Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey epitomises the worst features of the culture he claims to challenge
The editors at Standpoint are models all others should follow. Writers can damn their dearest principles or insult their closest friends, and not a murmur of protest will pass their lips. “We must let them say what they think,” is their credo. “We are editors not censors.” On one occasion only have I pushed their tolerance to its limits. A year ago, I committed an unforgivable solecism and criticised the first series of Downton Abbey.
They printed the piece, of course, but spluttered about a liberal-Left sensibility that denies that conservatives can be cultured, and allows political prejudice to blind them to artistic achievement that does not conform to their prejudices. For leftists, a country-house drama that does not portray aristocrats as monsters must be worthless by definition. Downton‘s creator Julian Fellowes talked in 2006 about a lazy cultural elite that took its small world to be the whole world. “The establishment of the Left needs to be challenged by the new avant-garde which should, logically, come from the Right,” he said. Downton is his challenge made flesh.
One does not need to spend too long in the company of critics to realise that Fellowes has a point. The most successful left-wing intellectual of our day is Slavoj Žižek, an apologist for Marxism-Leninism who disguises himself in the bells and motley of a postmodern jester. He proved he had the soul of a secret policeman when he praised Avatar and denounced the film that beat it for the 2010 best picture Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Avatar is a simplistic sci-fi blockbuster, which would not normally appeal to Marxisant academics. It is redeemed in Žižek’s eyes because it is also a clumsy critique of the second Iraq war. In the 22nd century, grasping militarists (read George W. Bush and Tony Blair) decide to invade a moon belonging to a cute, eco-friendly, tree-worshipping species, the Na’vi (Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, I guess), and steal their precious reserves of something called “unobtanium”. (“It’s all about unobtanium!”) The Hurt Locker by contrast is a tough, low-budget film which examines the pressures on the psyche of men in combat. It feels no need to debate the rights and wrongs of the war because it has other work to do.
Žižek attacked it for being imperialist propaganda that was all the more dastardly because the bias was so subtle the viewers did not realise that Bigelow was brainwashing them. “In its very invisibility, ideology is here, more than ever: we are there, with our boys, identifying with their fear and anguish instead of questioning what they are doing there.” The Hurt Locker does not toe the party line, and is therefore wicked. Avatar “clearly takes the side of those who oppose the global military-industrial complex” and is therefore good. That’s all there is to it.
In Britain, where snobbery and inverted snobbery poison everything, there is a long history of intellectual suspicion of “the heritage industry”. The masses who go to National Trust homes and watch Downton Abbey are fools, runs the argument, who allow the elite to indoctrinate them with a comforting view of the past that covers up misery and exploitation.
So, yes, I was prepared to accept that bigotries of my background had prevented me from appreciating Downton. I sat down to watch the second series, ready to be convinced that Fellowes was the leader of an avant-garde of the Right. He closed my open mind within an episode. To mention his work in the same breath as that of Waugh, Powell and Amis is to make a comparison that is so ridiculous it demolishes itself. There is no examination of the human condition; no character or situation that can linger in the mind.
At one point, Hugh Bonneville, as the Earl of Grantham, wails: “How can this be? My whole life gone over a cliff in the course of a single day.” A single day? The earl was being too modest. The scenes in Downton change so quickly that lives go over cliffs in the course of a single minute. The feverish pace is evidence enough that Fellowes has taken the worst features of the culture he affects to despise and dressed them in evening gowns and dinner jackets.
In the golden age of television drama of the 1970s and 1980s, writers and directors wanted the time to allow characters to develop and dramatic tension to build. In its 1979 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the BBC did something no modern producer would dare contemplate. It emphasised the mystery by showing Alec Guinness sitting and thinking in complete silence. The leisurely pace has now gone, in part because it is cheaper to cut fast from one interior scene to the next than film outdoors. In period dramas, outdoor filming is not only expensive but carries the additional risk of the camera catching satellite dishes, double yellow lines and modern conservatories on the back of Victorian houses — and the one true delight of watching Downton has been the sight of all the above in Edwardian England. But as the BBC and Guardian critic Mark Lawson has emphasised for years the main motivation for slicing and dicing drama is fear of the viewers reaching for the remote and switching to one of hundreds of rival channels. By stuffing the screen with dramatic climaxes every 90 seconds or so, directors stay the podgy hand of the couch potato.
Since you asked, Lord Grantham was in despair because his wife had grown distant from him. He makes eyes at a maid. The wench realises that such goings-on are not proper. She leaves her job without a word of complaint or a demand for compensation, as mistresses do, and the earl’s wife acknowledges that she had “neglected” his lordship. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible country houses. Fellowes crowbars the affair into about ten minutes of airtime spread in bitesize portions over two episodes and then moves on to the next dish.
Can you imagine Evelyn Waugh, who once complained that no Conservative government had turned the clock back by a single second, and who described the casual cruelty of sexual betrayal as well as any other writer, looking on in admiration?
He would have seen what the programme’s defenders cannot admit. Downton is neither cultured nor conservative. It is MTV for Tories, CSI: Shire County.