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Monday, December 07, 2015

Further Thoughts on 'Downton Abbey'

Warning: Spoilers

We have been watching the television series 'Downton Abbey' on catch-up. Over the last few weeks we have more or less 'binged' on the show.  The earlier episodes have been shown on the digital channel I.T.V Encore and then put on download or 'catch-up' through our Sky subscription, but we were stuck at the end of series 4 and there were no more episodes so we were left stranded, mid-air, as it were. We now have an Amazon Fire Stick which allows you to watch films and television shows which are streamed via the internet and, as members of what is called Amazon Prime, we can see a lot of stuff free (although we pay a £79 annual subscription which also means we can get free postage and packing when we buy anything via Amazon's website which is very convenient.) We did attempt to see the first episode of the series when it first came out, but, having watched it including advertising, we gave up. It has been taken over by so much advertising we couldn't cope with it, and  one of the advantages of catch-up television is that there's no advertising every ten minutes or so. Ads for sofas, car insurance and mobile phones is enough to put anyone off. We discovered that 'Downton Abbey' was one of the many television series we could watch, but up until the end of series 4. It appears that the final series is not free to watch. We will have to pay considerably more to watch it, but it's likely to be free once the final, Christmas episode is shown on Christmas Day. I have mentioned the show in previous posts but since watching it up until the end of series 5 (sorry, I refuse to use the American term 'season.') there is a good deal more about it which I want to discuss.

I'm still more interested in the 'downstairs' staff than the 'upstairs' family. The Earl of Grantham, as played by Hugh Bonneville, is a real stick in the mud. Reluctant to break with tradition and see the estate move forward into the 20th Century, or so it seems. Likewise, Carson, the Butler, seems to do anything to avoid any sort of modernisation. Why do the ladies need maids to help them dress and undress? Likewise, the gentlemen, can they not dress themselves? I understand that, during the earlier period, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the women wore corsets, loads of petticoats, had lots of hooks and eyes in their boots and shoes and cross-lacings in their dresses which would require a lady's maid to help, and the men wore stiff collars and cuffs in their shirts and the fact that clothes needed more care because they needed folding neatly, but it seems the aristocrats are incapable of any sort of work. But in the later period, for example the 1920's when clothing became simpler, ladies wore lighter dresses without any sort of lacings, they wouldn't obviously need assistance with their dressing and undressing. I can see, as regards plots, the valets and ladies' maids are integral to the storilines as they have to keep secrets divulged by their misstresses and masters. As regards the kitchen staff, as time goes on there are more appliances used in the kitchen which made the staff's lives much easier. We have visited many National Trust properties and seen the kitchens, notably Crag Side in Northumberland and Ickworth in Suffolk and they have modern (or at least, modern at the time they were introduced in, say, the 1920s and 30's.) At Cragside, for instance, the whole house was run using hydrolectric power. Infact, I believe it might have been the first country house to use any sort of electricity. The power generated worked such things as spits for roasting and even a lift between floors of the house and lighting. In 'Downton Abbey' the introduction of the telephone and radio seems to cause a huge stir amongst the artistocratic members of the household and the downstairs staff. At one point Carson is horrified by the thought of having to use the telephone but after a while relents and uses the thing frequently.

The 'downstairs' staff have more interesting 'story arcs.' Daisy has had the most interesting 'story arc' and has definitely grown as the show has gone on. She is now considering an education and hopefully will be able to break free from a life of drudgery downstairs. All this bought about since she had lessons with the schoolteacher, a rather firey character with Socialist leanings. In one particular scene when she comes to dinner at the house, she gets on the wrong side of the Earl of Grantham with her left-wing views. At this point we see a different side of Robert not seen until then. I think the way the stories have managed to utilize historic events, such as the sinking of the Titanic at the very beginning of the first series, the First World War and it's effects on staff and family, the move forward into the 1920's, the 'Jazz Age' and the introduction of such things as motor transport, radio, telephone and so on has been well done. Also, how the class system has shifted and how ordinary people has aspire to greater things rather than be stuck in a rut at the bottom of the pile. However, it will be interesting to see how the aristocracy cope with change as they have to come to terms with this shift in the class system and how they manage to deal with declining estates, the upkeep of large houses and also their fortunes being eroded by higher taxation etc etc.

