Why We Love (Or Hate) Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey Image via Wikipedia

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.

And a post about DA by a fellow fan.

If you’ve seen it, what do you think?

7 thoughts on “Why We Love (Or Hate) Downton Abbey

  1. Thanks so much for the shoutout!

    And very astute observations. I also think there is a clinical interest in a world that that same 99% do not and cannot inhabit (see Fellowes excellent books for further reading). Class is so fundamentally different from celebrity, and I think he’s very good and showing the distinctions – and in our world that orbits celebrity, it’s interesting to watch something that mostly predates such a thing.

    In Fellowes own words, paraphrased: “Class fascinates me. I can’t tell whether or not it’s this huge joke that’s being played on most of humanity, or if there is something really in it.”

    1. Of course! I loved your post…

      Class is the great taboo in the U.S….we have to pretend it doesn’t exist (when it does), but it’s not clear what defines it…$$$$??? Education? Parental influence?

      One of the most interesting experiences of my life was spending 14 days following Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip VERY closely on a tour of Canada when I was a 26 yr ol newspaper reporter…I spent 15-hour days watching them and even had drinks aboard Britannia (!) with all the other hacks. They are NOT celebrities and do not have to pander the way celebrities and politicians do. They owe allegiance to no one. That’s a concept!

  2. Exactly! I think it appeals to me particularly because even though we didn’t have a remarkable amount of money growing up, my family belonged to an upper middle class group and navigated the world of military/diplomatic/government circles. To this day I can instantly recognize people who came from a similar life (like Margot and Peregrine), we have a shared history though we may have never met before. We speak the same language, use the same acronyms, know the same names, have mutual friends of friends. Maybe that’s what defines class in America – a shared sort of experience?

    That sounds like a fascinating assignment – equal parts lethally boring and unable-to-tear-my-eyes-off-it interesting. Almost like a Nature photographer (I’m sure that sounds disrespectful, but I don’t mean it to in the slightest): observing something without really interacting with it for days on end, with ultimately only a very little film and even smaller amounts of scientific insight to show for it.

    1. Interesting…I find that almost all my friends have fairly similar backgrounds; a few are pretty wealthy, but the common threads (like yours) are world travel, living abroad (which in itself carries a ton of shared learned behaviors, languages, understanding other cultures and appreciating them). My cousin’s husband was an ambassador to Morocco, Italy and England; a dear friend’s Dad did the same…In our family and our own social circles, the greatest value is experience and curiosity, not $$$ or expensive material objects proving you can…spend money?

      The Royal Tour was a-ma-zing. Got to meet the Queen’s bodyguard (a tiny, quiet gorgeous guy who saved Queen Ann’s life; Google it)…watch the equerries in action. One of my life’s coolest experiences, for sure.

  3. What I find interesting is that so many viewers seem to focus primarily on the grand lifestyle of the Grantham family when I think the series is as much about those who live and serve in the house as the rich aristocrats who own it.

    I’m a big fan, but my Brit husband is not as impressed.

  4. Love Downton Abbey, but I’m a sucker for anything historical (or gives the pretense of being historical). Unlike you, however, my major objection is not the wealth disparity, but the failure to show how miserably incompetent the officers of the British army were. In my opinion, the 600,000 British deaths are on their heads.

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