Looking Back At DOWNTON ABBEY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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“Up the revolution!” cries Tony.
British TV has always had a spectacular knack for polishing up the class relationships of the country’s past and presenting them to the world as drama.

In the 1970s, actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins had the idea that became Upstairs, Downstairs – a show that would more or less define the phenomenon of historical class drama for a generation, and went around the globe, picking up fans in much of the English-speaking world.

When Upstairs, Downstairs was scheduled to return for a 21st century update in 2010 though, ironically switching channels to the BBC, it would face stiff competition from a new kid on the class drama block.

Downton Abbey, written by chronicler of the upper classes Julian Fellowes, upped the stakes of the class relationships on screen by taking the notion of Upstairs, Downstairs and translating it from the London house of a Member of Parliament to a massive country house in Yorkshire, the Downton Abbey of the title, and the home of a peer of the realm. As a “Ya, boo, sucks!” to Upstairs, Downstairs (in both its incarnations), it was less than subtle, but launching before the revamped version of Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey had the opportunity to steal a march on the potential audience for class drama.

That wouldn’t have made any difference if the show had had nothing but time to recommend it, though.

Starting off with the sinking of the Titanic – Downton was never shy when it came to folding historical events into its storylines – it threw us immediately into the kind of crisis which only ever affects the upper classes. With the legal heirs to Downton Abbey among the victims of the sinking, Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) is suddenly faced with a houseful of three daughters, King Lear-style, and a law that won’t let any of them inherit the abbey in their own right. Because it’s 1912, and England is twinned with the 1500s.
A quick search finds a cousin who could inherit, but he has no idea how to be a lord of the realm. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is a solicitor and a relatively modern man for 1912, with an ex-nurse mother (the inestimably perfect Penelope Wilton) who is relatively open to the new upturn in their affairs.

One whole thread of the plot of Downton Abbey, at least initially, is the adjustment of this working middle-class man to the life of a lord.

No, really, there’s a whole episode based on the drama of his not wanting to have a valet dress him. It should not, in any 21st century, crash-bang-wallop drama landscape work. At all.

A whole other thread of the drama is based in the dynastic desperation of the Crawleys. If the eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) can’t inherit the abbey in her own right, she could do the next best thing and keep the abbey in the bloodline by marrying the legal heir and having children with him.

We mentioned 1912 was twinned with the 1500s, right?

Yeah – nobody cares very much what the feelings of Matthew and Mary are. Except the audience, who totally bought into their blossoming relationship on broadcast, making Downton Abbey a weekend staple of the TV schedules and a huge international hit.
But wait, there’s more.

There’s a new valet for Lord Grantham, a Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), who limps after serving in a pre-World War 1 conflict with His Lordship, and who has secrets he prefers to keep. Will he or won’t he establish a relationship with plucky Northern lady’s maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), despite the machinations of the evil, bitter, and senior lady’s maid, Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), and the duplicitous, envious, and by the way gay footman, Thomas Barrow (Rob James Collier)?

Will Robert’s American wife, Cora (who brought a fortune to Downton at a previous time of crisis), manage to save it again by miraculously giving birth to a baby boy and saving her daughter from the ignominy of having to marry a solicitor?

Will the new Irish driver, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), ever manage to get Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), the third of the Crawley daughters, to run away with his socialist and Irish Republican self? Will Lady Edith, the second daughter, ever get anyone to love her? Will she, for that matter, manage to make a career in journalism despite being a woman in 1912, and (gasp!) an upper-class woman at that?

When Mr Bates is accused of murder, will he hang for it?

Will Lady Mary’s Arabian lover, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), who dies in her bed, cause her public dishonour? Will Mrs Patmore, the shouty cook with a heart of gold (Leslie Nichol) go blind like the peasant she is, or will the largesse of the landed gentry help her to the operation she needs to see again in a pre-National Health era? Will Daisy the scullery maid (Sophie McShera) ever make anything of her life? Will Mr Carson the butler (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes the housekeeper (Phyllis Logan) ever have a minute to themselves to whisper sweet nothings and come to an arrangement over the 85 claret? And above all, will anyone ever be brave enough to declare a winner between Maggie Smith’s born-to-privilege Lady Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham, and Penelope Wilton’s middle-class mother-of-the-heir, Isobel Crawley, in their battles of waspish British passive aggression?
You see the idea? Downton Abbey has more characters and more storylines than you can shake a brain at, and if you don’t like one, it will try to hook you with another. It’s a technique that at times displayed a breathtaking storytelling cynicism.

Matthew Crawley, heir to Downton, but who needs to provide an heir of his own (honestly, sometimes watching Downton is like watching all the plot elements of a porno movie cut together, waiting on the unseen events of aristocratic mating), comes home from World War I in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down, so no more mating for him. Crisis!

