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The Greatness that was Downton

By (February 1, 2011) 3 Comments

Downton Abbey

Created by Julian Fellowes
Written by Julian Fellowes, Shelagh Stephenson, and Tina Pepler

On the surface, there might seem to be nothing unusual about Downton Abbey, the British costume drama that has just finished its four-episode run on PBS (it’s available on demand on the Masterpiece Theatre website until Feb 22). The series comes with all the trappings: carriages crunching on gravel drives, young ladies in big hats vying for husbands, and Dame Maggie Smith popping up regularly to chew on the lavish scenery.

Yet there are several surprises in store. For British viewers, the first was that the series was made for ITV, home of reality shows and cop dramas starring ex-Eastenders actors – not unlike the surprise of obscure basic-cable AMC coming out with a slow-burn hit about an advertising agency in the early sixties. Downton Abbey has been anything but slow-burning or obscure. It’s the most expensive television drama in British history, and a sign that decades of national reminiscing about the Greatness That Was Brideshead Revisited (the era-defining 1981 miniseries starring Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick, and a teddy bear) has finally translated into an attempt to create a Brideshead for the 21st century.

But – another surprise – the series is not an adaptation of Waugh, Austen, Trollope or anyone else, but a piece of original drama, by Julian Fellowes, writer of 2001’s Gosford Park. As an attempt to tell a modern story in period dress, it bears comparison with Mad Men: both series delicately chart a period of social change through the professional and personal lives of their characters, in the lead-up to a war that would explode the tensions building in the years (and seasons) before. Like Vietnam in the United States, the First World War in Britain had a disproportionate domestic impact, and both wars still remain painful spots in the national memory, points of origin to which we are pulled back again and again.
Opening on an apparently ordinary day in April 1912, the drama focuses on the titular English country estate. In long and loving shots, palatial Downton (a note-perfect performance by Highclere Castle in Hampshire) rises romantically out of the mist in early morning and basks in evening sunsets. The petty human dramas that play out within its walls are repeatedly put into perspective by its great age and looming solidity. Yet this is the driving paradox of the drama: Downton looks unbreakable but its permanence is illusory.

In the opening scene, the camera tracks the progress of a piece of devastating news, by telegram and neatly ironed newspaper, in whispers from mouth to mouth, that a supposedly unsinkable ocean liner has gone down on its way to New York. The disaster of the Titanic is a tragedy for Downton, as the closest heirs to the estate – cousins of paterfamilias Lord Grantham – were both on board. This deprives eldest daughter Mary of a suitor and the estate of a savior, and puts the plot into motion.

Ah, daughters. The root of all the trouble at Downton is that the Earl and Countess of Grantham have three of them, and no son. A constraining detail of inheritance law, the entail, means that it will therefore pass out of the family on the Earl’s death and into the hands of the closest male relative. The cost of breaking the line of inheritance – the cost of progress – is the loss of these houses and their land to developers, to urban expansion and a modernized landscape. Selling the estate is a euphemism for tearing it down. In human terms that progress is fair and positive, toward the dismantling of the unjust remnants of a feudal system. And yet, and yet, sighs the camera, roving over the turrets of this extraordinary monument. The drama of inheritance, which pits the estate against its inhabitants and family members against each other, turns out to be more accurately a drama of national heritage, of progress versus the past. The National Trust, which bought and preserved these estates for public use, was not established until after the Second World War; the First, which destroyed the sons and heirs of hundreds of aristocratic families, made the dilemma at Downton a national concern.

Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan and Siobhan Finneran

The sinkable Titanic and the unsinkable entail conspire to bring Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) to Downton from Manchester: third cousin of the earl and the new heir, he is invited to live on the estate to help run things, along with his redoubtable reforming mother, played by Penelope Wilton. Although the latter insists that they are upper-middle class, it is clear that the Crawleys are outsiders to this world. ‘Cousin Matthew,’ a lawyer, suddenly has the services of a butler and valet, and despite cherishing his own professional identity can’t get used to the presence of a man whose job it is to help him get dressed in the morning. The look of shame, resignation, and defiance on the valet’s face as Matthew dismisses his services – ‘Not really much of a job for a grown man, now, is it?’ – makes it clear that even those in obsolete professions have their dignity, and modern Matthew must somehow learn to live with one foot in the past. He struggles to understand what Lord Grantham points out to him, that streamlining the running of the estate and doing away with the bowing and curtseying means destroying the entire ecosystem below the stairs – not just killing a few people’s jobs but contributing to the disappearance of whole identities, passed down for generations from parent to child.

But Matthew and his mother are not the only agents of change. Housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) sneaks in a typewriter and takes a correspondence course, with a dream of becoming a secretary; when she’s discovered, she protests that she wants ‘a life’ – meaning the right to privacy, away from the eyes of her bosses. The older servants, who have renounced their own desires in order to serve, can’t understand the possibility, even the idea, of a separation between work and life. For entirely opposite reasons, the same question would resonate downstairs as is posed to Matthew upstairs by the horrified Dowager Countess: ‘What is a … weekend?’

As Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Maggie Smith glories in the Roger Sterling role of shameless throwback, stealing all the most outrageous one-liners for herself. The entail dispute makes the Dowager Countess, for the first time, an ally of her American daughter-in-law (Elizabeth McGovern) – whose fortune, everyone freely admits, was what bought Downton its last reprieve from the wrecking ball. Not that the matriarch accepts this graciously. Alarmed by the motion of a swivel chair in Matthew’s office, and deploring it as a recent invention, she is informed that they are not so new: “They were invented by Thomas Jefferson.” To which the Dowager Countess responds with a sigh, “Why must every day involve a fight with an American?” But in the light of the threat to the family, the women unite to assert Mary’s claims over Matthew’s – people over property, be it ever so glorious. Nobody but the rather romantic earl has much faith in the elegant solution of marrying off Mary and Matthew, certainly not Mary herself, who is her grandmother’s granddaughter, a magnificent bitch in training – at least at first, until the genuinely shocking events of episode two conspire to humble her, and make her rather more receptive to his charms. Michelle Dockery, as Mary, beautifully conveys the character’s evolution, from a haughty princess with her pick of the pedigree litter to an intelligent woman keenly aware of the limits of her power and the instability of her position.

Mary’s younger sisters enjoy rather less excitement, although Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) does get to discover Liberal politics, women’s suffrage, and harem pants ninety years early. Peevish middle child Edith (Laura Carmichael, looking unfortunately like Michael Cera in a George Washington wig) devotes all her time to the lost battle of competing with her elder sister. Edith fights Mary like it’s her vocation, and because she has nothing better to do with her time and brains, and Mary punches back because she can: sweeping admirers away from poor Edith is easier than taking candy from a sleeping baby. But as Edith says in a villainous stage whisper at the village flower show, “She who laughs last, laughs longest.” This seems to threaten a bloodbath amid the prize roses, but as Edith well knows, doing violence to Mary’s reputation is a surer revenge. Like Mad Men’s Betty Draper, these spoiled girls in their gilded cage make misery for something to do, and only Mary, the most constrained, really recognizes it, admitting to Matthew that ‘my life makes me angry.’ While Lady Sybil earnestly supports her maid’s desire to escape service for office work, she fails to understand the frustration and desperation simmering in the adjoining bedrooms; she’s still young enough to believe that the world will change. Which it will, and soon, but not in the way she hopes.
Unfortunately for the series and its ambitions to tell an even-handed story, the best stories and the superior acting are upstairs in the drawing rooms and bedrooms of the rich. Downstairs, there are power struggles and budding romances, but several of the characters are stuck in a one-note role – the overwhelmed kitchen maid, the bad-tempered cook, the scheming footman and the embittered lady’s maid. In Gosford Park, Clive Owen played the interloper with a secret who wins the heart of the most intelligent maid. Here, that role is reworked for Brendan Coyle, as the mysteriously limping Bates, who’s nevertheless taken on as a valet to Lord Grantham because of a past comradeship in the Boer War. Although he’s no Clive Owen, Bates is sympathetic enough to convincingly win over head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the moral center of the below-stairs universe. Yet the telegraphing of his Deep Dark Secret is so loud that it threatens to drown out the other storylines, and its resolution (as in Gosford Park) is less interesting in itself than for what the character’s outsider perspective has revealed along the way about the workings of the house, the class system, and the pressure of the past on the present.
Downton Abbey’s mostly clear-eyed examination of its momentous historical moment can’t help but mist over at times. The sheer benevolence of Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham threatens to make a feudal system look functional and appealing: when his cook starts to go blind, he sends her to London for eye surgery rather than to retirement, he lets his political Irish chauffeur borrow books from his library and drive his daughter to rallies, and pardons his staff for all manner of colorful or criminal pasts. It’s therefore disappointing that Lady Grantham’s maid, O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), the character most harshly realistic about the injustice that underpins aristocratic splendor, is paired with Rob James-Collier’s cartoonishly Machiavellian footman, and thus made to seem like a monster rather than a victim. O’Brien never voices any reason for her unremitting sourness, but the occasional flinch is enough to show that this is the cost of daily indignity and a life of disappointment. One of the most moving moments in the final episode, conveyed in her eyes alone, is O’Brien’s realization of the damage she has done to her mistress by simple misunderstanding, compounded by her determination to think the worst of the world. Perhaps she’ll get more to do in season two, when the story will have to pick up after the climactic garden party, which ends about as well as most August bank holiday parties did in England in 1914: with engagements hanging in the air, betrayals unresolved, and war arriving in a telegram on a silver tray. I can’t wait.

Joanna Scutts teaches literature – from the Greeks to Virginia Woolf – to unsuspecting freshmen at Columbia University. Originally a Londoner, she now lives in Astoria, New York, and is working on a book about modernism and memorialization after the First World War.