Magazine article The American Prospect

Harmony in the U.K.: A Londoner on Downton Abbey's Second Season

Magazine article The American Prospect

Harmony in the U.K.: A Londoner on Downton Abbey's Second Season

Article excerpt

Much about the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey, the hit British television show about a stately home, an aristocratic family, and their shadow kingdom of servants during the second decade of the 20th century, has come as a surprise. For one thing, the series is shown here on ITV, known to my grandmother's generation, born around the time season one is set, as "the commercial channel." (To understand the full impact of this descriptor, imagine it emerging in a splutter from the pursed lips of Downton's grande dame, the Dowager Lady Grantham, played in a state of permanent quivering outrage by Dame Maggie Smith.) It is not that ITV has never been able to produce this kind of quality television--The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, and the original Upstairs, Downstairs all sailed triumphantly under its colors. But the once-sluggish station had been taken over in recent years by reality shows such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. So the appearance of Downton Abbey on ITV in September 2010 represented the moment at

which millions of British fans of glossy costume drama tuned in to a channel that had been off their radar for at least a decade.

The show's first season introduced the Grantham family, aristocratic owners of Downton Abbey (the house is based on Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the spectacularly gothic ancestral home of the real-life Lord Carnarvon). The paterfamilias, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is a gentleman of liberal conservative values, wedded to the land that has kept his family in a grand manner for centuries. His wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is a dollar princess--the eras nickname for an American heiress. She's an outsider, a shrewd bit of plotting that gives international audiences a way into a world that might otherwise seem thick with inheritance laws and minute gradations of social class.

The three daughters of the house, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), are elegant young women who can look forward to good marriages and many changes of lavish costume but not, alas, much else. For the motor powering Downton Abbey's plot in the first season is the fact that the estate is entailed to the male line, a narrative device that can be traced back to Pride and Prejudice. The girls are obliged to welcome their cousin, the middle-class solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), as heir to their magnificent family home. No wonder Lady Sybil, the youngest sister, starts turning into a feminist on the sly.

In the great house's basement lies the servant's hall, arranged along equally hierarchical lines. Butler Carson (Jim Carter) watches over a cast of saints and villains that includes a conniving lady's maid named O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and her comrade-in-spite, the closeted gay footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier). More heroic is the valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), a man of impeccable morals with a noble backstory of having served a prison sentence to save his thieving wife's good name. Bates has known Lord Grantham since their army days together; it was back then that he sustained, as a kind of stigmata of suffering, a limp.

The first season established a mood of bittersweet elegy, the last gasp of a country-house culture of sun-dappled glory that we know, although the characters clearly do not, is about to unravel. Season two opens in 1916, with the full horror of the Great War upon us. Matthew Crawley, now an officer at the front, is decidedly thinner, and Lady Cora's frocks are less fluttery--it wouldn't do to look too fine just as the bloodbath of the Somme is getting under way. The Crawley girls have donned uniforms: a nurse's for Lady Sybil, a farmhand's for Lady Edith, who has taken to driving a tractor.

Only Lady Mary seems to have managed to hang on to her original wardrobe and her hauteur. Despite a few feverish comments she made in the first season about the vacuity of upper-class women's lives, the eldest Crawley daughter is caught up in the London Season (her fourth, which means, says snippy Aunt Rosamund [Samantha Bond], that she is not so much a debutante as a survivor). …

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