Who would have guessed in September 2010 when Downton Abbey’s first season began to air in the U.K. that yet another period piece from the adept British producers of endless period pieces (think Brideshead Revisited or even Poldark) would take the world by storm? And yet, through adept writing and casting by Julian Fellowes and beautiful mansions and costumes and trains and cars, and story lines that were addictive and good acting by actors we had largely never seen before (missing out Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern of course and guest appearances by the likes of Shirley Maclaine), this version of ‘upstairs/downstairs’ did indeed become the most watched PBS/ITV program ever…… by a lot. it began with the 1912 sinking of the Titantic, trudged through the first World War, transitions to the challenging Twenties, and finished with a bang at New Years 1926. But the real stories were not those set on the world stage, except insofar as they affected the central characters of Downton Abbey, but the stories of those who were ‘to the manor borne’ but discovered that WWI had knocked the stuffings out of the landed gentry life of lords and ladies for the most part, and had indeed also fueled the revolution for women’s suffrage and less suffering for indentured servants. Being ‘in service’ for one’s whole life, by which was meant being servants in a grand house working like a dog for the lords and ladies, and never having a home of one’s own, and never getting married, and basically never having a life of one’s own, well….clearly that way of life was going the way of the dodo bird— doomed to extinction, and a good thing to.
At times Downton Abbey, mythically set in Yorkshire, but actually filmed at Highclere Castle in Newbury West Berkshire, threatened to generate into an early 20th century soap opera, or fashion show, or the like. And yet Fellowes managed to keep just enough of an external story line going that was interesting to prevent the tales of woes of wooing and losing of Lady Mary or Lady Sybil or Lady Rose or even Lady Edith from becoming all consuming. Actually, the tales from downstairs proved far more interesting at times, especially the in jail and out of jail stories involving Bates and Anna,or the sinister yet surviving Barrow tales, or the kitchen hijinx of Mrs Pattmore and Daisy. No wonder Carson and Mrs. Hughes occasionally seemed to have apoplexy trying to keep the house in order.
What really kept people watching the show for six years more than anything else is that the characters seems so real, and eventually one carried about some of them, or even many of them, and one wanted to see how they ‘got on’ in life. Yes, no doubt in America, there was some envy of the life of the gentrified in a house built like a castle, a kind of life, even the wealthiest in America never really had to that degree, but the common decency of the ‘ordinary folk’ was far more appealing, doing endless sacrificial service for others. The food, the fairs, the weddings, the funerals, the customs, the protocols all became interesting because we cared about the characters, and along the way got a history listen for free. My one regret about the series is that it did not do a better job of showing the religious life of various characters in a time when the Christian church was not only the dominant religion in the U.K. but a very influential one in every day life. But who am I to quibble after being served such an enjoyable period feast. It was rather like going to a medieval banquet and suddenly realizing one wants to be one of the characters in the drama. Hail and farewell and Godspeed Downton Abbey…….. now lets hope Lady Mary’s baby turns out to be a little less toffee-nosed than her Mum.
P.S. Rumour (not to be confused with Rumor) has it that there will be a feature film done– a big screen version of Downton Abbey. Let’s hope its true, but that it takes the story further forward, rather than being a rewind or edited version of the first six seasons.