a Britain that has run out of money, but clearly we do not want to face up to being cash-strapped – we’d rather watch Downton instead where we can see the only aristocrats on earth who seemingly never care about money. This of course contradicts one of the data of the drama – the Countess is an American, and presumably was married for her cash – like, for example, the real life and very unhappy Consuelo Vanderbilt, who became Duchess of Marlborough.

Ah well, humankind, especially the kind that wants to relax in front of the telly on a Sunday evening, cannot bear very much reality. We want to be entertained. And I was entertained. I shall watch again. But what do our tastes in entertainment tell us about ourselves?

  • Dr J P McFall

    Well, I recall a case just three years ago where two Catholic girls from the Philippines were held captive and were used as slave labour by two (husband and wife) Harley Street Consultant who charged £1000 per hour for their services.The girls were beaten regularly and were not given any time off, even allowed to attend mass. Eventually, one of them escaped and spoke to a priest at Westminster Cathedral, and the matter was quietly resolved for them, but no charges were brought against the Doctors. No one was too bothered and the issue was covered up. I am reliably informed that such practices are widespread among the Nouveau Riche, and matters have changed little since the time of Downton Abbey. If fact things are probably worse because at least in those days there were traditions whereby an aristocratic family would lose it public standing if they abused their servants; they just dismissed them. Five eights of the world are starving and the majority of Catholics living in the Philippines and several other Catholic countries are living is squalor and disease, whilst The Vatican and Catholic Church Clerics enjoy opulence. We badly need the morality of Jesus Christ.

  • Brian A Cook

    “Five eights of the world are starving and the majority of Catholics
    living in the Philippines and several other Catholic countries are
    living is squalor and disease, whilst The Vatican and Catholic Church
    Clerics enjoy opulence.”

    This is a very serious allegation.  Can anyone respond? 

  • Annie

    Never watched it, although from the pics the frocks look nice.

  • Annie

    I don’t think there’s any point replying, anyone making such silly statements is bound to ignore anything anyone says to the contrary.

  • Anonymous

    Can’t get into it…I love Maggie Smith but I just can’t empathise or sympathise with the characters – even the poor git who had to sacrifice everything for the sake of his master [not becoming aware of his wife’s infidelity.

    I bought my other half the complete Upstairs Downstairs on DVD for her Birthday – now THAT IS worth watching…and saying that I did like the new miniseries…but Downton? It’s less Forsyte saga and more Flambards…

  • amfortas

    I think you’ll find the noble Lord married the American for her cash.

  • Confused

    “majority of Catholics living in the Philippines and several other Catholic countries are living is squalor and disease” presumable along  with their clerics!!!

  • Blank

    “But what do our tastes in entertainment tell us about ourselves?” I watched ‘Samurai: Back from the dead’ on Channel 4 and then fell asleep…..should I be watching TV at all??

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    But they fell in love later?

  • Annie

    I watched that too.

  • Oconnordamien

    It could be a natural reaction against the attack against intellectualism and celebration of stupidity and vaingloriousness that is called reality tv. 

    I don’t watch it myself but I can see the appeal of a well scripted and acted melodrama.

    I only presume it’s not drama from the article, which noted it’s concern for characters rather than events. So sorry if I got that wrong.

  • Parasum

    “The greatest snob of them all is of course the butler, who notes that
    Matthew’s new fiancée is not to be found in Burke’s Peerage or Burke’s
    Landed Gentry.”

    That is not snobbery – it’s sound sense. Unfortunately, peoplre these days can’t tell the difference between the vice of snobbery, and good sense. Certain people are not “cut out” for life in certain circumstances – they would be out for place, for good reasons. One such set of circuumstances – though a relatively rare one, for obvious reasons – is marrying into the aristocracy, or into the Royal Family; those without the background for that kind of life, may have difficulty in adapting to it: as some recent Royal marriages and divorces suggest. If this is at all true today, it was even more true just before WW1.

    What is bad is the barbarisation of British culture – that affects most people.

  • Parasum

    out for = out of 

    O, for an edit button. 

  • D Corrigan

    Yes, Amnesty International will support these figures. amnesty.gov.uk

  • Katie

    Depressing. I think we shuld say a prayer for all those who have nothing more uplifting or entertaining to do than watch this sort of stuff. Rioting would show more cultural awareness. 

  • Katie

    Depressing. I think we shuld say a prayer for all those who have nothing more uplifting or entertaining to do than watch this sort of stuff. Rioting would show more cultural awareness.