‘Rose-tinted’ Downton back, with controversy

Abbey road: Each episode of Downton Abbey costs around £1m to produce. © ITV

It has been a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Last night, the final series of Downton Abbey launched. Harmless pleasure? Or wrongly erasing the crimes of Britain’s aristocracy?

‘If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would,’ says Lord Grantham in the final series of Downton Abbey. For its fans, this is exactly what the show does, brilliantly: provide a vivid snapshot of a time which has long-since passed.

The butler hovers at the edges of the dining room; a maid helps her lady to dress before a party; children visit their parents in a drawing room before returning to the nanny. How alien are these Edwardian customs to modern viewers!

Why do fans enjoy watching the social conventions of yesteryear? Because the days of rigid class separation are long gone. The show is particularly popular in the US, a country which rejected the class structures of its colonisers, and declared itself the land of opportunity.

Even now in the UK, the grand old houses have mostly been converted into hotels or preserved for visitors of the National Trust. Kinmel Hall in North Wales — the ‘Discount Downton’ — was recently named one of the UK’s most ‘endangered’ buildings.

But some have criticised the show’s ‘cosy’ portrayal of class relations. The Crawley family rallies in defence of its valet Mr Bates when he is wrongfully accused of murder; Lady Sybil is welcomed home after she marries a revolutionary Irish chauffeur; Lord Grantham explains that it is the duty of the aristocracy to provide stability and employment for local working people, painting the picture of a symbiotic relationship rarely questioned by the servants.

It is a far cry, say critics, from the reality of their lives. In 1912, when Downton’s opening is set, maids worked painfully long hours from dawn to night, with very little leisure time, and few opportunities to return home. Cooking and cleaning without modern technology was exhausting and repetitive; a female servant in a small household would carry around three tons of water a week. Employers rarely offered thanks or a kind word.

Upstairs, Downstairs

It’s just a TV show, say many fans. The central characters’ generous spirit and kind-hearted attitude are what make it enjoyable. There are many more serious dramas portraying the harsh realities of the past, and they have a valuable place. But Downton was made for something else: enjoying the spectacle of the period, and the universal human dramas of love and loss.

But the way we portray our history is very important, others say. By sanitising the unseemly bits of the past, we erase their power and absolve perpetrators of their crimes. The class system in Britain is alive and well; we cannot pretend it does not still hurt many of society’s poorest people. There would be an outcry, for example, if such a rose-tinted show were set on a plantation during the slavery era.

You Decide

  1. Is Downton Abbey a good TV show?
  2. How important is accuracy in historical fiction?

Activities

  1. Write a 200-word review of your favourite TV show.
  2. Produce a storyboard for the opening scenes of your own TV show, set in a wealthy home in 1920s Britain.

Some People Say...

“All history is fiction.”

What do you think?

Q & A

But everyone knows it’s not real!
That’s true — at least, we hope so. But historical fiction can still impact how we understand the past, even if we don’t think of the events as being factual. Often, we still trust it to reflect the ‘spirit’ of the age it is representing.
Does that matter?
It can matter — the show is set around a century ago, which isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. Britain is still a country often divided by class, and those who are born into wealthy families are still more likely to find themselves in positions of power when they grow up. There are exceptions, of course, and more so now than in the 1920s. But it is worth thinking about the messages Downton sends all the same.

Word Watch

Edwardian
The final season of Downton Abbey is set in 1925, in what is often known as the ‘interwar period’. But the story began in the Edwardian era, 1901-1910, although for convenience some extend the era to the beginning of World War One in 1914.
Colonisers
The individual states of America were ruled as British colonies until the War of Independence. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, it declared that ‘all men are created equal’.
Kinmel Hall
The building has changed hands many times since its original family, the Hughes, sold it in 1929. The identity of the current owner is unknown, as the property is registered through a company based in an off-shore tax haven. Without refurbishment, architectural historians worry that it will become beyond repair.
Symbiotic
A word often used in biology to describe an inter-dependent relationship, in which both parties benefit.

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