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A Socialist Looks At "Downton Abbey"

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Highclere Castle, set for Downton Abbey by Wikipedia Commons

As a student in England in the 1960's, I visited every castle I could get into. In each of them, "His Grace" and family lived in a small apartment on the ground floor, and the remainder of the castle functioned as a museum open to tourists. Land taxes had consumed much of the inherited wealth and, repairs being too costly, many of the estate houses had leaky roofs and rot in the third floor servants' quarters. When Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey debuted, I had hoped to see the story of how the dukes and earls came to be ensconced in their rear parlors. Hardly.  

Downton Abbey, the lavish ITV/PBS serial melodrama that has England and the US in its grip, takes a staunchly "royalist" posture, for all of its efforts to portray the elite and their servants in equal measure. What Downton could have been -- arguably should have been -- was the story of the earthquakes that shook the British class structure in the twentieth century and how the gentry dealt with the changes to their lives and worldview. It is not that; it is propaganda that celebrates inequality and argues that we should, like good servants, accept our miserable lots with obeisant humility, grateful for whatever benevolence our betters offer us. If Fellowes had wanted to serialize an ornate, feudal, fashion show (which he did) he could have situated it in the 19 th century, where it would have made some historical sense. (He did not.)  

In the first season, Fellowes at least made mention of the class breakdown: the youngest daughter, "Lady Sybil", ran off with the chauffeur, the new heir turned out to be a bourgeois lawyer, and one of the maids turned in her mop for a typewriter.  World War I, as we all know from Downton's predecessor , Upstairs, Downstairs, famously shed some decorum and class rigidity, as a middle class rose up from the war ashes.  Fellowes very nearly delivered a better and more just world. But by season two (we are four seasons in, and a fifth one is about to start filming) Fellowes had already abandoned any pretense of social commentary and succumbed to the public's yen for opulence and its fantasies of ringing for servants.  In the second season, the estate went bankrupt and was to have been sold off in parcels until a ridiculous plot twist saved it for the next generation of entitled aristocrats. As heiress Mary says, as she attempts to milk her American grandmother of her fortune, "One day I will be Countess of Grantham, and the Countess of Grantham lives at Downton Abbey". Sure, Mary, you are "entitled" to live in Highclere Castle (the set for the series), a 70 room palace with 60 servants and bedrooms named the "Princess Amelia" and the "Prince Albert" because of your particular accident of birth. You will never have to figure out how to dress yourself or make a cup of tea. From a socialist's perspective, just as nobody has the right to a personal fortune greater than the GDP of a country, nobody needs a hotel as a private residence.  

Absent historical perspective, Downton devolves into a full-out soap opera I rank with my mother's fav, All My Children. They can be addictive, as anybody sick in bed for a month knows; the parade of deaths and divorces, affairs, murders and bastard children can reel you in, even as the plot slogs along at a turtle's pace. Fellowes delivers all of that, skipping months and even years between installments to speed it along. Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess, spits out hilarious barbs, but she cannot save the series from shallow writing.  Shirley MacLaine shows up as the American grandma, reminding them all that the future won't look like the past; but regrettably Fellowes never allows the future to show up. Only the servants are drawn with any human depth and complexity; the "upstairs' elites are as cardboard as comic strip characters.  

As one by one the leading actors ditched the show for more lucrative Hollywood movie contracts, and Fellowes was forced to write untimely deaths to accommodate them, he had the perfect excuse to end the thing. But money ruled, and Downton Abbey was raking it in, so in subsequent seasons every episode featured a dizzying injection of new actors, playing new characters mostly of the fabulously wealthy variety.  Instead of social commentary, the series sank into tableaux of gratuitous luxury worthy of Marie Antoinette, and the budget for the show expanded like a fat gourmand at one of their dinner tables: The Abbey not being sufficiently opulent, Fellowes moved the location shots to a much grander castle in Scotland in series three, and finally to Buckingham Palace in the finale of season four, adding the disgraced Duke of Windsor to the mix for good measure. Fellowes gave a nod to actual history by telling us that the Scottish estate was to be sold off, but never stooped to filming its demise. Too much reality would have scotched the daydreams of drooling fans.    

