The Quivering of the Stiff Upper Lip

Last evening PBS aired the final episode of “Downton Abbey”, a costume drama which was made for ITV in Britain and here in America was run on “Masterpiece Classic”, the subdivision of the venerable old “Masterpiece Theatre”, of blessed memory. If it has been some time since you watched PBS, gentle reader, then you may be unaware that “Masterpiece” has absorbed the formerly distinct “Mystery”, in order to show films featuring characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Kurt Wallender, and the like. “Masterpiece Classic” features works either taken from literature or set in an historic period, while “Masterpiece Contemporary” deals with works set in the present-day. While the divisions make some sense from a programming aspect – and this writer for one has no complaints whatsoever with seeing introductions from the always-charming Laura Linney on the “Classic” showings – it does seem to lend something of a schizophrenic nature to the brand.

In any case, “Downton Abbey” is not in fact a classic work of literature, but rather a period piece developed and written by Julian Fellowes, of “Gosford Park” and “The Young Victoria” writing fame. It follows the inner workings of life at an English country house in the lead-up to World War I, with the Earl of Grantham and his family at the top of the pecking order and the household staff at bottom. The series is beautifully shot, the costumes and attention to detail are wonderful, and there is a golden light that often suffuses the film and gives us a sense of a world unaware that it is about to pass away.

As to the story itself, “Downton Abbey” is little more than a re-hash of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, with more sex and less believability. Fellowes has charted this territory before, in the intensely boring murder-mystery “Gosford Park” which, despite some few, electric moments, was doomed to Yawnsville from the start in being made by the late Robert Altman. In “Downtown Abbey”, the great Dame Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has little more to do than play a variation on her twittering like a perturbed canary as she did in “Gosford Park”, “Tea with Mussolini”, etc.; one of the guests and the servants carry on a clandestine same-sex affair (“Gosford Park” again); the inevitable maxim that it is tacky to talk about money, but then of course everyone does so, incessantly (natch); and the requisite younger bluestocking playing the Bolly Bolshevik (ditto.)

One of the more “icky” aspects of the script arises through the interactions between staff and family: moments which this reviewer found rather eye-rolling at times. It is very difficult to believe the amount of physical touching, embracing, back-talking with no consequences, and general familiarity on display between the Earl’s family and their household staff. At least “Gosford Park” had, in its one spectacular on-screen moment, a scene in which a servant dares to speak out of turn at dinner – Kristin Scott-Thomas’ face is simply astounding – and knows without having to be told that she is sacked. “Downton Abbey”, by contrast, gives us a closing scene of the butler embracing the eldest daughter of the Earl, out on the grounds in the middle of her parents’ garden party, after her engagement fails to come off. Someone please pass the smelling salts.

There is a tendency in contemporary British film to reduce the blue-blooded to some sort of emotional, tender heap of feelings, presumably in an effort to make them more comprehensible to the masses. One of the writers at The Daily Telegraph, in reviewing “The King’s Speech”, has referred to this as the “Dianafication” of the British monarchy: let’s forget that these people are different and knock them down a few pegs to make them seem somewhat cuddly underneath those forbidding exteriors. Yet in doing so filmmakers and indeed the public forget that is precisely what puts an Earl, a Countess, or a King at a distance from the common people which preserves the system by which they remain where they are, and not merely Louis and Marie Capet from down the street. There is a magic in monarchy that is lost when we know too much, or when the lofty become too familiar.

As a decidedly middle-class, middle-brow entertainment there are worse things than “Downton Abbey”: the work of Robert Rauschenberg comes to mind. We were informed – perhaps the more choice word is “warned” – at the conclusion of last evening’s episode that a second series of “Downton Abbey” is in the works. Oh dear.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, used as the set for “Downton Abbey”

2 thoughts on “The Quivering of the Stiff Upper Lip

  1. I can agree with you about the familiarity that was present in the show, but most likely completely unrealistic in terms of actuality. I also thought the scene at the end was WAY away from what would be allowed. However, it’s fun. Mac and love to laugh at Maggie smith and mrs crawley. And we love to hate Thomas and o’brian. Though I did feel for her at the end. She’ll gave to live with that forever. Or would if she was a real person. Which she’s not. I know that now.


    • Particularly at the turn of the previous century, when society was far more rigid than it is today, that kind of familiarity would never have been involved. That said, I hope Thomas gets his comeuppance in Season 2.


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