It’s been forty years since the long running British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs first débuted here in the USA on a rather new and largely unwatched network called PBS. Upstairs, Downstairs would do much to reverse PBS’s image, for it was a classy show with each episode feeling like a movie. For most of us Americans, the series was also a revelation in British culture, with lords and ladies living privileged and opulent lives while a working class of servants obsessively catered to their every need. Like Upstairs, Downstairs the British ITC series Downton Abbey also immerses the viewer in the world of English social class on a large Yorkshire estate in Edwardian England. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, it is a hard series not to like.
Beginning on the Downton Abbey estate shortly after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, this series traces the life of the fictional Lord Grantham, his wife, his three daughters, his cranky mother the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and a crew of servants. Lord Grantham is of course just a title. His real name is Robert Crawley. With his well moneyed American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) who provides the wealth to run the estate and their three daughters Mary, Edith and Sybil, Lord Grantham gets to live the surreal life of an English gentleman. You could not really count yourself a gentleman unless you were so filthy rich that you had nothing to do. It’s a world entirely of leisure and luxury and features being obsessively fussed over a devoted staff managed by the butler Charlie Carson (Jim Carter).
Late to the series as always, I have been playing catch up and have almost finished the first season, consisting of just seven episodes. At first it is hard to understand the appeal of the series. It doesn’t take much viewing though before you realize what the series really is: a fancy and elaborately staged soap opera. Because it deals with earls and ladies, buttoned down people, starched collars and fox hunts it is easy to forget that there is little substance to this series, other than to revel in its characters and the tensions between them. It looks way too fancy to be a soap opera, but that is its essence.
If life is a stage as Shakespeare wrote, Downton Abbey makes a great stage for character actors to strut their stuff. The real world does intrude from time to time on Downton Abbey, but mostly Downton Abbey exists to keep its family isolated from the real world, including that of its servants. It’s a world where your family dinner demands formal dress every night, where invitations arrive by mail on proper stationery and where gentlemen callers flirt politely with Lord Grantham’s daughters. Everyone has a role to play and no one more so than Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). It’s a world where people have jobs that seem surreal and unnecessary. What exactly does a footman do? There is no equivalent here in the United States, but a footman’s job seems to be to keep his gentleman from ever having to lift his finger. It’s a world of suits, white gloves, stovepipe hats, gourmet dining and so much leisure that the Dowager Countess cannot tell weekdays from weekends.
The most interesting parts of Downton Abbey thus are mostly found in the kitchen, the back stoop where the staff smoke cigarettes and in the austere servants’ quarters. It too is a strange hierarchy, overseen by butler Charley Carson and Housekeeper Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and it too has its own strict peculiar social order. Footmen obsess over becoming valet someday, the valet hopes for butler, or even assistant butler. Housemaids aspire to be head housemaid and even an assistant cook someday aspires to be cook. It seems surreal, pointless and ultimately without value, but this is a world that Lord Grantham feels entirely devoted to preserving. To the extent that he works it is to make sure that Downton Abbey always has future generations of Crawleys to be obsessively catered to by an omnipresent staff.
In short, if you are a Lord or a Lady, Downton Abbey is kind of like heaven on earth except there is not much to do. You have staff to do the heavy lifting. They make sure the food is always great, the bed sheets are replaced every day, the fireplaces are well stoked, the chandeliers are immaculately dusted and you only have to lift a hand to have a footman refill your glass with wine.
And yet there is a price. The staff is stiff and surreal, at least until they are behind closed doors when the backbiting can begin in earnest. Lady Mary, the Earl’s eldest daughter, feels trapped in her comfortable web, doesn’t quite want to be there, but doesn’t know what else to do and sure doesn’t want some distant cousin who actually works for a living to inherit the estate. It’s a world where ladies must always be beautiful, chaste and well-mannered. It’s a world where a lady is not allowed to succumb to the charms of a roguish Turkish ambassador, but finds herself human enough to do so anyhow. It means being resentful when Lord Grantham’s army friend is appointed valet to the position long aspired to by one of the footmen.
Ultimately, interest in Downton Abbey is sustained purely from these tensions and conflicts, and it makes for a surprisingly entertaining time for us to observe it all. It is a fun show to watch, but also is an eye opening perspective to a period largely in our past. Living a lavish life made possible through unearned wealth seems so vapid and meaningless. Titles, dowries and inheritances ultimately sap a society of its creative energy. It’s not surprising then that at the end of World War II that Great Britain was bankrupt and its empire destroyed. It happened in part because families like the Crawleys were wasting their lives in unproductive pursuits upholding customs that deserved to die centuries earlier. In places like America this talent would be unleashed for more useful purposes.