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