The mad overanalysis of Downton Abbey

The media need to calm down. People like this period drama because it’s Through the Keyhole with costumes.

David Bowden

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Which is it then, eh? Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs? ITV or BBC? Which one are you discussing round the water cooler? Which is more accurate? What does it say about life in coalition Britain? It’s just like today, isn’t it? Toffs in charge of everything, Liberals in power, the Empire on the slide, class tension on the street. What are you watching?

Of all the media-driven attempts to manufacture a Shared National Experience, the excitement we’re all supposed to be feeling at the prospect of this period drama double-header has to be the most turgid yet. It’s perhaps worse because it took place amid the festive schedule, where TV becomes sentimental and nostalgic, like a sozzled elderly relative, over its role in bringing the nation together over Xmas. There’s an emotive impulse to capture the cosy excitement of years gone by that has become increasingly desperate in an age of multi-media platforms and dwindling audiences. Soon, Xmas TV will be solely made up of reanimated 3-D versions of Morecambe & Wise shouting at you to turn off those bloody toys and sit down to have a conversation like a proper family, for once.

But for now, our TV channels do battle over who can deliver the definitive Edwardian drama of our times. For those not in the know, Upstairs, Downstairs was a smash-hit ITV drama in the Seventies that depicted the lives of the aristocrats and servants in an Edwardian townhouse in London. The BBC aimed to revive the show as a stylish remake this Yuletide, hoping to tap into the estimated international audience of one billion that the original garnered. But ITV had again beaten them to it with the surprise success Downton Abbey, which depicts the lives of the aristocrats and servants in an Edwardian country house, and has acted as a much-needed hit for the beleaguered commercial channel.

As the media didn’t expect Downton Abbey to be a hit, they have been whipping themselves into a frenzy trying to analyse why it’s been a hit. The beleaguered newspaper industry has tried to bask in some reflected glory by cashing in with lots of Downton-related stories.

The success of the period drama is one of the most straightforward in the history of entertainment, which is why it so appeals to people who make them: poor people, of which there are many, quite like the idea of living in a big house with lots of servants. But as they don’t, it’s quite fun peering into the lives of those who do. Setting the drama in a not-too-distant past keeps it entertaining, as it gives enough distance from the immediacy and complexity of contemporary politics which might otherwise ruin the escapism.

This concept has worked wonders for generations – it’s a device which roughly charts the development of the English novel – and has turned to gold yet again. As was noted when BBC4 ran a season of programmes on the Edwardians back in 2007, that period suits the purposes perfectly: the Edwardians were the first modern generation to have access to a relative degree of material comfort and peacetime prosperity, with all the social and political upheaval that implies, before dovetailing into the horrors of the First World War. The Edwardians are how the twentieth century should’ve looked, before politics and bloodshed got in the way.

The other key to the success of the period drama is that it is an original work, rather than a remake of a canonical novel, which means that you can reinvent it to suit whatever current mood or prejudice you want without having to grapple with the historical and thematic specificity that writers like Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte aimed for (although TV producers still muck about with Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre anyway, of course). Hence the ferocious excitement greeting Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs for the media in a year where the election and slumping sales gave a sharp reminder of their increasing detachment from the masses: you can gaze at a successful period drama and see whatever you wish to, and rarely risk being proven wrong.

Left-liberals can look at its success as evidence that Britons are on the cusp of a return to the easier-to-understand class politics of the last century, while guiltily revelling in the materialism which is now scorned (because we know the toffs featured in these shows will ultimately get their comeuppance at the Somme in the end). Conservatives can let themselves get moist-eyed at the days when Britain was great, everyone knew their place and worked together in the National Interest. Everyone can tut at the homophobia and sexism and take a quiet pleasure in the casual racism directed at Americans. For example, the Daily Mail – if evidence was needed of its appeal to petit-bourgeois prejudices – falsely claimed Downton was being dumbed down for the US TV market.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a bit of mindless telly. It is undoubtedly why Downton has been the bigger hit: because ITV is a commercially minded beast ugly enough to know that people aren’t flocking to a Sunday night soap set in a fancy house because they’re looking for a lecture on today’s politics. Viewers are simply trying to take their minds off the cares of the day with a bit of classily made entertainment. Notably, the scriptwriter is Julian Fellowes, who may have picked up an Oscar for the classy Gosford Park, but was also willing to send himself up as an outrageous laird in now-departed fluffy Sunday night drama Monarch of the Glen. The remade Upstairs, Downstairs was equally silly, but was made with the lofty cultural high-mindedness of a BBC drama department that no longer remembers what actual high culture is.

So please, feel free to enjoy Downton Abbey. But let’s just enjoy its bland campness for what it is: extremely entertaining. Media commentators and TV commissioners should stop pretending that it’s anything important. More importantly, if anyone suggests bringing back The House of Eliott, I’m going to start killing the hostages.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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