He also comes home with a fiancée, who promptly falls ill with Spanish Flu and dies, while Matthew realises he loves Lady Mary in any case and ‘miraculously’ gets out of his wheelchair (Turns out he only had a trapped nerve or somesuch thing. Medical science in the early 20th century, eh?).

Matthew lives long enough to father a son with Mary (Yep, all below-waist operations fully restored, thanks for asking), and then is the subject of an utterly cynical road accident that writes him out – apparently at actor Dan Stevens’ request.

The point really is that the scandalously cynical, frequently down-the-nose writing of Julian Fellowes and those obliged to maintain his style was turned into something much more than pulp TV by the quality of the actors that studded the drama, and the performances they gave.

For a while there, Downton Abbey was that great British tradition – a landmark show that everybody wanted to be on. A show that was studded with diamonds, but also gave newer and younger performers the chance to shine, and that invited in the best of Britain’s stage and TV performers to show their face.

Right at the top of the ticket, there’s Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Penelope Wilton, showing the potential of the British to take passive aggression to a nuclear level. Hugh Bonneville has a history of playing those who mix bafflement and authority, and in Robert Crawley, he frequently has the stage for both tones. Jim Carter brings an elderly Jeeves vibe to his role as Carson, and Phyllis Logan delivers calm, Scottish competence with a good touch of occasional exasperation.

The younger cast members act their socks off with often thin material to maintain a standard set by the veterans, and the result is that while the storytelling may be tosh, by all the gods of drama it’s hypnotic, watchable tosh for the power of the performances alone.

Do you frequently want to shake the living daylights out of both the main Upstairs couple, Mary and Matthew Crawley, and their Downstairs avatars, Mr Bates and Anna? Oh, absolutely – more or less in every episode. But the performances are such that they rise above mostly leaden dialogue and convenient obstacles to make you want to get them to the end point where they’re together (which only adds to the cynicism of the way in which Matthew was killed off, but by then you’re a couple of seasons into Downton and wanting to find out what happens).
It goes on and on – O’Brien causes a death in a moment of madness and promptly vanishes – a shame, as she’s one of the best reasons to watch early Downton. Thomas Barrow, free of her influence, seems like a man who walks a knife-edge between good and evil, and it takes him until the first movie based on the show to seemingly come fully good. Lady Sybil dies, and the formerly revolutionary Irish driver, Branson, is pulled ever more into being a part of the Downton establishment for the sake of the child they had. Second daughter Edith has a child out of wedlock, and cannot claim it as her own, despite everyone important knowing the score. Even Isobel Crawley gets a kind of late-life love interest, though Samantha Bond, sweeping in as Lord Grantham’s London-based sister, Lady Rosamund, does not.

When, in the wake of a happy ending of sorts for Mr and Mrs Bates and the death of Matthew Crawley, ratings need pepping up, Lily James appears as a tangential cousin and sometime ward of the Crawleys, to bring jazz and flapper culture into the show. It’s faaaairly debatable whether anyone remembers who she is or why she’s there, but again, the power of performance carries her through. We distinctly don’t care that Lady Mary falls into a romance with racing driver Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), though we do give a cheer that she escapes the clutches of manipulative newspaper owner Sir Richard Carlisle (played by Iain Glen in full-on Snarl Mode). The first movie even brings Simon ‘Arthur Dent’ Jones in as the King himself, to give some preparation panic to affairs as royalty comes near enough to Downton to ruffle feathers.

As we say, the power of performance of so many great and great-to-be actors regularly disguises the sometimes sub-soap writing of Downton Abbey, and sells it as a drama, showing the notion of a British society divided by class and deference to a mostly-benevolent upper echelon, which remains one of the main images of Britain held by non-Brits abroad to this day.
It's as far removed from the reality of Britain just a century after the drama is set as Shakespeare is – and to be fair to it, it’s equally far removed from the reality of most Britons AT the time in which it’s set. Most of its drama depends on it being far removed from anything we have to confront in the modern world. And that, ultimately is the POINT of Downton Abbey – it’s twee, pseudo-historical escapism that studded each week with watercooler gossip of a soapy, emotionally involving kind, the characters and their dilemmas sold by the power of the acting rather than because the dilemmas related to the modern world.

In fact, the point is precisely that it has nothing to do with real life, and that it’s acted superbly well, so the escapism is beautifully sold.

Downton Abbey should not in any sense work as binge drama. But in a world where both our entertainment landscape and to some extent what passes for our real world is studded with demented, implausible drama, tuning in and managing to give toss whether some toff holds on to his stately home or not is somehow, against all the odds, magnificently distracting.

Watch Downton Abbey today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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