Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Many Charms of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey (ITV, PBS) is now available on DVD
I must admit I’ve always been fascinated by British dramas and documentaries about that country’s class system. I was too young to be interested in the hit miniseries Upstairs, Downstairs, which chronicled the relations between servants and their masters in a stately manor house. It was an influential show that just celebrated its fortieth anniversary with the release of a box set, and whose sequel premieres on PBS on April 10.  But once I was old enough. I became riveted by everything from Michael Apted’s seminal Up documentary series, which examined the lives of select subjects every seven years in a series that’s reached to 49 Up, to Robert Altman’s 2002 Gosford Park, which meshed the vagaries of the British class system with an American-style murder mystery. Invariably, those shows and films depicted a hierarchy that was pretty rigid (especially the Up films) and suggested that you generally were stuck in whatever class you were born into for life. Unlike the American class system (yes, it does exist), which more often than not is based on wealth, the British class apparatus was (and is) always about who your ancestors are, a fact of life that influenced your education and where you could live in London. (Wealth is also a factor but not the dominant one.) There’s a great scene in Mad Men’s most recent season whereby Layne Price (Jared Harris), Sterling Cooper’s British partner, extols his love of America by expressing relief that upon coming to New York, he stopped being asked what school he went to. The fine, entertaining recent British mini-series Downton Abbey, created by Gosford Park’s screenwriter Julian Fellowes and co-written by him with Tina Pepper and Shelagh Stephenson, puts that system under a microscope, showcasing how ‘modern’ times begin to slowly change and erode the traditional way of doing things.

Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville
Beginning in 1912, with the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Downton Abbey, which premiered in North America on PBS in January and is now out on DVD follows the lives of the fictional Crawley family, which lacks an immediate male heir to take over the manor in the event that its current owner, family patriarch Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (High Bonneville) passes on. The Titanic sinking has had an adverse impact on the Crawleys, in particular, because Downton Abbey’s putative heir, Lord Grantham’s cousin James and his son both perished in the disaster. That leaves Lord Grantham’s distant cousin, Matthew Crawly (Dan Stevens), as heir apparent, a change of affairs that doesn’t please the Crawly women, including Lord Grantham’s caustic mother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), his wife, Lady Grantham, the American-born Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and his headstrong eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery). The motley servants of Downton Abbey have their own opinions on the subject and their own domestic dramas to rival that of the occasionally fractious Crawleys.

Downton Abbey, which ran on PBS in four parts, over about 5 1/2 hours, takes a leisurely, intricate approach to its unfolding story, alternating between the Crawleys and the manor’s servants, and slowly revealing the inner workings of their varied lives. What I liked best about the series is its disavowal of stereotypes that often accrue to dramas of this sort, namely the portrayal of the rich as cold and forbidding. Not here: Lord Grantham is actually a very kindly sort, who’s extremely uncomfortable when he realizes he has to sack one of the servants and who, as Downton Abbey begins, has just hired on John Bates (Brendan Coyle), his valet with whom he served in the military. (The relations between the Crawleys and their staff are usually generous and human, which has bothered some bloggers who didn’t buy it, but as rendered in the series strikes me as utterly believable.) Bate’s has been injured in battle, leaving him with a noticeable limp, which makes doing his job difficult and inspires some of the other servants, notably the duplicitous Thomas (Rob James-Collier), Downton Abbey’s First Footman, and the insecure Mrs. O’Brien (Siohban Finneran), Lady Grantham’s Lady’s maid, to try to force him out of his position. Bates, for his part, is an overly proud and secretive sort, who doesn’t make his life easier by refusing help from anyone, though the comely Head Housemaid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), eventually cuts through his stubborn exterior. Theirs is a touchingly sweet love story. Fortunately, most of her fellow servants are prepared to do the right thing when the chips fall.

Maggie Smith
Downton Abbey is particularly fascinating in its delineation of how things work in a manor house, from the elaborate and complex behind-the-scenes preparations for lavish dinners to the roles and rules supposedly governing how the manor’s high born women are expected to behave. They don’t necessarily agree with those restrictions, however, with Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), the youngest Crawly daughter, agitating for the vote for women, and Lady Mary succumbing to the seductive charms of a visiting Turkish diplomat, a shocking assignation that ends badly.

