Arts and Culture

In Defence of 'Downton Abbey'

By the same person who told you I hate 'Breaking Bad.' Hey, sometimes drek delights.

By Shannon Rupp 4 Jan 2014 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor, whose previous articles can be found here.

The well-dressed drek that is Downton Abbey kicks off its fourth season on Jan. 5 and I couldn't be more delighted. Here's an unseemly confession from a writer who often toils as a critic: I love the particular sort of bad television that Downton represents.

It's not so much a costume drama as fabulous wardrobes with a little acting. Or maybe I should say a decor drama, since the house itself plays a role and is one of the chief reasons I'm still riveted to this increasingly awful soap.

TV pundits mutter about the scripts getting worse and worse, and they're not wrong. Remember the Canadian imposter who claimed he was the estate's rightful heir returned after (supposedly) drowning on the Titanic? Whatever happened to him? The Canadian accent was all over the map -- sort of Ottawa Valley by way of Manchester with a side-trip to New Jersey -- but the ridiculous plot twist was just the thing to get Downton's cast of remarkably skilled eyebrows a-twitching. I keep hoping he'll reappear.

Stop cursing the scripts, I say. Watching well-trained British thespians struggling against dreadful dialogue is half the fun!

When it comes to good-bad TV, I want no historical accuracy, no socio-political accuracy, no disturbing accuracy of any sort beyond the costumes copied from fashions found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Downton Abbey lacks all these things in spades. It came about after Julian Fellowes -- Baron Fellowes of West Stafford -- penned the screenplay for the 2001 film Gosford Park and realized he'd stumbled onto gold of the Upstairs, Downstairs variety. Astoundingly, the Robert Altman film was the toast of awards season.

At the time it seemed unlikely that it would be such statue-bait given that it was little more than a pastiche of other well known things (which is a fair description of Downton Abbey too). The movie's mystery was a puzzle so simple that it barely earned the name but it recalled an Agatha Christie cosy. The cast was superb, led by Maggie Smith, and it included every accomplished Brit actor not chewing the scenery over at Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

The formula gave Gosford Park a charm that invited repeated viewings. There's something soothing about it all. Is it the elegant servant's livery? The warm kitchens turning out endless well-made meals? Personally, I think it's all the rituals. It's comforting to enter a world where everyone agrees on what to do and how to do it. (Am I the only one nostalgic for a time when people dressed for dinner?)

Twaddle worth a wallow

Many critics noted that Fellowes designed Gosford and Downton both to recall the 1970s hit Upstairs, Downstairs. I discovered that show 15 years after the fact when I stumbled on an old Esquire column by Nora Ephron, in which she gushed over the obviously ridiculous series. Her enthusiasm for what I had assumed was mere twaddle sent me on a hunt for what would turn out to be the first television show I actually liked. Oh, it was twaddle, but there was nothing mere about it. There was something weirdly reassuring about those tales sparked by a rigid class system.

Although Downton's crew doesn't share the DNA of Upstairs, Downstairs, the shows do share many a plot. And both have only the faintest grasp of history. Major world-changing events, like the 1919 flu pandemic, serve as little more than a means to rid themselves of inconvenient characters in a romantic triangle.

There's only an occasional fact amidst the fancy, and I'm sure it's there to make the audience feel less frivolous. When eclampsia took poor Lady Sybil, within a couple of hours of giving birth, it had the virtue of making me look up the pregnancy-related seizures. But only after I cried.

Generally I learn nothing whatsoever about anything from shows like this because both Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs are astoundingly dishonest in similar ways.

Lie to me

Perhaps the most eye-popping lie they tell is that being a servant in a great home was a good life for those in service. Mr. Carson, the gruff-but-kind butler runs a servants' hall in which everyone is treated with kindness and compassion. Even if they have out-of-wedlock babes or engage in Oscar Wilde's love that dare not speak its name.

That doesn't square with any of the reading I've done about the era. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain and came with social ostracism as well as stiff sentences until 1967. And just consider the lot of scullery maids. With huge cast iron pots to scrub, caustic soaps and no rubber gloves, scullery maids hired at the tender age of 14 or so were soon in agony from raw skin and repetitive strain injuries. They often died young from overwork or accidents. Death by scalding was common as they carried boiled water for scrubbing dishes, floors and clothes.

As for the warm community feeling between the denizens of the different floors, history tells us that their employers wouldn't have known any but the most senior servants existed -- let alone what their names were. Parlour maids were expected to avert their gaze should they happen to encounter one of the masters while stoking fires at dawn. Kitchen staff working 18-hour days in the basements were all but invisible.

For a glimpse of just how grim the life of Edwardian servants was, the 2003 reality show Manor House (on YouTube) sent a dozen volunteers to live in that world for three months. Within days of the project's launch, two volunteer kitchen maids quit in horror, despite the prospect of reality TV fame. Apparently being a maid a century ago was worse than eating insects or starving on a desert island.

Return of the manservant

An acquaintance with stern views on growing economic inequality finds my enthusiasm for Downton and its dreadful writing inexplicable. He's deeply offended by images of the swells treating the underclasses as their pets. He insists it's a form of propaganda. He argues that Downton Abbey exists to make us accept our ever-declining fortunes, which may well be leading us and/or our children to jobs as servants.

He could be right. This month Harper's Magazine has a piece from a writer who did the buttling course at Denver's Starkey International Institute for Household Management, where they train hoi polloi to serve the One Per Cent. Apparently there is a growing demand among the economic elite for their very own Carson and/or a Mrs. Hughes.

So I take his point. And yet.

I'm far from alone in adoring all the doings at Downton. The show has more than 12 million viewers in the U.S. and around 10 million in the U.K. A pal who designs necklaces with long ropes of amethysts and pearls that echo the beaded marvels of that era suspects there are a lot more obsessive fans than we know. Whenever there's a new season of Downton she gets requests for "Lady Mary's necklace" in astoundingly specific terms, including season, episode and scene.

Personally, I suspect they're looking for souvenirs after taking a little vacation at Downton Abbey. I find the time spent contemplating those high ceilings and immense fireplaces like a restful holiday from my own beleaguered life. I live in chaos; they give me a glimpse of order. Everyone I know eats on the run; they have proper conversations, while gloved manservants ladle out the soup.

An hour at Downton is like slipping into a psychic warm bath. Entire episodes pass without much happening beyond regular meals and social events. Breakfast, tea and then a party, all following each other in an orderly procession, seems to be the rhythm of most of their days.

And everyone seems so satisfied with his lot in life (except for the occasional melodramatic villain). There is a mutual loyalty between the servants and their employers, each of whom respects the other's work, which is mostly absent from today's workplace.

Safely removed

Yes, I do realize their world is just as imaginary as anything Game of Thrones has to offer -- and perhaps more so. There are truths about human nature and socio-political experiences in Game of Thrones that reflect real situations. Nothing like that can be said of Downton Abbey. No, it's more a sort of Disneyland for those who appreciate flappers' frocks and elaborate manners.

In fact, if I were building an amusement theme park this is exactly what I'd develop. Although I suppose Highclere Castle, which plays Downton Abbey, has that covered with regular tours and a brisk business in weddings.

In short, it's the perfect fantasy for anyone suffering early 21st century angst. And I suffer not a lick of shame for indulging in it, despite what snobbish critics say. Let 'em have their meth-making high school teachers and their alcoholic ad execs. Sunday evening will find me curled up with a cup of tea anticipating Maggie Smith's zingers punctuated with an arched eyebrow.

And I have just the retort for when my fellow scribes mock my viewing habits: If it's good enough for Nora Ephron, it's good enough for me.  [Tyee]

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