Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/
The Brits seem to have a knack for making high-quality TV shows that stand the test of time. Max already looked at one of the funniest comedies of all-time, Fawlty Towers, and for my next pick I look at a British drama that I, like most of North America, fell in love with unexpectedly – Downton Abbey. Like Fawlty Towers, part of their secret of success was for it to not overstay its welcome, nor rush out vast quantities of inferior episodes.
When Downton Abbey first appeared (2011 in North America, a few months after its debut in the UK), there was quite a buzz about it. At the time, my sweetie and I were still a long-distance relationship and she talked about it enthusiastically every week; it had become her first “must-see” show since Friends ended, I think. But despite her great reviews and descriptions of it being believable and full of surprises, I was a bit skeptical. After all, it was basically a story about British nobility set a hundred years ago. That didn’t grab my fancy right away. Anyhow, when we ended up together, the series was midway through its run, and she wanted to keep watching, obviously. After a couple of episodes, I was not only hooked, but needed to go back to the start to find out how they arrived at their present “point B” – see what the “point A” was in effect. I’m very glad I did. It’s become one of my all-time favorite shows, and right now, she and I are trying to watch the series together again before it disappears off Netflix next week (I won’t mind buying a season or two on DVD since we likely won’t run through all six years of it before June.)
For those who somehow aren’t at least vaguely aware of the show (which might be difficult in this day and age given the media hype about the subsequent movies of it which have been made), Downton Abbey looks at one big British noble family in the early-20th Century, the Crawleys (who through the eccentricities of British protocol are also referred to as “Granthams”). I’m no expert on nobility, but to simplify, it would be fair to suggest they are like a lower-end royal family, living in a huge, stately erstwhile castle (the namesake of the show) on a huge estate, with a small village being part of their holdings. However, they’re also responsible for the upkeep of the land and village, so it’s not all a champagne and caviar carefree life for the Crawleys. The show involves the lives of their family, as well as the servants who work for them in the Abbey – a cast of cooks, maids, butlers, footmen and so on who are every bit as interesting as the landowners. And yes, it’s better than that sounds!
The Crawleys are headed by Robert, played by veteran actor Hugh Bonneville who seemed to be born for the part, a middle-aged, traditional man who is dubbed “Lord Grantham.” He’s married to an American though, Cora, who brought a good deal of cash…and an air of comparative casualness… to the estate. They had three daughters, eldest Mary, middle Edith and youngest Sybil, who were all in their late teens or early-20s when the show began and each quite a handful for their parents in their own way. And the scene-stealer, and probably the real power in the family, Robert’s mother, termed the “Dowager”, played with some of the best lines in the entire series by superstar of the British screen, Maggie Smith.
Meanwhile, “downstairs”, the household staff is run with a stern frown and hand from Carson, the aging and ever-so traditional butler; and Mrs. Hughes, the softer and slightly more progressive head of the female staff. Under them are a host of various positions – head cook Mrs. Patmore, her assistant cooks, scullery maids, the conniving Mrs. O’Brien, the head maid and her bedroom maids, ladies’ maids, footmen and valets. Among the most interesting of them are Mr. Bates and Anna; Lord Grantham’s personal valet and the daughters maid and attendant. Bates comes in with a limp and a dignity second only to Carson…and the combination of impeccable discretion and devotion to the job paired with a murky background and a vaguely sinister air around him. Bates seems loyal to a fault but also a man you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. Robert once notes to Carson when they hear a rumor Bates had stolen silverware on another job, “I could more imagine Bates an assasin than a thief.” He and Anna, sweet but sharing his devotion to the job, fall in love…with complications.
The show was created by Julian Fellowes, who’d won an Academy Award before for Best Screenplay for the loosely-similar themed Gosford Park. A stickler for detail, he hired a member of the Royal Family’s household staff (a historian in himself) as an advisor. As one actor, a minor character in the show pointed out “there were definitely a few times when I was told to sit differently or take my hands out of my pockets. And every meal, we’re reminded ‘You shouldn’t hold a fork this way’.” If an earl’s daughter had to know which fork and spoon to use for every course, and how to hold them precisely, so too did the Downton actors portraying them. One of the few complaints thrown at the show is that most of the staunchly Church Of England family seem somewhat anti-Catholic and the very few Black people who appear are tolerated, barely, only in a role as entertainers. As the Washington Post put it, Lord Grantham is “xenophobic…but at least historically accurate.” There were coaches for accents, and historians deciding on accurate costumes for all, staff and nobility alike.
Fellowes’ attention to detail, as well as glorious cinematography, elegant sets and English countryside scenery, helped make the show popular. How popular? Well, in Britain, where it ran on ITV, during its third and fourth seasons, it averaged nearly 12 million viewers a week, or one in five adults in the land. Over here, despite being on PBS, it drew over five milllion a week, their biggest success since Ken Burns’ Civil War series. Since then it’s been seen in over 200 countries, sold in the millions on DVD and been a big draw for Netflix, besides launching the spinoff movies.
