This is an out-take from Alwyn Turner’s new book All in It Together: England in the Early 21st Century.
Lady Sibyl: Oh Granny, even the English aren’t in control of everything.
Dowager Countess: Well, I hope we’re in control of something, if only ourselves.
Lady Mary: But we’re not. Don’t you see that? We’re not in control of anything at all.
The great country house is one of the most familiar of symbols in British fiction, the organic solidity of its class structure – standing in for the country at large – regularly threatened by interlopers, criminals and governments.
In the aftermath of the First World War, during the golden age of detective fiction, the homes of the landed gentry were all too often murder scenes, though the trouble was only ever passing: by the end of the story, justice had been done and stability returned. A generation on, further disruptions were depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan (1946) and Dornford Yates’s Lower than Vermin (1950). This second wave was rather less optimistic; it was clear that the world really had changed, for better or worse, and the old traditions, the old families and their retainers, were in retreat.
But as the progressive cause faltered in the 1970s, a decade shaped by class conflict and nostalgia, the need for reassurance had returned. Although ITV’s great saga Upstairs Downstairs (1971–75) was town rather than country, the imagery remained: this was a self-contained social world, being buffeted by events between 1903 and 1930, taking more rough than smooth, yet still surviving.
In 2009, ITV announced that it had commissioned Julian Fellowes to write a new series that was inevitably compared to Upstairs Downstairs. Fellowes had form in the genre – he’d won an Oscar for his 1930s murder mystery, Gosford Park (2001) – though this time he was going back still further. ‘There is no narrative base that can provide members of every level of society, sleeping under a single roof, more believably than a great house before the First War,’ he explained. In these dark recessionary times, Britain was ready for what the Sun hoped would be ‘a bodice-ripping period drama’.
Downton Abbey (2010) didn’t disappoint. The plotlines were simple, the dialogue unchallenging, the characterisation painted in broad strokes. Above all, it looked beautiful, generously stocked with the pleasures that viewers of Edwardian dramas had come to expect: passion and duty, steam trains and side-saddles, all dressed up in black tie, corsets and maids’ outfits. It was easy to watch, and even easier to overlook what a high level of craft it took to appear this effortless.
The familiar social hierarchies are firmly in place. ‘We all have different parts to play,’ says the Earl of Grantham, ‘and we must all be allowed to play them.’ The same message is heard below stairs, mostly from the butler Carson: ‘A good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves.’
Also in place is the self-conscious awareness that these are transitional times. ‘First electricity, now telephones,’ tuts the Dowager Countess. ‘Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel. But the young are all so calm about change, aren’t they?’
Even heritage drama had to make adjustments to the new cultural mood, however. The central storyline in the first series saw the heir to the Downton estate die on the Titanic, sparking a legal battle to protect the interests of the daughter of the house from sexist inheritance laws. And the first episode featured a disabled man arriving to take up his post as valet to Grantham, as well as an erotic kiss between a duke and a footman.
There were limits, though, to how far this diversity was allowed to go. When a dashingly romantic Turk turns up, we’re not overly surprised that he soon drops dead in the throes of passion as he seduces Lady Mary; it seems entirely in keeping with the way that one always suspected foreigners would behave. And Thomas, the gay footman who kissed the duke, is an unpleasant, nasty piece of work, forever scheming and undermining the happiness of the house. He’s also given to smoking cigarettes, and he speaks ill of his employers when he’s in the servants’ hall. ‘We can say what we like down here,’ he insists, and when he’s challenged to cite his authority, he replies petulantly: ‘The law. And Parliament. There is such a thing as free speech.’ He’s obviously a wrong ’un.
We’re not sure either about Branson, the socialist chauffeur, who reads Marx, Ruskin and John Stuart Mill.
Downton Abbey was a huge success for ITV, running for fifty-two episodes and exporting well, particularly to America, where it was showered with awards, from a Golden Globe for best supporting actress to an Emmy for outstanding hairstyling. Guinness World Records said it was ‘the most positively reviewed television programme in history’. Other countries could deal with the existential angst of modern times, in shows from Borgen to Breaking Bad, but Britain was still the specialist when it came to middle-brow comfort-zone period drama.
Or, at least, ITV was. The BBC, on the other hand, seemed to be losing its touch with Middle England. In the same year that Downton Abbey debuted, the BBC revived Upstairs, Downstairs itself, picking up the story six years on from where the original had ended. It started well, but the viewing figures were not sustained, and it extended to just nine episodes. The Corporation later tried a large-cast steamy saga set in a Victorian department store with The Paradise (2012), and its failure must have made the success of ITV’s similar – though Edwardian – Mr Selfridge (2013) even harder to take.
Downton Abbey was big enough that when, in his 2012 budget, George Osborne cut the top rate of income tax to 45 per cent, the opposition’s cultural reference was obvious. This budget, said Ed Miliband, was all too reminiscent of Downton: ‘A tale of a group of out-of-touch millionaires who act like they’re born to rule but it turns out they are not very good at it.’ He added: ‘We all know it’s a costume drama. They think it’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary.’
It was a good joke, and played to the image of the government being out-of-touch toffs, but for much of the public, particularly outside London, it didn’t establish a clear dividing line. Because Miliband himself, despite the fact he’d gone to a comprehensive school, was seen as being from the same top-drawer as the Old Etonian prime minister. When the Independent ran focus groups to explore the state of class in modern Britain, ‘we found that people regarded [David] Cameron and Miliband as equally “posh”.’