Thursday, February 25, 2016


Do not resist: enter Downton Abbey six seasons


The first thing to be said about this series is that it is British from the very first scene to the very last by the vast range of actors and actresses as for age and the extreme quality of these actors, most of them having parallel careers in theaters, television and the cinema. They are thus able to act with a vast variety of stances and tones and at the same time with a great expressivity on their faces or with their body language. Within that great versatility and mental or dramatic agility there is not one single age that is privileged and the older generation is just as good and as present as the youngest one and the age range, apart from the few children, goes from the late teens and early twenties to the seventies. This is exceptional and no American series will ever be able to do that. A TV actor might turn up in the cinema but then he will never go back to TV, and both will hardly be able to work on a stage. The case of “Harry Potter,” or Daniel Radcliffe if you prefer, is typically British who can play on the stage or act in a film. That mobility is not American, and American television sure misses something there, just as much as it misses the use of older actors and actresses, as well as very young ones, leveling the cast within a twenty to thirty years age bracket.

The second element that makes this series beautifully and exceptionally British is the fact it is situated before, during and after the First World War in England and everything is there to tell you, you are in England. The Mansion in which the action takes place, the official Downton Abbey, which is of course not the real name, the village next to it, the array of vehicles and cars, the steam engine and the train, even the London of that time, all is reconstructed the way it was or used to be. Only England can have that Tudor architecture. It is in no way similar to anything anywhere else in the world and if there is something looking like it in the USA, it is nothing but a copy, hence a fake, or maybe, like the old London Bridge, a rejected ruin that was bought over here and brought and rebuilt over there, in a piece of desert even.

The third element is the society it depicts. There is the upstairs of the aristocrats, lords, ladies, duchesses, earls and so on that is so English in its vanity, social exclusiveness, social segregation, social racism even. And there is the downstairs of the servants, the copy cat hierarchy of the service from the butler at the top to the housekeeper at the top too, then to the valets and the footmen on one side, and to the maids and kitchen hands on the other side, and with some hierarchy within each echelon of this social descending ladder. To be in the service was a great honor and privilege and one could spend one’s whole life in it and climbing the rungs of that ladder one at a time over the decades. But this series is exceptional because it goes far beyond that simple capture of social stratification.

The main lady, the wife of the Earl has an American mother, and brother (not very much present in the series), and this American line is always the source of some humor more than anything else, though of course it is also the source of a lot of money and opportunities.

The chauffeur of the estate is Irish, a republican socialist what’s more, and he falls in love with one of the three daughters and she would have eloped if her father had not accepted to change his mind. This daughter will die in childbirth and the Irish socialist ex-chauffeur who is thus the father of a little girl who is a blood relative of the family is accepted in this circle but as the one who is going to take over the management of the estate, hence a full time job, and yet he does not feel at home really. But he finds a real position because of what he is doing: saving the English aristocracy from being bankrupt and run over by the capitalists, by becoming capitalists themselves, with the help of a new generation of non-aristocrats who break all kinds of rules just because they can since they are not aristocrats.

The heir of the estate is a non aristocrat (he inherits the estate but not the title) but his fate is tragic though he provides the family with a very much desired male heir. His wife, the oldest daughter, is a very strange character though she might be able to change and evolve with the world, especially after the war because England has to change fast if they want to avoid some social upheaval.

The general picture here is fascinating.

In the same way what is happening downstairs is fascinating with love and hatred, with spying and plotting, of all sorts, even a rape here and there to pepper and salt the scene, a few violent crimes too, well disguised if possible. Not to speak of a possible divorce that is not brought to its fulfillment because the woman dies in the mean time. Bleak and dark, and yet some women in that set of servants are outstandingly honest and humane. This world is a world of its own and that too is interesting.

All together this series is a lot more fascinating than I have said because of these numerous and varied levels of social norms and taboos that are broken or challenged by a set of extremely good actors and actresses that make the show a real gem of television production. Note the way the Prince of Wales who was to become a king who married a divorcee and was obliged to abdicate because of it is ridiculed, is absolutely funny, though that more or less covers his bad political reputation since he was on Hitler’s side, more or less, and to show him as having the most careless and freewheeling morality you can imagine for a future king justifies the fact that he was nicely pushed aside. It could not be done with more humor, though very cruel humor for that prince who has to acknowledge what could have been a scandal and his obligation to owe one to a set of aristocrats who used the skills of their servants to salvage a situation that was desperate. The London season is really funny then.