That theme of rebellion, usually couched in a modern vernacular, is the undercurrent of much of what goes in the manor and its surrounding environs. Matthew and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton), a doctor, ruffle some feathers by refusing, at least initially, any servants to help around the house. And Isobel, too, brings in some newfangled medical ideas that don’t sit well with the doctor and nurses at the local hospital. Other rigid concepts, from preservation of virginity before marriage to the whole idea of the modes of inheritance going through the male, are assailed as Downton Abbey and England as a whole begins to settle into the 20th century. It’s not all serious, either, as the show makes comedic hay with the introduction of a new invention, the telephone, a technological development that doesn’t sit well with the easily irritated butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Then as now, it’s the younger folk who find it easier to adapt to modernity.

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson
Jim Carter’s Mr. Carson is one of the more enjoyable and humorous figures in the series, but the acting in Downton Abbey is uniformly excellent. My favourite character, though, would have to be Maggie Smith whose Dowager Countess comes across, at first, as a continuation of the outspoken but also amusing, upper class snob she essayed in Gosford Park. (Notably, her illustrious name isn’t given special placing in the series, where it runs alphabetically.) But the Dowager Countess –  who is apt to complain about the ‘selfishness’ of a maid who had the nerve to go off and get married, leaving her in the lurch, or who responds to her daughter who apologizes for feeling that she had to speak her mind, by plaintively commenting, “why, nobody else does” – slowly changes her spots. She learns to recognize that her position has forced others to defer to her unduly – letting her win for best garden arrangement in a local contest year after year – and allied with her American daughter-in law over Matthews’ pace in the manor, begins to warm to the younger woman. (One interesting fact unveiled in Downton Abbey is that many British men went to the U.S. to wed because so many American women had wealth to bring to the marriage.) In fact, all of the show’s cast, with the notable exception of Thomas, is portrayed in shades of grey; the palpable dislike, even hatred, between self-centered Lady Mary and her jealous younger sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) – who resents that Mary has first pick of all eligible men for marriage as is customary – is disturbingly real and vicious. Thomas is actually the series’ only missed opportunity. Thomas is a closeted gay man, and Downton Abbey could have made the salient argument that having to lie about who he is, ultimately affects the way Thomas conducts himself in the workplace, but it didn’t.

The Crawley Sisters: Edith, Mary and Sybil
I’m glad Downton Abbey ran on PBS, a network that I don’t usually have time for, between the blandness of much of its American programming, including its much-vaunted documentaries, and its propensity for censoring what it shows, such as its own commissioned series like American Masters (A recent profile of actor Jeff Bridges was, regrettably and annoyingly, replete with bleeped out swear words.) But, at least, PBS’s showing of Downton Abbey was run without commercials, which was not the case in England where it premiered on commercial channel ITV. We tend to assume that all British television eschews ads because so much of it, from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Life on Mars, is commercial free. Downton Abbey reportedly had so many commercial breaks that numerous viewers complained upon its airing in the U.K. Being set early last century, also meant it needn’t contain any swearing that the American network might have felt compelled to bleep; the strongest word used in the series, slut, makes more of a visceral impact then it might have otherwise.

As is, our cut of the series was thus able to flow naturally, consistently and pleasingly. (Three directors, Brian Percival, Ben Bolt and Brian Kelly shared the duties. The art direction and costumes are, as in most British period pieces, impeccable.) Much happens in Downton Abbey by the time it reaches its climax with the declaration of the First World War, two years after the series begins. And while the show isn’t groundbreaking or revelatory so much as it’s smart and well laid out, it’s rewarding viewing. It also garnered good enough ratings for a second instalment to be commissioned for airing in England in the fall, and likely early next year in North America. I for one can’t wait to see what happens to the owners, heir apparent and servants of Downton Abbey in the years following the beginning of WWI. It’ll be a journey well worth taking.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He will be teaching a course on science fiction in the movies and on television beginning in late April at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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