Week D – Downton Abbey

So many people told me that I’d “just love” Downton Abbey. That they’re surprised I don’t already watch it.  That it’s right up my street.

This is most likely because I’m an English graduate and many people assume that we spend our weekends huddled up with a much-thumbed copy of a Jane Austen novel and an “I love Mr Darcy” mug full of tea.

It would be a crime to deny affection for Miss Austen, but this does not mean I’m a sucker for any drama full of aristocrats, dowries and bonnets.

Austen is widely considered a symbol of the ‘period drama’ genre, but she is so unique.  Even the dramatizations of her work struggle to capture the Austen essence; her brilliance of wit and observation is so entwined with the words she chooses and the phrases she crafts.

The ambiance of the novels may be captured through impressive sets and costumes, but adaptations often favour sentimentality over the humour that characterises Austen.  In my opinion, the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has notable success – with particular kudos going to Alison Steadman for her portrayal of the frantic and worrisome Mrs Bennett.

But I’m here to talk about Downton Abbey.

It’s set in a later period – 1912 to begin with – but it is period. Manifested in the beautiful estate, the concern for social structure and etiquette, and the ‘unwelcome heir’ plot theme, it clearly calls out to the period-drama-loving audiences. But it doesn’t work for me.

Some people consider period dramas insipid and event-less.  But their interest is in the subtle investigation of characters and how we are still able to empathise with people in a completely different era.

But I did find Downton dull.  Instead of a web of engrossing story lines concerning aristocrats and servants alike, I watched a general monotony interspersed with thimbles of interest.

For example, I sympathised with John Bates, the new valet, for being victimised because of his disability.  And this situation is perfect for welcoming the audience into the midst of Downton activity.  But the immediate attempts of Thomas, the jealous and ambitious footman, to oust him, seemed nothing if not immature and contrived.

Also, it turns out this Thomas character actually has more at stake with the Duke than we might have expected.  It seemed a little desperate to be throwing in a homosexual relationship in only episode one.  As a method of creating that sought-for connection between Now and Then, I found it clunky.

Yes, homosexuality is a much-discussed subject today; and yes, homosexual ‘scandals’ were common pre-WWI (Oscar Wilde, to name but one name).   But this thematic choice set it out of line with the period dramas to which I, perhaps naively, expected it to pay tribute.

It is aspects like these that transform the expected period drama into a serialised, historical soap opera.

But Downton doesn’t entirely renounce the traditions of period drama for melodramatic television soaps.  Casting Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess proves this.  With her firm history in the British film industry, including the award-winning A Room with a View (1985), she brings certain connotations, legitimacy, and a loyal following.

So my issue was: what am I watching?  Is it a period drama?  I’m not sure!

I’m not saying that modernizing a historical drama never works; that would entirely contradict my own dissertation!  Lost in Austen (mini-series, 2008) is a fantastic example of the fusion of history with the present in a television drama.  But the reason this works, in my view, is because of its humour.  It knows exactly what it is trying to be, and it doesn’t take itself seriously.

Perhaps in the context of Downton’s entirety this fusion works, but I’m not interested enough to find out.

I’ll admit, I’ve found it hard to pin down exactly what irks me about this drama.  It may be that I feel betrayed by the gap between the period drama I expected and the self-absorbed soap I see.  Maybe I haven’t watched enough of it to make a sufficiently informed judgement.  But one thing is true; I can’t be bothered with it!

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