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Different Class
November 2010

Britain, the only country in Europe with an electorate that would tolerate a return of the old ruling class to power, is also the only European country where a TV company could produce Downton Abbey. To the surprise of the critics, but not of those who have noticed that the National Trust has two million more members than all the political parties combined, this affectionate drama about the ancestors of today's aristocracy has become the hit of the autumn season.

You only have to imagine what a comparable German version set in Prussia in 1912 would have to deal with to grasp how different Britain is from the Continent. Without knowing it, the Junker family would have the weight of the defeat in the First World War, revolution and Weimar, the Nazis, the Second World War and the communist takeover of the East on its shoulders. The series would have to be condemnatory or doom-laden or it would be ridiculous. What applies to German drama applies equally to German politics. However tired Germans become of their stolidly bourgeois Social Democrat and Christian Democrat leaders, they cannot yearn for a return to the values of the old order even for a moment. It's not just that the old order was destroyed in two world wars and three revolutions — a large chunk of Prussia is now in Poland.

The British — or rather the English, for the Scots and the Irish have very different attitudes — can and on occasion do yearn for the values of their traditional rulers because the ruling class was not discredited or destroyed by the 20th century. It did not collaborate with Nazism or flee from communism, but retained its hold on the national imagination. Even my left-wing friends, who loathe the coalition government ideologically, admit to admiring its style. No more poisonous briefings from Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls. Noticeably fewer eye-catching initiatives to generate cheap headlines. After the frenetic ride on which the discredited new establishment of the baby-boomer Left took the country, the British had the option denied to so many others of turning to an old establishment. It has provided us again with a Cabinet of relaxed gentlemen who are slow to anger and slower to panic. In theory, I know the dangers of falling for the allure of aristocratic style. Its superficially attractive manner hides many injustices and hypocrisies. But it is a sign of how we are conditioned by the national culture that although I have tried to dislike the coalition, and will doubtless try harder, I cannot wholly despise it.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes's Downton Abbey fits the current mood. The Earl (Hugh Bonneville) presides over his estate. His daughter, Lady Mary, cannot inherit it because she is a woman, and after the death of her male cousins on the Titanic, the distant relative with a claim to the family fortune turns out to be a Manchester solicitor. Whether he will cross the class divide, unite the family and rejuvenate the established order by marrying Lady Mary, provides what little dramatic tension the series possesses. The aristocrats treat their servants with remarkable kindness. When the solicitor announces that he does not need a valet because he can dress himself, the Earl gently upbraids him for not thinking about the retainers he will one day manage, and putting a poor man out of a job. 

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Mark Colburn
October 28th, 2010
7:10 PM
At the end of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the slaves fed up at their lot, rise up and slaughter their masters to the last man and woman. None escape. I live in hope of a similar ending for Downton Abbey.

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