No downturn for Downton

With even Wills and Kate declaring that they like nothing better than curling up on the royal sofa with Downton Abbey, ITV’s Sunday night treat has reached cult-like proportions. As the second series draws in 11 million viewers, it remains the prime fixture of the autumn television schedule.  Katie Barron asks what is it about this costume drama that has us clamouring for more?

First things first, I love period dramas. Cranford, Lark Rise to Candleford, Upstairs, Downstairs:  you name it; I’ve watched it avidly.  Before last year, only my grandparents or elderly neighbours could share my enthusiasm – but Downton Abbey changed all that.

Within hours of arriving at Oxford as a fresher, I found a multitude of Downton aficionados. We started planning a plot to take over the JCR to watch it, a drinking game, an official soc with membership cards… someone even suggested period costume. (Too far?)

Why is it then, that we love Downton Abbey?  Perhaps it offers us an escape from reality. Nowhere do the words ‘recession’, ‘record unemployment figures’, ‘coalition government’ or even ‘student debt’ feature in the oh-so-refined world of the twentieth-century elite. For an hour and a half each week we can open the door to a world full of wealth, tradition and etiquette.

However, the show is not without its juicy scandals. Where else would you find a swarthy Turk dead in the bed of an eligible single girl, or a duo so evil as the scheming Thomas and Miss O’Brien?

On the other hand, maybe Downton Abbey makes our boring lives appear quite good, making us thankful for modern inventions such as the Internet, equal rights and comfortable underwear. For all the glamour, who’d want to be Lady Mary Crawley? Unable to vote, she is isolated in a drafty house, powerless to inherit her father’s property, dependent on a loveless marriage, not to mention physically constrained by almost sadistic degrees of corsetry. Give me an elasticated waistband and central heating any day.

For all its good points, Downton Abbey has not been universally praised. As a History student, I am certainly doubtful of its accuracy in portraying the lives of the upper class during the First World War.

This series in particular hurtles through the events of the early twentieth century with all the speed and coherence of one of my crisis-induced essays. Branson, the chauffeur, seems to fulfil the role of shoehorning ‘historical context’ into the show, bringing turning points of the outside world into the cosy drawing room of Downton Abbey. (“Did you hear they shot the Tsar?”) The series has come to resemble a sort of historical bingo, with the viewer able to tick off the Russian Revolution and the Easter Rising alongside Lady Mary’s catastrophic love life and Mrs Patmore’s culinary dramas.

Eagle-eyed nit-pickers also struck gold at numerous gaffes, including shots of a house with a conservatory, double yellow lines and the use of the word ‘boyfriend’, which, if you’re interested, wasn’t widely used until the 1950s.

Some of the plot lines are approaching soap-opera proportions, too, as each week stories become more and more unbelievable. Especially far-fetched was the arrival of a mysterious Canadian visitor, heavily bandaged and burnt, with the line, “Don’t you recognise me?” A cliff-hanger worthy of Eastenders drums if there ever was one.

Downton Abbey then, is not without its faults, but it seems to me that this is exactly why it has become a staple of popular culture. We know it isn’t that educational, that the plot line is overplayed, and that some of the acting is a bit dodgy – and that’s why we love it. Downton Abbey is civilized enough to be respectable viewing, but not too high-brow that we can’t revel in the gossip and scandal of this ‘posh soap.’ Roll on series three.

[Photo: KCTS 9]