There is something in this costume drama television series as they are heftily called something that makes it different from many others. In fact there are several things indeed.

The first element is that it is long lasting. Five years is already a long stretch for a series of that type. More than a simple series, each episode locked up between its opening        and closing music and credits, it is a continuing story and each episode has its own well defined subject and Object and yet the action will go on next episode. It is not necessarily a cliff hanger at the end of each episode, but it is at the end of each season, though then the Christmas special or London Season can answer the cliff hanger and propose a milder suspenseful ending.

The second element is that there is some real equality in treatment and quality between the downstairs and the upstairs, the servants and the masters. They are both, as groups and each individual in each group, believable, realistic and even in many ways lovable, even the darker ones.

In this series the darker one downstairs is a well hidden but under strict surveillance gay footman, Thomas Barrow, or something, and in this season his friend, another footman is leaving and he feels lost, not that they had some real happiness under the surveillance, but they had some accompliceship. Then he gets in a real bad blind alley, that of trying to force nature and make himself more normal. That suddenly makes him more human, especially since he fails and finds the support he needs.

Upstairs they all are a little bit dark, but the master himself, the father of this family, now grandfather, The Earl of Grantham is at times such a strict conservative and narrow-minded dictator about appearances and language, manners and habits, that he could make anyone really angry. But he is changing in this season under the influence of his Irish son-in-law and estate manager, Tom Branson, under the influence of his American wife, Cora Crawley, under the influence of his daughters who all are quite unconventional in a way or another, and at the very end he comes to realizing that he has a third grandchild from his daughter Sybil who has a journalistic career in her hands, if she wants, since she inherited from her dead unmarried husband, the father of her daughter, the publishing business he had and for which she had worked a little.

But upstairs is bringing a lot of surprises and the promise of much change. The cousin – and niece, Rose McClare – who had been living in Downton Abbey is finally bringing her wild life to an end and she is being married. What an event! She fell in love with a young man who fell in love with her. Perfect. Well, it would be perfect if the young man, Atticus Aldridge, were not Jewish of Russian origin, Odessa actually. Her own mother who comes from India for the wedding tries to ruin it. The father in law, Atticus’ father, is an important character in his Jewish community and he does not like the wedding, but the mother in law is strongly for it and her aunt, Cora Crawley, in whose home she had been living for several years, the American of the family, had a Jewish father or grandfather, who cares anyway.

The cliff hanger is the strange assassination of a certain Mr. Green, the rapist, who had raped Mrs. Bates, that is coming back to haunt the Bates with more police prosecution and investigation, maybe persecution, or vice versa. That’s the cliffhanger of this season.

Then Tom Branson is announcing he plans on going to Boston with his daughter to start a new life with his brother there, or some relative. The Earl has finally accepted to renovate some of the old houses of the village and maybe to build some new ones and he has managed to help the people in the village with their project of a war memorial, and has even managed to have a plaque to Daisy’s husband and Mrs. Padmore’s nephew on a wall not too far because he could not be included on the memorial since officially he had been classified a deserter after one nasty shelling episode and was sentence to be shot.

There is in this series finally an attempt to stick to what is happening in society. So we have some echoing little waves coming from London where the first Labor government was instated and the King spoke to the nation in one of his addresses for the first time on the radio, the wireless as it was called at the time. It is probably these touches of political change and modernity that give the series a certain level of durability. But even so, nothing is sustainable for ever. The poor dog – a bitch actually – is dying of cancer. We can even assume she is dead, and that is sad since she was the wavering dog ass in the opening credits in each episode. What is going to happen now?



We all know finishing a series that has been going on for five years is a difficult task. In this business you may have the American ruffians who very often, most of the time, kill the main character like Dexter who is maybe not dead but since then the author put him to death in the last book of the series of books behind the TV series. Same thing with Prison Break and yet they are speaking of the revival of the series, like poor Sherlock Holmes killed by Conan Doyle and then revived, resurrected, resuscitated. Then you have Supernatural where every season they kill one of the main characters and systematically revive him, always men apparently, within a couple of episodes or at the beginning of the next season. Humdrum. Lost was different since they managed to come back and have a revival but that is an absolutely unique case. Quite a few others just come to an end without any real grand ending. House MD was an exception since Dr House brought an enormously phenomenal ending to his series.

