Monday, February 6, 2012

'Downton Abbey" or "The Recent Unpleasantness at Ye Olde Manor"

Since the Super Bowl had limited appeal for a 49er fan, I think the high light of my television watching   time was seeing a new episode of "Downton Abbey" on PBS.   It's a program that brings American viewers the fun of watching members of the British  elite behave stoically in stressful situations--like poor Lord Grantum (Hugh Bonneville) who doesn't have a direct male heir with his two male cousins going down on the Titanic in 1912. 

What to do?  Well, put on your Sam Browne belt and go to war!  Except the old boy is past it--he had his war in South Africa against the Boers-- and nobody  wants him at the front.  But they would like his drawing rooms for an Army hospital since the  Western Front keeps running up a big butcher's bill and a lot of brave men of all classes are filling up the other extra hospital spaces with  what's left of their bodies and mental and psychic faculties.   

Lord Grantum has problems--it's not all running about in uniform with no place to go fight.  First, he married  an American heiress named Cora (Elizabeth Mc Govern) back in the day.  The viewer knows she's American because she says so at least twice in every episode.  She gave him nothing but girl babies.  The law will not let old Grantum give Downton Abbey  to any of his three daughters.  This, to me, was a very stupid law.  But it's great for fiction purposes.   

There's the  elder daughter who has a dark secret involving having  a dead Turk turning up in her boudoir one night (don't ask).  She's now engaged to be married to a nasty press baron who wants to use his  money and her pedigree to be a blue blood, to live large in the hustings while running his Fleet Street scandal sheet.  

His second  daughter is besotted with a radical  Irish chauffeur who lost his brother in the Irish Revolution that began in 1916.  (Oh dear.) Plus, Lord Grantum  has his manor entailed to a middle class second cousin.  This solicitor cuz  has a liberal/reform minded mummy (!) who is  keen on having the over-sized manor home tuned into a some permanent soldiers' home and/or a  settlement house for the poor.   

His third daughter is secretly married to a hedgehog. 
OK, I made that last part up.  I don't know what his third daughter is doing.  I think she's a nurse or running a Dead Turk Removal Service out of the back of a pub. I promise to pay more attention in the next episode.  

All these  trade-rich and middle-class parvenus,  and working classes servants are most loyal to the status quo, save   that grim-faced little maid, Mrs. O'Brien (Irish....again!)   whose always eves-dropping on other folks and is always up to no good.   

The show runs it's melodramatic course with above-average writing and moments of genuine human emotion---it's not great stuff, but good enough for all the twists and turns needed to make fans come back for a new episode. The head writer and producer, Julien Fellowes, did an excellent job with his recent adaptations of Jane Austen works to the small screen, so he knows this upstairs-middle stairs--downstairs   territory and its potential to hook viewers very well.   
 The whole class thing is blunted by World War I, which ended on last night's program.  Historically, all British classes take took it in the neck one way or another.  The only death in the show comes from a servant. Lat night, the Lord led all the family and servants in a sober observance of the Armistice with this touching  phrase 

"We've  all entered into a new age!" 

Uh, maybe. 

    Aas far as I can see the writers on this show are  going with the old Talleyrand line of  "the more things change, the more they will stay the same" angle, at least as far as life in the over-sized housing pile in Berkshire known as Downton .   I  find this stuff--how the past is filtered and reconstituted for entertainment--a keen way to spend an hour  a week.  

For more on the show, here's a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Television critic Mary MacNamara:,0,5978755.story

By conveniently blurring the class distinctions of the time with a lot of noblesse oblige and more than a dash of modern psychology, Fellowes and his writers allow their audience the benefits of a romantic period piece and none of the troubling drawbacks. The absence of race as a major issue may provide the American audience an instant comfort zone — Americans love to pretend that we, unlike our mother country, are an egalitarian and socially mobile society — but "Downton Abbey" is, after all, a British version of "The Help," the tale of an oppressive social and economic system that is finally being called into question.,0,5978755.story


  1. For all its vaunted reputation in the States, I've found most BBC programs to be underwhelmingly adequate punctuated with occasional sparks of genius. A few series were quite captivating but the majority don't really deserve any special accolades.

    That said, at least you're spending your television time with something somewhat cerebral, although having never seen (or, for that matter, heard of) the series, I'm sorta guessing here. I suspect there's more "there" there than your typical unreality "reality" drivel characteristic of most American fare.

  2. That line made me laugh.
    Think of the possibilities if Doug were on the writing team.

  3. Happens in the best of famillies I'm told, not3bad.

  4. Yes, Chuck, I guess one must always be on guard not to mistake something foreign and looking a bit upscale with something signifigant. I've seen a few British sit-coms on Public Broadcasting in my day that do not deserve regular viewing. Not all of "Masterpiece Theater" is a mastepiece--but the average is pretty above par in my opinion.

