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Downton Abbey: just a bit of fun?

Downton Abbey is that very rare thing – an ITV series popular enough to be commissioned for a second season. It also seems to appeal to middle-class viewers – when was the last time the Daily Telegraph put together a readers’ quiz about an ITV series? –  so watch out for lots of adverts for expensive German cars.

Such is its popularity, the Today programme interviewed A.N. Wilson and Alison Light about Downton Abbey’s ‘significance’. Wilson’s use of ‘bollocks’ to characterise claims the series was anything other than a ‘sanitised version of the past’ briefly sent ripples through Twitter. You can hear Wilson dropping the B bomb here.

Wilson’s potty mouth distracted attention from his serious point – but John Humphrys constant ho-ho-ing suggested that Today’s producers looked on the segment as just a bit of fun. After all, a period drama with lots of posh people lolling about in nice dresses and dashing uniforms can’t be ‘political’ (dread word) can it? The essential academic consensus however is: yes, it can. But Anthony Trollope put it better than might any social scientist: ‘The writer of stories must please’, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no.’

As I suggested in an earlier post, Downton Abbey is part of a new wave of period dramas, one that has gathered force, tsunami-like, over the past year or so. Like the poor, period dramas have always been with us, but Downton Abbey’s popularity, the success of The King’s Speech, the revival of Upstairs Downstairs (of which Downton Abbey is, let us say, an effusive ‘tribute’) and a new television adaptation of South Riding suggests that something significant is going on.

It would be too crude to link too straightforwardly the renewed popularity of period drama with the return of the Conservative party to office, and impossible to prove which one is the cause of which. But Julian Fellowes, who created the series, was recently translated into a Conservative peer: make of that what you will. Moreover, A.N. Wilson, who seems to be on a bit of mission here, certainly thinks the series reinforces old-fashioned class prejudice.

The last time Britain was in the grips of an economic crisis – the 1970s – was also the last time period dramas like Upstairs Downstairs and When the Boat Comes In ruled the roost. As I pointed out in a paper last year, in the face of this crisis, these dramas tapped into an undoubted popular desire to return to a past world of (invented) certainty. Yet, they also tackled many live political issues while, arguably, promoting class consensus (in Upstairs Downstairs) and individualism (in When the Boat Comes In).

What lessons will the second season of Downton Abbey teach its viewers? We’ll have to see – but as it is set during the Great War I predict an emphasis on pulling together in the face of adversity. After all, as the Prime Minister reminded us recently, we’re all in this together.

Anyone for Economic Downturn Abbey?

Steven Fielding

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One Comment

  1. It was reported last year that at a Conservative Party fund raising auction:

    Downton Abbey author and Tory peer Julian Fellowes donated a day’s work as an extra on the set of the new series of the ITV series. It went for £25,000

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1356469/Cash-internships-Tory-backers-pay-2k-time-buy-children-work-experience.html#ixzz1YFGcXowP

    I hope that Equity stopped this travesty from taking place, but I do not know.

    Worth noting, historically, the colossal success of Brideshead Revisited in 1981…

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