But in this series dealing with the transformation of the British high nobility at the beginning of the 20th century up to 1925, you have to be at least lavish and certainly grandiose and at the same time all characters must find a logical end and if possible a happy ending, even if the butler Charles Carson is taken by a family ailment, palsy, the family provides with a happy compromise that enables the gay underbutler Thomas Barrow who had moved out to be called back and to find his happy ending. Charles Carson and Mrs. Hughes are married. Anna Bates gets pregnant and her pregnancy is medically saved by Mary Crawley, her boss. The undercook Daisy Mason is finally moving to the farm of her father in law and is falling for a young footman in the house. But that was easy.

The cook Mrs. Patmore is saved from a press scandal in her bed-and-breakfast guest house project by the Earl himself and his wife and daughters. Joseph Molesley is promoted teacher in the village school and that was not easy for someone who had been a servant all his life, hence exercising no authority at all and finding himself in a situation where authority is the major word with young children and teenagers. The merging of the local hospital with the bigger York hospital is over-dramatic because the grandmother is against it and has to be pushed aside to give way to the American raised mother. But what about the two daughters of this family, three originally but Thomas Branson’s wife Sybil Crawley is dead, as we all know. The two sisters are rivals and they systematically compete in all fields. Edith Crawley has her own life and career in London since she is the owner of a magazine and that provides the series with a few twists: how to get rid of an editor who does not satisfy her and is hostile to her, the owner mind you, and how to replace him by a competent woman who could work hand in hand with her and the rest of the personnel, all women.

Edith Crawley falls in love with the Marquess of Hexham to be (after the accidental but disreputable death of the cousin who carried the title in Tangiers). She obviously has to explain the fact that she has a daughter Marigold from a previous affair that did not lead to marriage. The mother Mirada Pelham of the Marquess Herbert Pelham hesitates when she learns about it but that’s a long time after the hesitations of the Marquess himself when he was told the fact by Mary Crawley at breakfast one unhappy morning in Downton Abbey. But it comes to a proper ending after all, even if Edith is tainted.

Mary Crawley who will provide her own son, Georges, with the title of Earl of Grantham when her father dies, is another story and she has to get the agreement of her dead husband from beyond his tomb to finally accept to marry the man she loves Henry Talbot but he is a car racer. He finally drops his racing after an accident that kills his best friend and with the complicity of Thomas Branson the relation that gets estranged because of the panicking fright of Mary when dealing with car racing is re-established and this Henry Talbot who has no nobility, no –title, no fortune, finds a new career in the village: he buys with Thomas Branson a car dealership and he will thus make a career in commerce while his wife Mary will manage the family estate, both using Thomas Branson as the associate each one needs to really succeed since Thomas Branson is originally a chauffeur and knows about car mechanics and he was the estate agent for several years after the war and knows a lot about an agricultural estate like Downton Abbey due to his Irish raising.

Then the show can end up in glory with a brilliant Christmas special and a grand finale that is like a New Year Special and it can finish with Auld Lang Syne in its old version of course:

For auld lang syne, my dear 
For auld lang syne, 
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet 
For auld lang syne!

The best about this series though is that it emphasizes the great change the English noble families had to face after the First World War and we know that 1929’s Black Friday and the Second World War will prove this transformation was not enough and a far deeper mutation was needed. And it is far from being finished. The series though seems to first let us understand that it will be enough for the future and second it seems to be a lot more important in the series than it probably actually was. The Crawley family is by far special and probably not representative of all the big noble families in the early 1920s. The assertion in this last season that the health Minister Chamberlain will have a brilliant future and be one day Prime Minister, is slightly ironical since we know he did not exactly left a positive mark in Munich in 1938. But it would be slightly anachronistic to include that knowledge in 1924-25. But even so: the image for today is slightly warped because we know what came afterwards.

These pageant series so brilliantly performed by outstanding actors and production teams in Great Britain are also carrying messages about society and the world, about history naturally that are necessarily slightly smoothened to look slightly more brilliant than it probably actually was. But that is fiction after all, and we just enjoy it.


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