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So That Explains It… Downton Abbey

Do your overseas friends need a primer in incomprehensible English mores? 'Downton Abbey' is available to fans of UK TV abroad.

Thu, May 18th, 2017

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‘Downton Abbey’ now with TVMucho

There’s no sign of an end to the ongoing Brit obsession with the lives of pre-war big houses, their masters, mistresses, and servants. Every decade has had its own lavish saga of life above and below stairs. With the arrival of Julian Fellowes’ all-conquering ‘Downton Abbey’ in 2010, the genre was definitively rebooted for the new millennium.

On the face of it, the appeal of the anglo-US production ought to be unfathomable. Britain held on to the institutions of domestic service longer than most European nations. However, the tide had already turned by WWII. If we’re so keen on a classless society, why the fascination with a remote world of clearly-marked social divisions? Let’s take a closer look in search of answers.


I want that house


Part of ‘Downton’s appeal is obvious. The subtly changing backdrop provided by the program’s gorgeous titular Abbey has been at least as important as any of its human actors. It’s impossible to view the reverentially-lit location interiors without wondering how it might feel to be the possessor of such a place.


We can see that possession of a stately home is not a solitary affair. It involves gardeners, kitchen staff, scullery maids, a cook, a chauffeur and a butler. How are we to organize them? What started in simple avarice ends in the recapitulation of an entire social order.


It’s recapitulation, all over again


Indeed ‘Downton Abbey’s production details might suggest an inbuilt human tendency towards such hierarchies. The grandest roles go to the cream of established talent Maggie Smith, and Hugh Bonneville. We follow them through the years and decades while an endlessly changing mob of less-familiar faces scuffles below stairs.


Then there’s the writer, Fellowes, or Baron Fellowes of West Stafford when he’s sitting in the House of Lords. (Imagine the fun that the team at Masterpiece had to pitch that one!) Mightn’t we expect a Conservative peer to come up with a script in which masters and servants exist in a state of mutual dependence?


I want to believe


But Fellowes did the inter-war grand house thing before, reaching what seem on the face of it quite different conclusions. His screenplay for Robert Altman’s memorable ‘Gosford Park’ (2001) was a good deal more overtly critical, pointing out how the aristocratic milieu had contained the seeds of its own destruction. Nor can ‘Gosford’ be written off as the railings of a younger man. Fellowes had turned 50 when he wrote it.


The long haul


Perhaps ‘Downton’s artful use of the rhythms of television conceals its more pessimistic inclinations. The show always saves its nastiest comeuppances for characters who fail in their responsibilities. Because of this, an episode or season usually ends with a neat moral homily. The six series tend to a more negative reading of the fate of English aristocracy.


‘Downton Abbey’, in other words, is situated just down the road from ‘Gosford Park’.
With full access to UK channels and classics like ‘Downton Park’ featured regularly, TV Mucho’s neat set top box is the best way for expats to enjoy prime UK TV abroad.

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