And so we worker-bees dream on. We savor with voyeuristic pleasure the fifty thousand dollar gowns that parade through the show like the Tolstoy-era runway dresses featured in the commercials of the show's sponsor, Ralph Lauren. The royals are swell, greed is good, and though we will only suffer from all of it, we can inhale its charms via vicarious imaginings and cheer the passing carriages from the curb. Early on in the serial we are meant to feel sorry for Mary, the rich girl barred from working for a living or engaging in pre-marital sex.  In that first year there was barely a suitor in sight, and the frustrated duchess-in-waiting allowed herself to be seduced by a visiting Turk. But by season four, Fellowes had dreamed up three young and handsome suitors, eligible Lords all, each wealthier than the next, begging for her hand. So much for commentary. The former chauffeur and radical Irish socialist, Tom Branson, by now a widower, sheds his values and moves into the manor. Fellowes tells us how uncomfortable he is in his new digs, but the character who once spoke for "our lot" is no more; he has been replaced by a tuxedo-ed mannequin.   

The "Big Club" in the US, the one none of us peons are in, according to George Carlin, is a much smaller club in the UK; one dominated in the early 20th century by the heirs to royal land gifts. The scores of dukes, earls, viscounts and barons may have had a place when their farms fed the nation and the lords raised armies and led them into battle to thwart a Spanish invasion. But the peers of the Downton WWI period offered no such services. Most did look after their tenants and the rural communities around them, and several were begrudgingly shamed into allowing their castles to be turned into hospitals during the war. For many the shooting parties and costume balls came to an abrupt end in the 1920's.  But not for Downton Abbey.  

In our time, many of those castles have been bought by modern-day robber barons; corporate heads who, like Russian oligarchs, pay themselves fortunes. A new generation of "aristocrats" has supplanted the old, a class constructed of Caribbean bank accounts rather than listings in Burke's peerage. Excluding the royals, only a billionaire CEO (or a pop star) could afford the sixty or so servants it takes to keep up a castle -- never mind the heating bills. I have to wonder how my Liberal friends who follow Downton would react if the series were set in the present-day, with the Earl replaced by a crass American who paid his servants minimum wage and worked them sixteen hours a day. Would even that offend them, or are they so blinded by the bling of the rich and famous that they would still weep for the spinster daughter when she gets ditched at the alter?  

The post-war Socialist era in England lasted a mere millisecond. For a brief moment, the trains ran on time and any commoner could afford to ride in them; medical care was free and widely available; higher education was also free and offered up to any who showed intellectual merit, promising mobility through the walls of the class structure. The gentry were taxed within an inch of their fortunes, as the rich were in the US in that same period. Since the rule of Thatcher (and Reagan, of course) all of that has been privatized away, and now the British working classes struggle to survive alongside their American cousins.  Life for Brits in our time is not very different from servant life at Downton Abbey, which could partly explain why the show has such a large following. So far, at least, workers are not standing up in defiance to the injustices heaped upon them. They are bowing before their corporate masters and begging for a two dollar raise. When do they start calling their bosses by their real names, "mi'lord" and "mi'lady"?  

Mercifully, the Downton Abbey series will end after its fifth season, which will close the book just prior to the start of WW II (no point in allowing that moment of socialism to dull the glitter). But hold on - Fellowes is currently writing an American version, based on life at the Vanderbilt mansions. So we can all cheer the rule of the arrogant rich for years to come.  That will be my cue to unplug the television and chuck it into the garbage.  

As for the popularity of Downton - with 700 television channels spewing utter garbage, what else?  At least for the moment it provides an impetus to debate the current American class system, one where any gambler or criminal with a fortune can buy politicians and write laws. But I confess that Downton Abbey gives me creepy shivers. And I doubt I am alone in that. 

 

Lila York is a choreographer and activist. She has traded the markets since 1990.

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for a while now. This series seems to have capture... by lila york on Friday, Jan 3, 2014 at 4:39:34 PM
Great to have you back Lila. I hear obama is a f... by Rob Kall on Friday, Jan 3, 2014 at 5:52:28 PM
I'm glad to see you back, Ms. York! :) ... by Ad Du on Friday, Jan 3, 2014 at 6:28:52 PM
Thanks for raising the bar for fine, polished eloq... by Josh Mitteldorf on Friday, Jan 3, 2014 at 7:18:00 PM
I was planning to watch an episode or two just to ... by Daniel Geery on Friday, Jan 3, 2014 at 11:58:04 PM
Great commentary on the rich brutalizing the poor... by Cynthia Piano on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 11:26:40 AM
Not quite the same. It is very skillful propaganda... by lila york on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 12:39:37 PM
Yes, it is the same for me.  My comment is p... by Cynthia Piano on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 2:23:38 PM
I have thought about this article a number of time... by Daniel Geery on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 1:49:21 PM
Well, as I mentioned at the opening, I thought Fel... by lila york on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 2:56:19 PM
Ah so! Thanks for the clarification and correctio... by Daniel Geery on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 3:16:02 PM
Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Juli... by lila york on Tuesday, Jan 7, 2014 at 8:19:04 AM