Julian Fellowes, when once pressed on the political sympathies of his wildly successful period drama, Downton Abbey, protested that it was “just not a left wing show”. Indeed it isn’t, but let’s credit Fellowes, who previously moonlighted as a speechwriter for hapless former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, with enticing people of all persuasions to actively revel in the programme despite themselves. Fellowes has big house form, having won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the immeasurably superior Gosford Park, which shouldn’t really be viewed as some kind of precursor to Downton Abbey. With Downton, he is firing at a lower target, and if success is our measure, he has succeeded handsomely.
Downton Abbey comes to a conclusion on Christmas Day, and longstanding observers of the show will know that one can’t quite be sure how much narrative accomplishment can be expected. The series just past contained the usual flurries of activity but with scant development, before a final episode in which a fast forward button was pressed and lots of strands were churned through and brought to an apparent conclusion. There is a generous view of Downton’s storytelling style that commends the way multiple storylines are kept in the air in the course of a single episode. In truth, however, a typical episode tells you almost nothing even while it’s notionally telling you everything. Storylines that might at first appear complicated and unlikely to be tied up in a hurry are neatly resolved the scene where it is next revisited, which couldn’t be satisfying for anybody but the least discerning of viewers. It’s nothing more than soap opera poshed up, as many a reviewer has observed, but if anything is cunningly less sophisticated than the typical soap. Soap operas worth their salt can keep their viewers in suspense about outcomes for almost any period of time, whereas Downton places almost no demand on the viewer whatsoever.
The best modern television – and there are many prime 21st century examples – gives its characters room to breathe, and their development comes with the progression of their storyline’s arc. With over 50 episodes, Downton Abbey has had plenty of time, but those arcs have rarely ever happened. The characters are largely same the cardboard cut outs they were from the beginning. However, quality, or rather the lack of it, is often no obstacle to achieving popularity. And Downton Abbey, to ram home the point, is extremely popular. This writer initially resisted Downton’s suspect charms, but for water cooler conversation reasons, eventually relented and joined in. I’ll readily admit, however, that I am not a reluctant viewer anymore, even though I couldn’t even begin to attempt to acclaim it for any singular quality. So, to repeat a question I’ve recently asked myself in a different context, why do I like it?
I like it because it is very instructive. The appeal of Downton Abbey is that it provides a vivid depiction of a particular worldview and its concomitant aspirations. It both taps into what bourgeois Middle England is thinking and what many Anglophile foreigners fondly imagine England to be like. It is important here to take note of which brand of conservatism Fellowes is celebrating. The show’s distaste for the nouveau riche is palpable, as displayed in Series 2 in the person of the repellent newspaper publisher Sir Richard Carlisle. The show can therefore hardly be deemed Thatcherite, even if the awful, callous cold-hearted Lady Mary ticks a lot of the boxes of a 1920s proto-Thatcher.
I suppose there have been some long running issues that have trundled on for extended periods of Downton’s run, but they usually haven’t merited the investment. Lady Mary’s love life, punctuated by a succession of mostly charisma-free suitors, has been a source of particular irritation. That Bates has made it to the end of the run a free man is a further reason to pour scorn. On the positive side, the show’s anachronisms have their own kind of endearing charm, even if fastidious reviewers rightly decry the projecting of contemporary values onto the past. Of course it is absurd for Lord Grantham – my favourite character – to be permitted to evince a 21st century sensitivity on issues such as homosexuality alongside being a custodian of old school values. Here I will defend Fellowes, however. There is an unspoken pathos to Lord Grantham’s character, the knowledge that he will soon be yesterday’s man. Probably more than any other character, the future will leave him behind. He might be the most privileged one, and he’ll probably hold on to a bit of money, but he merits our sympathy. Unlike his ghastly offspring, who will probably make the necessary adjustments and thrive after the estate will no longer be able to keep the show on the road.
There are further curiosities to the show that have elicited my sustained interest. One is that old bugger Carson, the butler who is more wedded to the class system than the toffs themselves. But Carson is given latitude to speak his mind directly to his employers, which affords him a special kind of privilege. Then there is Branson, about whose politics the show has been noticeably soft. It certainly wasn’t as judgmental as I’m sure the real Granthams would have been about the spiteful nihilism of Branson’s fellow travellers burning down Ireland’s big houses. And it’s been a recurring delight to witness Barrow’s malevolent chicanery, however inexplicable it is. The fact that I usually can’t dig up a reason for his dastardliness is no impediment; the downstairs Iago of Downton is ultimately the only rival to Lord Grantham himself for my favour.
This blog was supposed to be a final episode wish list, and I realise I haven’t expressed any yet. The truth is a lot of what I’d hoped for in Downton has already been dashed. It’s pretty clear Bates isn’t going to swing for anything now. And the hopes I’d begun to entertain that the dark horse Irishman would end up running everything, though still not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility given nobody else has any real acumen to run the estate, has been rendered unlikely now that a union with Lady Mary – which had been dangled as a slight possibility during the final series – hasn’t come about. So one is left unsure of what to wish for. Like most fair-minded people, I’m hoping for a conclusive, lasting triumph for Lady Edith over Lady Mary. I want Barrow to get his revenge on Carson and everybody else who’s crossed him over the years. And I want some evidence that Lord Grantham will stave off the inevitable decline for a few more years, at least until the economic crash that I’m sure totally wiped him out.
But most of all, I’m hoping that there is no reprieve for Downton Abbey. I’ve wasted enough of my life on this show already.