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Downton Abbey makes fools of us all Why are we watching propaganda for a dying class?

Credit: YouTube

September 13, 2019   5 mins

A film of Downton Abbey appears, as if six series following the adventures of toy aristocrats the Crawleys was not enough nonsense disguised as Sunday evening television to toss an entire country morally off course.

The first season opened, nine years ago, with the sinking of the RMS Titanic and the loss of the Abbey’s heir. If this was a metaphor for the withering of the British aristocracy, Downton Abbey did not follow through. Neither did reality: the aristocracy are still more important than they should be, although they try to hide it, usually by appearing to be very stupid. Self-interested self-deprecation has replaced a sword. So they cower politely, because it suits them.

It is decadent to watch television that details a nation’s oblivious self-hatred, but Americans do it often. In the superhero film genre they cannot stop imagining their own mass deaths. It is as if they long for it to happen and cannot stop imagining how exactly they will die, and how they will feel.

In Britain we are more subtle but only slightly; instead of alien raids and broken cities we imagine a class system we should be happy to see wither return in full pomp: a happy nation under a benevolent aristocrat, who may assume a faint anxiety disorder, should he be seen to be enjoying it too much. We wear social democracy much too lightly here, and that is a problem, for there is no functional hagiography for that. Marvel at the viewing figures for Downton Abbey – 13m at their height – and you would barely believe it exists at all.

I wonder, rather, if the programme and its impersonators did not contribute to the miasma of snobbery, nostalgia and brutality that encouraged Brexit, and made parliament a mockery, while the Queen sits inside a 72% approval rating. I think it is dangerous. Dream of a toy feudal state and it might eventually appear to greet you.

The trailer rolled out like a dream sequence from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s brain. There will be a royal visit to Downton Abbey, in case there is not, already, enough nobility inside Charles Barry’s mouldering Highclere Castle, which is Downton Abbey. (Barry also made the Palace of Westminster, but the Abbey is in rather better shape these days.) There is gay bunting, merry villagers, and servants in silly costumes looking grateful for the opportunity to serve.

“Welcome your Majesties,” says Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), curtseying low enough to meet the servants on the way back up. The butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) returns from semi-retirement in an idealised tied cottage to save – I am presuming, but I would bet money on it – the royal dinner party. He will hold the class system up, by himself if needs be.

The creator of Downton Abbey is Julian Kitchener-Fellowes, who once played Lord Kilwillie in Monarch of the Glen, which was an affable Scottish precursor to Downton Abbey. He was made a real lord for services to costume drama — again I presume — in 2011, with the motto post proelia praemia: After Battle Comes Reward. Battles, as master propagandists have noted, are not fought where they used to be.

When Kitchener-Fellowes is not writing, he is scheming for his wife Emma to inherit an earldom; so much so, that when Lynn Barber in an interview suggested that Emma become a man to inherit, he appeared to seriously consider it.

His worship of nobility is real. And so his Lord Crawley — Hugh Bonneville taking avuncular to some sort of awful nadir — is a kindly landlord who, among other nonsensical acts of altruism that would shame his fictional ancestors, saves his cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) from blindness. He married his (American) wife for money — that much of Downton Abbey is true — but he had the good manners to fall in love with her afterwards. Or was it embarrasment?

His angst aside, the lesson of Downton Abbey is that the class system exists for our benefit, even if aristocrats let Labradors emote for them, and that is a tragedy, but only for them, and without it we would become meaningless and tiny in the world. Its lesson is — we are children, and we should look to others to take care of us.

Kitchener-Fellowes is not alone in polishing the class system; others who should know better do it too, and much too well for comfort.

The Crown, for instance, now entering series 3 — the boring years of the Queen’s reign, between creamy ingenue and ancient sorceress — is funded by Netflix and written by Peter Morgan. It is clever propaganda — you pity Elizabeth Mountbatten as she becomes Elizabeth Regina — but the best propaganda is clever: state your allegiance too baldly, and you will not carry your befugged audience with you.

The Crown repeats the myth that Elizabeth II is a selfless, unusually kind woman who would rather not wear the burden of the crown. (Shakespeare wrote in this vein too. It is the familiar line of the propagandist, whether William Shakespeare or Julian Kitchener-Fellowes. You can get away with anything if people think you are doing it for their sakes). The object of devotion is sacred, and reluctant; of the impact of monarchy on others — on us, still lurking underneath all this gilded misery — you learn nothing. There is a parallel narrative but you rarely hear it publicly; it is as if we are asleep. Prince Andrew is the principal argument for this parallel narrative, but we are too unconscious to listen.

Morgan actually meets members of the royal household to describe each new piece of hagiography, which is a gruesome fate for such a fine writer. I can only imagine that, like so many biographers before him, he has fallen in love with his subject, and longs for her approval; but the British Establishment, which watched almost every other crown in Europe fall, has always worked like that. It gathers talent to itself – for what damage might it do outside?

“Respectfully,” Morgan says, “I tell them what I have in mind and they brace themselves slightly.” I doubt that. I wonder, rather, if when Morgan leaves, they perform high fives.

Morgan’s art is monarchist; he also said that Tobias Menzies’ performance as Elizabeth’s consort, “will do a lot of good for Prince Philip. Because Prince Philip is not considered a complex person.” There is a reason for that.

Elizabeth II, meanwhile, will be played by Olivia Coleman with her Academy Award for Queen Anne in The Favourite – she moved from Queen to Queen. It was the fifth Academy Award for an English monarch in the guise of an actor. There was Colin Firth for George VI, the founder of the reluctant monarch myth; Helen Mirren for Elizabeth II; Judi Dench for Elizabeth I; and Katharine Hepburn for Queen Eleanor.

This happens so often I wonder if it is hereditary monarchy they are rewarding.

That creators of art — but not Kitchener-Fellowes, the Conservative peer, of course — usually consider themselves progressive makes it all the more ludicrous that the shared national culture they create is, in spirit, centuries old. I await an homage to the Plantagenets, with emphasis on their cracked inter-personal relationships.

I do not suggest that social democracy is not valued because people watch Downton Abbey. I suspect is more likely that they watch Downton Abbey because they do not value social democracy as they should, and instead, dream backwards to a time when things were simpler – and worse.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.


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David Simpson
David Simpson
3 years ago

Maybe 72% of us are right. Although it doesn’t look too good for the firm once the current incumbent pops her clogs; still, we could surprise ourselves. At least we got rid of Megan and Harry . . .

Hamish McDougal
Hamish McDougal
3 years ago

Get over it, dear. It’s a TV program! Even if it’s been made into a film.