Different Class

Only in Britain could a TV company get away with a drama that looks so lovingly at the past

Nick Cohen

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. 

The servants are not universally happy with their lot, but they are not oppressed either. In one scene, the butler and housekeeper discuss whether it was worth giving up marriage and children to serve the family. Both look wistful but neither concludes that they have wasted their lives. 

Downton Abbey’s message is so old-fashioned it is almost fresh. Edwardian nobles have privileges but they also have responsibilities and their lives are not as easy as they seem. Mary has a one-night stand with a handsome Turkish diplomat, but he distresses the lady by dropping dead in her bed while making love, something that no Englishman should ever do if he wishes to be considered a gentleman. The servants are inferiors but they have a secure place in the hierarchy and masters who care for them when they are sick.

The writing is competent, and the acting and production values are high. I feel mean-spirited criticising Fellowes, not least because I will watch Downton Abbey to the end. But it remains a strange drama because it has so little to say that I cannot see why Fellowes wanted to write it.

It may be unfair to set him against great writers, but the Sunday evening slot and the country house setting invite comparisons and none of them is flattering. Brideshead Revisited may be Evelyn Waugh’s most sentimental work, but the old satirist retained enough brutality to destroy the privileged world of the Marchmain family in the final chapters. Stevens, the butler in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, could not be further from Fellowes’s contented servants. The novel gradually shows how he ruined his life and missed his chance of love by being loyal to a worthless master. Isabel Colegate’s novel The Shooting Party, which Alan Bridges turned into an excellent film in the 1980s, deftly uses the slaughter of pheasants during a weekend at a country house to suggest a collapse in traditional values as the massacres on the Western Front draw near. Even the writers of Upstairs, Downstairs knew that Edwardian Britain did not bask in a halcyon summer, but was torn by strikes, the suffragette movement and threat of civil war in Ireland.

Downton Abbey nods towards the greater conflicts of the period, but only for form’s sake. Women characters occasionally allow serious thoughts to trouble their pretty little heads. A chauffeur admits to be being a socialist with a chuckle in his voice. But these moments are fleeting. The plots remain insipid and the characters feebly drawn. This most conservative of dramas is an artistic failure, and its weakness points to wider tensions.

The old ruling class may not have been destroyed, but it is far from loved. We may want to see how an Edwardian kitchen worked, as Downton Abbey allows us to do, and to gawp at stately homes, but we lost the deferential respect for their owners long ago.

Our rulers know it. David Cameron, a descendant of William IV, calls himself Dave. Gideon Osborne, heir to the baronetcy of Ballentaylor in County Tipperary, changed his name to George. From their efforts to suppress the Bullingdon Club photograph of them wearing tailcoats and sneers, to their ostentatious attacks on the benefits of higher-rate taxpayers, they exhibit a desperate desire to show that the return of the aristocracy does not mean that privileged men will be helping their own kind.

They realise that an appeal to the virtues of hierarchy and noblesse oblige cannot sustain a government. Nor can it sustain a drama.

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