The Grantham family run and own a vast estate with acres of land and property and they are often seen on horseback. But only minimally. I think there has been a foxhunt at some point and we've seen one of the ladies on horseback at a steeplechase. I think the fox hunting element has been only seen on a very small amount  of screen time to avoid upsetting the politically correct contingency, but let's be honest, the aristocracy have not been known to avoid upsetting people with their hunting, shooting fishing and generally ill-treatment of the wildlife of the countryside. There has been some shooting going on, but what else do these 'types' get up to? Compared to the downstairs staff, they're generally a very dull lot. 'Stiff upper lip' describes them well. Don't show your emotions (the men, of course.) except when the dog dies, not show any affection for your better half. Reserved, stoical etc etc. Meanwhile, the women are self-centred, moody, emotional, and thoroughly heartless in some cases. Mary spent episode after episode moping after the death of Matthew (understandable, up to a point I suppose.) And then she became a man-chaser. Building up the hopes of many men and then ditching them at the last moment. Lady Edith has been seen moping over her child which she had illicitly and then tried to palm the poor child off on a farmer and his wife who live on the estate and then pretended that she wasn't her child. What a tangled web etc etc.

I suppose 'Downton Abbey' does have it's appeal. It's well enough made, written and acted. A lot of time and effort has gone into the look and feel of the thing. The period is evoked well with both the settings and costumes. But to be honest it's somewhat dull. It can best be described as 'chewing gum for the eyes.' What I mean is, it doesn't take many risks. It's typical Sunday evening entertainment. It fits the so-called 'Ovaltine Television' mold. We always seem to get either vets, nurses, midwives and other assorted professions in our weekly dose of drama on a Sunday night. And invariably costume drama of some sort. It's the sort of last thing we see before we go to bed as the weekend draws to a close and have to contemplate going back to work on Monday morning. It's totally inoffensive, doesn't upset anyone in any particular way and is thoroughly Middle Class. We get our fill of nostalgia, although, as someone or other said, 'Nostalgia's not what it used to be.' It moves along at a snails pace. No speeding cars, police chases, guns being fired. It won't 'frighten the horses' as someone else also said. I don't dislike it and it gives employment to a great many good actors. I have to say it's great to see Dame Maggie Smith in something and definitely in her element. As I've said in an earlier post, she does seem to get the best lines.

The upstairs characters are not really characters I can identify with. They're rich and arrogant. Can't they see that their lifestyle is gradually coming to an end? Would they not have had some idea that things would change after what happened in Russia in 1917 with the Revolution? As would have happened when Charles I was beheaded and Cromwell took over with the Commonwealth? I can't really identify with them. They don't in general terms have 'character journeys' because they don't have to strive for a better life because they have money, position, power and so on. Meanwhile, the downstairs staff have to not only work extremely hard, but if they want to break free from their lives of drudgery, they have to work harder than most to get anywhere away from the confines of the house. Although, saying that, they do have the protection of the house and the family, security up to a point, a roof over their heads and free board and lodging.The best drama comes when the characters have to go on a journey, a really good story arc, which means that by the end of the novel/play/film or whatever they have changed from how they started at the opening of the story. Think of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield or even Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean changes gradually during the course of the story.

I have seen documentaries on television which give a relatively accurate picture of what life in a country house would have been like, similar to the large house depicted in 'Downton Abbey.' Yes, I know, it was never intended to be a documentary. It's more of a soap opera for those who want to have aspirations above their current position in life. Similar in some ways to 'Dynasty' or 'Dallas.' But there are aspects of life on a country house and estate which seem to have been conveniently forgotten. Such as the fact that the staff have to get up extremely early each morning (usually before 6 a.m.) to make up the fires, carry coal in buckets great distances from goodness knows where, empty the slops (or to be more accurate, the bed-pans, 'guzunders' etc etc.) because most of these houses didn't have sanitation as we know it in the 21st century. Then there's the matter of slave ownership, as many aristocrats made their fortunes by owning slaves who worked for them on cotton plantations. And then when slavery was abolished many former owners got large sums of money in compensation from the British government which they then often used to invest in such things as the railways, canals and many industries. And I suppose to be fair, 'Downton Abbey' is set in the early part of the 20th century when most of what I have mentioned in this paragraph would have been eradicated. Also, many of the owners of these houses and estates were fair employers, who treated their staff with respect and gave them decent wages, for the time.

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