Downton Abbey ( Britain 2010–who cares?)

Downton Abbey has been a predictably enormous ratings success, taking the viewer-friendly melodrama of the soap operas and adding a bodice-ripper gloss by adding a period setting. Twenty or thirty years ago this series would have been a chippy pseudo-Marxist drama but in the post-modern world we get the Edwardians re-invented by a modern snob (Lord Julian Fellowes is quite a mouthful! ) as perky progressive aristocrats who love their servants as much as their servants love them. Each story is carefully compartmentalized (the only person to ever talk to the chauffeur is the young lady who is in love with him but won’t admit it) and un-named characters essentially don’t exist (during the numerous hospital scenes nobody, bar the protagonists, ever speaks or moves unless interacting with a named character).

The reasons for this success are easy to spot. In a world of badly shot dramas this at least is shot with care – visually at least. The women make sure to wear different clothes each week, with the camera often treating them like clothes horses for viewers to admire (and everyone has a flawless complexion and none of the maids have a rough skin from work). You know, just like it really was back then. The villains are suitably diabolical and the goodies suitably wonderful, often to a laughable degree. The men are marginalized figures who exist to provide the women with drama, permitting the largely female viewing audience a little wish-fulfillment. This is so typical of BBC drama now that its become tiresome.

But this creepy, absurdly modern feminism sinks the whole saga as surely as the ice berg that downed the Titanic. The DA women are sometimes portrayed as sisters-in-waiting for that one fine day when menstrual cycles align and all women everywhere experience spontaneous emancipation from the great evil Patriarchy. The story is set at a time when women are beginning to attain equal rights together with the working man, and so a certain degree of exposition in this direction is expected. But what begins as a believable historical perspective turns to pointless pandering by the third season, possibly to assure funding for another year by a UK TV culture drunk on girrl power. By season five, the female plot lines froth and bubble until the latest feminist boilerplate floats to the top. There’s not a lot of it, but more than enough to leave a nasty taste in this viewer’s broth.

The all-too-familiar theme of ‘oppressive men everywhere’ doesn’t overpower the show but it’s unmistakable, particularly from around episode 20 onwards. Some casual remarks are jarringly real, such as a comment by Maggie Smith’s character, “men have no rights.” Many are so gleefully delivered as to leave no doubt of their man-hating intentions. Even though the dowager’s remark was made in half-jest and in character, one can picture the all the impressionable discontents in the audience nodding their heads in groupthink sympathy, as if everyone knows a woman can do no wrong and men are the source of all that is bad in the world. The manipulative power of a lavish and popular TV production such as Downton Abbey should not be underestimated. The derogatory language and misandristic behaviour remains firmly into the fourth and fifth seasons. Hugh Bonneville’s wimpy pandering to the skirts and lower orders doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in this ‘patriarch’ either. Show a bit of back bone man! But this drama isn’t for men. Real or otherwise.

By season five, Lady Mary is having pre-marital sex with only a hint of conscience, experimenting with “sexual compatibility” as if such crass behaviour would even occur to an inexperienced lady to the manor born whose much-loved husband died tragically and prematurely. Indeed, she plays promiscuity in such a cynical, matter-of-fact way as if this was something a twenty-something Lady who had no brothers, had never experienced pornography and had only ever been with two men in her entire life would do. The simple fact is that the threat of scandal in the lives of such a prominent family would ensure that if such a thing happened, Lady Mary’s cynical promiscuity would certainly not be portrayed with casual nonchalance. Talk about crass pandering to 21st century female viewers.

Modern viewers can admire the lovingly recreated clothes, machines and surrounding and bask in a more civilized era, with the social and physical realities subtly altered to make them more pleasing to the modern mind. But all is not lost for us chaps! With the advent of the Great War there are hideously bad war scenes to keep male viewers happy. And for once the drama is conducted without shouting, which was refreshing for my ears.  I cannot finish without a quick word about the war scenes. They have been uniformly risible. From the Tommy who said “When it’s your time to die you die” right before he gets shot by a sniper to the baffling scenes where the men hide in the trenches during a bombardment rather than in the safer dugouts. Then there are the astonishingly variable German snipers, who can miss dozens of men moving around with their heads above the lip of the trench in broad daylight but who can hit a hand holding a cigarette lighter at night with only a single shot.

All action on the Western Front consists of frontal attacks (without saps, supporting bombardments, creeping barrages etc.) or being shelled. There is no sense of change from 1916 to 1918. Instead you get the same old images of the First Day of the Somme (whistles, ladders against the trench wall, wave attacks, no bombardment, attacks defeated only by machine-guns) even though it is completely wrong. Many historians of the Great War laughed at series 2 while playing cliché bingo. The writers could only use the war as a means to provide yet more gushing sentimentality or to deliver more wooden lines.

You’re much better off watching the far superior ITV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” from the 1970s which had bad production values and was also a soap but which was made by people with actual memories of how a class system worked and who had some subtlety to their writing. Just make sure you don’t get the 2000s BBC series of the same name, which is even sillier than Downton. The “Go sisters!” sub-narrative all but ruins what is a remarkable showpiece for the real Lord Carnarvon’s family estate. It’s truly a shame that such a brilliant production, which so very much wants to preserve this aristocratic legacy, would allow itself to be manipulated by such a barren and fruitless ideology as feminism. As such, Downton Abbey is as hollow as an Aero bar. The show is a fanciful creation of what Sir Julian wishes the period he was writing about was like. But no, real British aristocrats did not marry their servants, openly support the IRA or proudly announce they were atheists to all and sundry.

Finally, don’t let any boy watch DA or they’ll end up like Bruce Jenner. Second, I tried but could never be “down with” Downtown Abbey. Lets say I’m done with Downtown Abbey!


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