Culture & Conversation

Much Ado about Downton Abbey

As Shakespeare demonstrated, historical fiction is always about the present. For a prime example of the genre’s paradox, look no further than Downton Abbey. Set in a Yorkshire castle before, during and after the First World War, this gorgeous upstairs-downstairs saga is really about social change, especially the fragility of the 1%.

At every juicy turn, we’re reminded of how unfair it is that some people get to live in a bubble of luxury while many more do all of the work. Perfidy and human weakness contribute the best plot jolts, but the real motors of this brilliant series are feminism, socialism, middle-classism – unstoppable forces that doom Abbey life from the first image of an old dog’s bum ambling toward home.

The brainchild of actor and writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), this lavishly-produced Masterpiece TV series is picking up fans in the millions. The second season just wound up on PBS; the DVD is now available at Bôite Noir, but don’t hold your breath. Only three copies were ordered and reservations aren’t possible. It’s available for purchase on-line, which is how our household was able to cope with the frightful gap between one Sunday night and the next.

For those who haven’t yet caught the Downton bug, think Jane Austen meets Coronation Street. At the top of the ladder are the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crowley (Hugh Bonneville) and his American-born wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Maggie Smith plays the dowager, Crowley’s mother, and is never given a single line that isn’t wickedly funny. The Earl has devoted his life to keeping the post-card pretty estate humming, even marrying an American for her money, though the match turned out to be a good one. Forget the aristocratic dress and manners; Cory and Robert could be any modern couple trying to launch three high-maintenance daughters into life. Their best scenes happen at bedtime, after they’ve escaped the high-wire act of perpetual dinner parties, and can sigh over the day’s events.

The kink in their existence is a lingering heritage decision made by the Earl’s late father: the fortune Cora brought into the marriage is now common property. It must be passed to a male heir, but the Crowleys have only girls. Enter cousin Matthew Crawley, a handsome young solicitor, who is invited to relocate from Manchester and be groomed for the position. Even Granny thinks it would be great if one of the daughters fell in love with him (apparently he’s distant enough to permit such an alliance) and two of them do. But the course of true love runs amuck long enough to keep that story line going for two seasons, possibly more.

Meanwhile, a legion of servants presents personal stories defying easy summary. Suffice to say the tales are rich and riveting to follow, which is what a great series TV has to be. This is one of the best.

The British press has been full of comment about how unreal the whole set-up is: historically, servants would be filthy, ill-mannered creatures and their masters much less kind. But reality TV this isn’t. It’s great drama, fine comedy, brimming with brilliant writing and acting that creates a world and leaves viewers yearning for the next chapter. We root for the good and seethe at the villains, although Fellowes does an excellent job at making sure every character has at least a psychological basis for acting badly.

As with virtually all mainstream entertainment, we can be reasonably confident things will end more or less well for the characters we care about. But Fellowes makes it clear from the start that a way of life is crumbling. Individuals from all levels of society may survive and prosper, or not, but the class system will not hold. At least not this particular configuration.

And yet, as Janet Bagnel’s recent column in the Gazette pointed out, on paper at least, a small number of very wealthy families still have a firm hold on rural Britain. Seventy per cent of UK territory is owned by a faction of one per cent of the population. The Downton Abbeys of our time may be forced to take in lodgers. But otherwise, it’s business as usual. Old Money keeps its head down.

Season three is about to start filming, with Shirley MacLean playing Cora’s mother, over on a visit for New York. If you haven’t already, best to catch up on Downton Abbey now, before over-hype completely destroys the joy of discovery.

Season One of Downton Abbey is available for rent at most video/DVD outlets, including Videotron. Boite Noir has Season Two. Both are available for purchase on Amazon.

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