But the authenticity was only one of the minor selling points that make it a must-see. (The following few paragraphs do contain a few spoilers, beware if you haven’t seen the whole series.) There were many others, many having to do with the universal themes it depicts. Fashions, slang, music, even common values change, but things like workplace backstabbing, marital discord and problematic children will always be with ut. They might have been British, and living a century ago in either privilege (the Crawley’s and their friends) or servitude (the staff), but there was lots in their lot we can still relate to. Like the problematic kids.
Early on in the series, Lady Mary, all of 22 or 23 at the time, is seduced by a handsome Turkish ambassador visiting the estate…who happens to have the misfortune of dying whilst “with” her in her bed. A scandal like that could bring shame on the entire family and render her “un-marriageable”…so of course her jealous younger sister Edith sends off a letter spilling the beans to the dead man’s embassy. Sybil, the youngest is arguably the prettiest and definitely the kindest of the girls, but also a rebel who wants to work, vote and eventually falls for the family’s driver, a servant and worse, a common Irishman. The family has to reconcile whether their love for doing things properly – bluebloods marrying bluebloods – is more important than their love for their daughter and her spirit.
Robert and Cora have to deal with ups and downs in their marriage, and things like downsizing. So much an unwelcome catch phrase of the past couple of decades, even then it became a necessity in their household as revenue dwindles while staff numbers kept rising on the estate. The at times toxic workplace environment is all too familiar. Footmen scheme against each other, the kitchen maids waste time trying to attract the footmen who inevitably seem interested in someone else, some sneak out to smoke and gossip on the clock…change the décor and background music and it could believably be a modern hotel or office. Carson at times has to hold his nose and be pragmatic and advance less-qualified people just to quell in-house staff battles and keep the peace.
And of course, the world is changing. It was changing in 1922 just as it is in 2022. During Season 2, World War I is raging and Lord Grantham’s son-in-law and heir to the estate is in the trenches with a previously disliked footman from his estate. Then the Spanish flu wipes out people on the estate as well as in the town. Sadly, when the show first came out around 2013, many assumed pandemics were as much ancient history as the hand-cranked phonographs they listened to music in Downton with. Robert and Carson hate change and have trouble dealing with the reality of the new world, brought to their doors by newcomers like Matthew (the middle-class lawyer who ends up marrying Mary) and worse, Branson, the Irish chauffeur reluctantly brought into the family fold. Most of the female staff seem a little more pragmatic and reluctantly open to the inevitable. Even telephones are viewed with suspicion – “is this an instrument of communication or torture?” the Dowager scowls while looking at the household’s first one, noticing the young people’s fascination with it.
Speaking of which, the old Dowager had some of the most memorable lines of this or any other series of late; the master of the subtle insult and way of putting things in proportion despite her displeasure – when the man dies in Mary’s bed, she notes “it could only happen to a foreigner. No Enlgishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.” When Cora smiles at her after one of her other comments and says “I’ll take that as a compliment,” the dowager sniffs “then I must have said it wrong.” Little wonder she won three Emmys on her own for the Best Supporting Actress role in it.
But most importantly, it was well-written and the characters realistic. Rather like All in the Family that Paula covered this week, it was fairly written and the characters, rich and poor alike had both redeeming and negative traits…although some had more of one than the other! And they’re full of surprises. Bates can’t stand Thomas, the footman who has tried to force him out (to make room for his own promotion) by trying to implicate him in some household thefts. The valet threatens to punch Thomas’ pearly teeth out the back of his head when he toys with a kitchen maid he has no interest in. But when another footman tries to blackmail the household and force Thomas out without any reference for the “crime” of being gay and not concealing it well enough, it’s Bates who rallies to his defence. Few saw that coming. He’d just spent time in prison for a crime he’d not committed but was set up for and feels for others who are being punished for things for which they’re not guilty, and that overrides his personal dislike for Thomas. As the years go by, we see the characters grow (except for the unfortunate ones killed off along the way – another factor in its unique success,Fellowes wasn’t afraid of rocking the boat and eliminating even popular characters…did we mention Sybil was the most popular of the daughters?) – and weather storms they face, dealing with a new world they’re not quite prepared for. Which might make them very much like us and those we know, work with and love.
A history lesson, well-written, well-acted, well-shot, and with enough cliffhangers and unexpected twists to make it a roller-coaster. No wonder the show, through its six seasons and 52 episodes, won at least 15 Emmys, was named by Elle the “best TV show” around and has resulted in two popular big screen movies so far (by the way, I saw the first, and while a perfectly nice-looking and interesting film, it was a bit pedestrian and lacked much of the intrigue of the TV series.)
A great show, and a great reminder to me that sometimes great things come in unexpected places.