    It could also be that the "reality series" gunk and certain unimaginitive police procedurals with stoic heroes and endless autopsy scenes has lowered my expectations of broadcast television as a whle.

  5. The last great recent BBC sitcoms were probably "Only Fools and Horses", "Absolutely Fabulous" and "One Foot in the Grave", but they were all conceived quite a while ago.

  6. The series that particularly stayed with me was a short serial called "Reckless," that starred Robson Green.
    It was tightly written, had few holes in the narrative and featured some very snappy acting, even casting Michael Kitchen as a two-timing head surgeon in a medical unit.

    When they do them well, they really are quite memorable.

  7. I've seen episodes from the last two shows you mentioned and agree with you.

  8. "Inspector Foyle" (Kitchen) playing a two-timing head hospital surgeon? That does sound like fun.

  9. Ah... you know of Foyle... and probably of Foyle's War (which was a bit disappointing).
    I just finally sold my DVD's of the series on because my huge video shelf had, again, runneth over.

  10. Doug I am not familiar with this story yet it's very intriguing. From what I see is that there are some comparatives within Downtown Abbey and Help.

  11. You're right Jack. If you have a chance to check out the link to the LA Times article by the television critic, it will provide a lot more info.

  12. Yes, I got into "Foyle's War"--anything to do with "homefront" stories during WWII interests me.

    Like most shows, some episodes were better than others. I think the last few shows were quite good, altough I was hoping Det. Foyle get a chance to go to New York and run down that bigshot who got away with murder from the episode called 'Fifty Ships". (They alluded to it in the very last episode, but as far as I know it wasn't produced.)

    Yes, I know the feeling there. Shirley and I have to "cull the herd" on our video shelves shortly.

  13. We've been enjoying Downton Abbey here too. I thought it was like a cross between "Pride and Prejudice" and "Upstairs Downstairs". Better than a lot of stuff which graces our tellies nowadays lol

  14. I can't say I've had the pleasure of watching this particular costume drama, in fact I had never previously heard of it Doug.

    My first reaction was to think this sounds quite dreadful, but with your own and Iri's endorsements now ringing in my metaphorical ears, I am prepared to accept that it may not be quite as bad as I first of all feared.

    I have to admit that these sorts of serial sagas generally leave me cold, I never watched Upstairs Downstairs for instance, nor any of the others.

    When I first looked at your piece about it here Doug I thought the programme was a satirical account of class relations in early 20th century Blighty, but my subsequent enquiries suggest that it is intended to be taken seriously.

    Perhaps there should be a 21st century remake called Down Turn Alley about class consciousness in Austerity Britain in which the Grantham family are eaten by a hungry mob made up entirely of redundant police officers.

    Maybe I'll suggest it to the Beeb, I reckon the idea has 'got legs' as they say .....unlike the Granthams have after the big barbecue at the end of series 12.

    I think it is quite right to be critical of the BBC by the way, but the World Service TV channel plumbs depths previously uncharted by other bits of Auntie's operation, it is so dire I was once moved to write to the BBC to say that I thought it so bad that it even made CNN almost watchable, they never replied.

  15. I couldn't have put it better, Iri Ani.

  16. LOL!

    I'm sure the "Downton Abbey" parodies in print and television will appear--but that one has a lot more "legs" than anything I'll bet is in the offing. "Down Turn Alley: Eating Lord and Lady Grantham--The Diamond Jubilee Edition" would certainly be a ratings winner on both sides of the Atlantic, Pacific,et al.

    Perhaps the redundant policemen and women in the show should be slack-jawed and shuffling zombies as well as flesh-eating beasts. Just a thought.

    Please run your idea by the Light Entertainment Department, AA, next time you're in London.

  17. Perhaps the comparison to CNN left the World Service Listener Relations Bureau flummoxed, AA. CNN sets the bar pretty low themselves.

    The sad thing is that the World Service has more content than any radio national outlet in the States for actually covering international news IMHO.

  18. A mild parody of Downton Abbey from You Tube, with a bit of help from Lerner and Lowe.

  19. No I think you'll find those are the ones that are still in work Doug :-D

  20. BBC World Service Radio isn't so bad, its the thinking man's/woman's propaganda on the whole - no its the TV station that is awful I think, BBC World, to me its dire.

  21. Ah I get the picture now Doug, Downton Abbey reminds me a lot of Aardvark Hall, except the singing is better.

  22. Ah, I re-read that part.

    Well, AA, if it's anything like BBC-America TV I readily understand what you mean by "dire". Every time I turn it on they are running an old Batman movie.

    And they expect us "jokers" to sit through the damn US commericals! ;-)

  23. Yes, I gather from the brochures I picked up on your ancestral heath you have no trouble with maintaining a better choir.

    I always prefered Aardvark Hall's Italianate design.

    Legend has it that Queen Anne lost the place to Lord Aardvark, Baron of Brumfield in an all-night poker game.

  24. The police academy is having recruiting troubles I see. ;-)