Downton tells us nothing truthful about 1925

While watching Downton Abbey, the phone rang and I picked it up. I didn’t bother to hit pause. My friend said: “They say that this is the last season of Downton, but I don’t believe them. It’s like one of those shops that says it’s having a closing down sale. But you walk past it five years later and it’s still there, still closing down.”

Unfortunately, I think he’s probably right. Every economic downturn produces a Downton. In the early 1980s, it was Brideshead Revisited. In the early 1990s, it was The Darling Buds of May. This is the British instinct: to retreat into the past. The past where everybody knew their place. As a conservative of sorts, I ought to find this reassuring. But the historian in me is cynical.

Things weren’t really like Downton – not at all. Some servants were treated very badly. The work was underpaid. The holidays were rare. Lives were lived in quiet desperation. Like any essentially abusive relationship, things could be as bad for the master as the servant – some of whom lived in terror of their staff and the strange noises they made in the middle of the night. None of this is articulated in Downton, which is about as historically accurate as Mary Poppins. Oh, doesn’t everything look lovely in the Roaring Twenties?

The men’s suits never crease even when they sit down. The women shimmer across the room in sequins and pearls. Maggie Smith, doing her latest impression of a barmy old aunt, drops waspish asides. There’s some campy melodrama to give each episode an arc – someone drops dead in the lower field, someone gets inconveniently pregnant, etc. But everything is wrapped up with a drinks party at the end.

It tells us nothing truthful about 1925 and papers over the cracks of 2015 with fiction – the fiction that the gap between rich and poor is an illusion and that we’re all good chums really. In reality, social divisions have returned to their bad old ways. And one reason why we don’t talk more about it is because we’re too distracted by silly television like this.

Here’s hoping that this is Downton’s last season. Here’s hoping in vain.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15)

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