Downton Abbey, a costume drama depicting ‘belle epoque’ Edwardian England, was named the ‘Most Critically Acclaimed Television Show of the Year', in 2011, the first time The Guinness Book of World Records gave this accolade to a British show. Around 10 million UK viewers watched the first series, which became the biggest selling DVD ever, on Amazon.
So – what’s all the fuss about? Refreshingly, British historian A N Wilson has bucked the trend - informing BBC Radio 4 on the Today show that the series is all ‘bollocks’ – and in British tabloid The Daily Mail he opined that writer Julian Fellowes – made a peer of the realm by the UK Coalition government in 2010 - presents a view of Edwardian England that is ‘a gross distortion of history’ fuelled by ‘upper class nostalgia’.
Fellowes gained an Oscar for his screenplay of feature film ‘Gosford Park’, before he created Downton Abbey. The film was an apt precursor to the series – featuring life above and below stairs in an English country house set in the 1930s. According to A N Wilson, in his depiction of Downton Abbey, Fellowes ‘glorifies an ordering of society that was hateful in reality. While the real life aristocracy of Edwardian England lived in grandeur and expected other people to wait on them and attend to all their needs, the great majority of British people lived without sanitation, education or comfort.’
‘You’ll not always be in charge you know. The day is coming when your lot will have to toe the line just like the rest of us’, declares a minor character in Series One – after a failed attempt to blackmail the butler for his past as a music hall entertainer, and before being bought off by the Lord of the manor, Lord Grantham.
‘Perhaps’ replies the lord, ‘meanwhile that day has not come yet’.
And the whole tone of the storyline suggests that it never will. Primogeniture – the passing of grand estates down the male line - also reigned supreme in Jane Austen’s Georgian England of a century before, and the fact that none of the girls of the Bennet household could inherit their father’s estate in Pride and Prejudice, was central to the plot. Similarly in Downton Abbey, an outsider is brought in from Manchester (‘Manchester!’ snorts Dowager Lady Crawley), as he is the nearest male relative, and thus the new heir, following the untimely deaths of the expected heir and his son on the Titanic. In a similar plotline to the seminal Austen novel, the older upper class females inevitably scheme to marry him off to one of the daughters.
Meanwhile, yet another hundred years on, in 2011, Fellowes has bemoaned the fact that his own (real life!) wife cannot inherit the title from her uncle, Lord Kitchener, and thus become ‘Countess Kitchener of Khartoum’. In the Radio Times Fellowes declares that it is ‘outrageous’ that a female cannot inherit a hereditary title. And yet his tales of Downton Abbey paint a cosy tale of ‘noblesse oblige’, of upper class privilege and the dignified behaviour of staff who know their place. Should he complain about a system that has preserved the landed gentry for millennia, by ensuring vast country estates were all left intact to the oldest (male) child?
In an early episode, eldest daughter Lady Mary wanders through the servants’ personal quarters in the vast Downton Abbey, with a duke. She has the good grace to look embarrassed when seen by Bates, the Lord’s valet - yet seems unmoved by the fact the servants’ bedrooms are not much bigger than berths on the fateful Titanic that sank and put her in the mess she finds herself in - about to lose the estate, and with no male heir to marry.
If Fellowes had his way then, his wife would inherit her uncle the Duke’s title, and a precious storyline, mined since Elizabeth Bennet first found love with Mr Darcy, would be lost to authors forever. Along with the little bit of England that he seems to view through such rosy specs - where the lower classes have no independence yet seem satisfied with their lot as long as they can eat every day and have a roof over their heads. Albeit a roof owned by the family they must obey to the letter and wait on hand and foot, with little time off and no potential to raise families of their own unless they can make their way in a different career entirely, whatever that may be, and - which brings us back to A N Wilson – ‘without sanitation, education or comfort’.
But OK, hands up - it’s a rattling good (multi stranded) tale, a superlative soap, with great costumes and a healthy dollop of British history, albeit to be taken with a pinch of salt – or a spoonful of sugar. And talking of Edwardian times, Downton Abbey nicely fills in a Sunday night, but for class Edwardian escapism – give me Mary Poppins any day of the week!