The big deal here in the U.S. these days is a series being shown on PBS called Downton Abbey, filmed at a breathtaking enormous and beautiful country house, and centred on an aristocratic British family at the start of World War I.
It’s also created some controversy, as the larger cultural dialogue here is also increasingly focused on the 99% versus the 1%, i.e. the wealthy versus…the rest of us.
Why are we all eagerly watching a show about lazy rich people?
I admit to really enjoying DA, and look forward to it every week. Some fellow New Yorkers are even having British-themed parties and dinners to celebrate watching the show together, from Pimms cups to Eton mess.
Here are the reasons I like it, and think millions of others do as well:
Who doesn’t crave a life of leisure? Seriously. As Americans slog through their third recession in 20 years, millions out of work and losing their homes and trying to get a new job, never having to work ever again at all looks mighty alluring. We can easily resent today’s plutocrats, but watching long-dead British aristos lounge about? Not so much.
The production values! Anyone who loves beautiful design and vintage objects is loving the elaborate costumes and set design.
We can still identify with and cheer for the women’s wish for a less-constricted life. It’s an interesting plot line to watch all the women, servants and their employers, struggle to re-define themselves as workers, voters, something more than decorative or drudges.
Meals, eaten together. I don’t need footmen or candleabra, but I do love eating my meals seated at a proper dining table with linen napkins and china. In an era when so many families eat microwaved junk, fast food or rarely eat a meal at the same table together, the banter and baiting that happens at the Abbey dinner table is central to the story.
The Granthams have character flaws. Republican candidate Mitt Romney — worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, paying only 15 percent tax on his income and refusing to reveal his income tax returns — leaves many voters are deeply uneasy with his hail-fellow facade and his photogenic posse of handsome sons and blond daughters-in-law. We know there’s dirt in there somewhere; on Downton Abbey, those beautifully dressed and bejeweled sisters hiss and scratch at one another like…some sisters really do.
There’s never a mention of religion. Thank God! It’s interesting that none of the Grantham family, nor their servants, ever attend church or show anything resembling a spiritual life, ensuring no viewer can tune out for them professing the wrong faith. Whatever else the Granthams do, they’re not spouting pious platitudes, (like those Republican millionaire candidates), about how much they love God.
They talk to — and listen to — their servants on a personal level. Completely unrealistic, but makes for a set of relationships that go beyond silent, servile hair-brushing and silver-polishing.
They gainfully employ, house and feed a dozen adults. I’m in no way romanticizing the servants’ life below stairs! But when the valet Bates offers to leave — and is offered two months’ wages — we gape in envy. Virtually no American worker can rely on even a day’s severance pay, even after decades of loyalty to their employer. Given the growing and persistent income inequality now dividing American society, a family actually employing, feeding and housing workers seems a welcome anomaly. (They exist here. We just don’t hear much about them.)
So that’s how the 1% really think. In an era when we’re obsessed with the wealthy — and our irrelevance to them politically and economically –a television show offering a peek behind the velvet curtain allows us to eavesdrop on their private lives and pillow talk.
We already feel like servants. Many of the Republicans now running for President in the U.S. are so wealthy it’s absurd; Mitt Romney has spent $35 million of his own money so far. Many of us feel as distant, and irrelevant, to these men — who want to represent us politically — as DA’s servants do to their employers. Yet the servants at Downton share physical space with their employers, while today’s wealthy usually live very far away from the many minions tending to their needs. $35 million of disposable income? The toffs of DA look like pikers in comparison.
Here’s a published dust-up over the show — their knickers in a serious twist, as the Brits might say — between historian Simon Schama and creator Julian Fellowes.
Here’s a recent radio interview with John Lunn, the composer of the show’s music.
If you’ve seen it, what do you think?