No Downers in 'Downton'

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Schama

Why have Americans fallen for a show that serves up snobbery by the bucketful?

There are many things wrong with the Republic in 2012, but when historians come to write its chronicle they will notice that the country was gripped by the clammy delirium of nostalgia. Tea Partiers ache for what they imagine to have been a tricorny country, all innocent of the Monster Government. Politicians and radio ranters sell the credulous on an American paradise before "socialism," in the wicked shape of Social Security and Medicare, ever came to be. And folks who might have better ways to pass their time have been falling like grouse to the gun before the mighty edifice of Downton Abbey. Deprived of a wallow in the dry-martini and bullet-bra world of Mad Men? Not to worry, Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery. It's a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.

Yes, I know it's perfect in its way. Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia. So the series is fabulously frocked, and acted, and overacted, and hyper-overacted by all the Usual Suspects in keeping with their allotted roles. There's Carson, the beetle-browed butler. (My favorite in the endless parade of butlerian cliches was Rabbits, the butler in H. G. Wells's hymn of hate to the lordly house, Tono-Bungay.) Maggie Smith does her tungsten-corseted, eye-rolling, nostril-curling, glottal-gurgle as only she can--half Lady Bracknell, half Queen Mary (the unfailingly erect consort of King George V). Julian Fellowes has gotten this stuff down pat since writing Gosford Park, though all the main plot lines were anticipated a long time ago by Upstairs, Downstairs.

But this unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and '60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. …