Let me state for the record that I began watching Downton Abbey to write a parody of it. Honestly. I didn’t think – ooh, a period drama, I’m massively into those, bring on the silverware and stiff upper lips. Really. Even though for several weeks in 2011, I had the theme music stuck in my head, and seriously contemplated purchasing a faithful hound of my own.
At the time, I was working on a TV comedy show, and I had a Downton sketch idea that I thought was terribly clever, and to cut a long story short, when we tried it, it wasn’t. In the service of said idea, I found myself watching the whole of Series 1 in about 48 hours.
I loved it instantly, just as an English aristocrat might fall in love with another, higher-ranked English aristocrat across a drawing-room, even though they’re so closely related that they share the same surname. Better to marry the cousin than the chauffeur, though, what?
Upstairs, Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham was a model of chubby English rectitude and Maggie Smith was amusingly archaic and acerbic as the Dowager Countess. Downstairs, Mr Bates and Anna’s love story was delightful, even if she never seemed to call him by his first name, and Thomas the footman and O’Connor the maid were deliciously villainous, even if it seemed a little unfortunate that the token gay character in the series is also the most morally ambiguous.
Even though it seems ever so classy, Downton is ultimately something of a guilty pleasure, both because I feel a little odd giving two figs about the personal lives of spoiled, poncy aristocrats, and because the series is a soap opera wrapped in nobility and the associated finery. While it’s no less obsessively detailed than a Merchant Ivory, the plotlines are so tempestuous that Dallas Abbey might have been a more appropriate subject, as became clear early in the series with a subplot involving Lady Mary’s – ahem – unfortunate nocturnal visitor. Quelle scandale!
But yes, yes; I enjoyed it, thanks to the skilful writing, impressive acting and beautiful English countryside. And I am a sucker for a bit o’romance, especially when it involves guys getting to bat way out of their league. After all, like Branson the chauffeur-turned-suitor, a fella can dream.
Besides, tough Aussie blokes are allowed to watch Downton Abbey – Tony Abbott said so. Especially if the opinion polls say they need to increase their appeal to women.
As I went on to watch the second series, though, the show began to lose me a little. The handling of the war and its aftermath got a touch ridiculous, and the twists and turns of the various romances got irritatingly contrived. I won’t go into details for fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t yet watched – even though from what I have gleaned of the third series, things are well and truly spoiled already. As the series went on, I began wishing that the series’ token Irish revolutionary would lead a band of brigands through the oaken doors and claim the place to be an orphanage.
The odd thing about the world of Downton is that the way the Crawleys live, even though it’s only a hundred years ago, has more in common with Jane Austen’s world than it does with our own. Rituals like dressing for dinner are almost entirely alien to us in the twenty-first century. As time passes in the series, and their time begins to approach our own, the strict hierarchy began to grate more and more, even as it breaks down.
I guess given my surname, somebody somewhere in the past must have been a knight in some courtly sense, who knows – but there’s no fanciness in my roots that I’m aware of. Perhaps my forebears were members of that most painful element in all of Jane Austen’s novels – those on the outside fringes of nobility who were obsequious supplicants towards their supposed social betters. I’m thinking of that appalling curate from Pride & Prejudice, Mr Collins, forever bowing and scraping to his patron Lady Catherine. How despicable to have such enormous regard for a hierarchy in which you are ranked extremely lowly. It’s like caring deeply about television ratings when you work at Channel Ten.
In Downton, class snobbery tends to be the preserve of two often unsympathetic characters – Maggie Smith’s snooty Countess and the butler Carson, who seems to care more about upholding the Crawleys’ privilege than even they do, the poor fellow. Downton Abbey makes the same point that Austen does – that behaviour is more important than breeding. And that’s all well and good, but whether they live honourably or not, the well-bred still get to live in an extremely luxurious bubble.
The other thing is that devoid of the major dramas that the scriptwriter Julian Fellowes regularly visits upon the Crawleys, life in a stately home seems incredibly boring, especially when you have a staff and therefore no chores to do. When the highlight of one’s day is yet another family formal dinner when Granny insults you, I’d expect every single heiress to abscond with a handsome under-footman, just to make their lives slightly more interesting.
Ultimately, the rigid class structure in Downton just made made me angry, and the beautiful scenery and manners failed to compensate. The unalloyed snobbery, the hoity-toity fanciness – and even the moments of kindness seem enormously condescending when you think about them, like when Lord Grantham is so touchingly kind as to take an interest in his cook’s health problems, presumably so he can guarantee his supply of stuffed quail.
Even the language which seems so charming initially becomes ridiculous on further analysis – honestly, who could stand to continually be addressed as “my Lord”? And the view of several of the Crawleys that their world needs to be preserved to provide employment and structure for those lucky commoners who get a chance to polish their boots is as misguided as it is offensive.
I don’t know if I’ll get to the end of the third series of Downton, especially given the rumours I’ve heard about the wacky Christmas special at its end. The only thing that will convince me to keep watching is if somebody can promise me that at the end, the Crawleys fall on hard times, this time without an improbable financial windfall to save them, and end up being forced to wait on their former servants. Seeing the Dowager Countess serving cups of tea to Daisy the kitchenmaid is just about the only thing in their world that I’d still like to see.
Ultimately spending time in the privileged world of Downton Abbey has only made me rejoice that their world has ended forever. I’m also very grateful that my ancestors had the sense to move to Australia, where we only bow and scrape to people if they’re good at cricket.