Judging by the anglophilia that America is currently in the grips of, it is hard to imagine that we are well into the twenty-first century and Britain’s finest hour has long passed. Take the recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ debut on the Ed Sullivan show, for example, which ironically coincided with the new season of Downton Abbey, well underway on PBS.
What is even more ironic is that Downton Abbey contains absolutely no irony. Here is a show which packages the British aristocrats as benevolent, sensitive, and touchy-feely creatures who care about their servants, who in turn iron their masters’ clothes and polish their shoes late into the night, not caring a hoot about whether they have any personal lives or not. Not only do they never ponder what it would be like to have their own families, their own homes, or their own children, they immerse themselves in vicariously rejoicing their overlords’ lives.
One almost wonders if Fox News or Rupert Murdoch is behind this production. For, never has the proverbial one percent been more worshipped by the ninety-nine percent than on Downton Abbey.
Ironically, the viewers of the show are none other than the very people who, in theory at least, deride the co-opting of political power, wealth, and opportunity by that same one percent. Do these PBS viewers ever pause to wonder if they are being manipulated and brainwashed? Or do they feel they are off the hook because they are watching a drama that is set across the pond and in another era? Do they really think that less than a hundred years ago, servants were so ignorant that they preferred serving others to having their own lives?
As an art form, the show leaves much to be desired as well. The heroine Mary looks so bland, one wonders why male after male falls madly in love with her. And it is not just her looks that are bland, but also her personality, so much so that creator/writer Julian Fellowes has to tell us over and over again how much Mathew Crawley loves her; somehow the action and the picture never convinces us of this though. But then again, they are both pasty-faced, insipid, and conventional people, so perhaps they deserve one another. The one female who was a firebrand, who actually questioned the hierarchy of class and status and power, namely, the youngest daughter Sybil, conveniently died.
What is even more exasperating is that never once is the British Empire even mentioned.
Downton Abbey’s current season is entering the era, when, in response to India’s contribution to the British victory in World War I, the British parliament passed the Rowlett Act, whereby colonial officials could pretty much imprison anyone for anything. It was during this period that the infamous General Dyer perpetrated the Jaillanwallah Bagh massacre.
Notwithstanding all this background, the characters on Downton Abbey continue to grapple with monumental questions like what to say to the opera singer who comes to entertain them, she being the only one among them with any talent, but who nevertheless must rank below heredity when it comes to status.
Downton Abbey has been compared to Upstairs Downstairs, a British show from the ‘70s. But when I watched the latter on Netflix, I was pleasantly surprised. For, unlike Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs begins with a young woman arriving to work as a maid in the house of an aristocrat/politician. But a maid is not what the woman, Sarah, aspires to be.
Quite the contrary. She is an actress with a fake resume who soon begins a relationship with the son of the house. I was so thrilled with this story, written by none other than Fay Weldon, a renowned author and creator of the She Devil, who, as a young girl, lived “downstairs” in London where her mother worked as a maid. Alas, in a recent interview, Weldon confessed that John Hawkesworth, the creator of the show, got rid of her because she was too much of a bolshie. Once the feisty Sarah, a creation of Weldon’s, played by the spunky Pauline Collins, was gone, the show fell into an insipid formula.
I started watching Downton Abbey because of the fine acting by the servant characters. I kept hoping that some real drama would develop; that the status-quo would somehow be upset; that one of the servants would mention Mahatma Gandhi or orchestrate a revolt. But we are now into the fourth season and so far I have been thoroughly disappointed. Fellowes has stuck to his uninspired soap opera format, with the result that absolutely nothing of any consequence has taken place in the current season. It is a fictional show after all; I wonder why he cannot take more risks with the plot and the characters. Could it be that he himself belongs to the privileged class and cannot imagine the balance of power being shifted?
I was surprised to recently discover that Fellowes wrote the screenplay for the film Gosford Park, a heart-wrenching upstairs-downstairs story much closer to the reality of the British class system. I only have to believe that it was Robert Altman, the director, who was responsible for that poignant film.
Or perhaps, before creating Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes prepared a business plan to develop the most successful TV production with the least number of new props. For, let us face it, there are probably thousands of costumes and vintage cars sitting around in the back lots of Granada and Ealing studios, waiting to be dusted and used in the next period drama. I only bemoan the lost opportunities; I wonder what could have been accomplished with those same props and a riskier script.
Or perhaps Julian Fellowes has his finger on the nerve of America. He knows that, contrary to what Americans like to believe about their democratic and egalitarian views, at heart they are suckers for authority. Why else would Jackie Kennedy’s Camelot capture the imagination of this nation? Why else would the Gores and the Bushes and the Clintons still be running the country? Why else would we be appointing the same people who brought down Wall Street to guard it?
Maybe, as I write these words, Julian Fellowes is having the last laugh.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.