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The British are expert at creating television that celebrates their past; programs that drown the viewer in wave after wave of well-written, well-acted, beautifully-produced nostalgia. From Foyle’s War (celebrating Britain in the 1940s) to Pride and Prejudice (celebrating Britain in the 1820s), the Brits love to look back at the events of yesteryear through undoubtedly rose-coloured glasses. Downton Abbey comes out of this tradition. It tells the story of an aristocratic family and their servants, all of whom reside in a large manor house in Yorkshire.
As usual the people behind this period drama have pulled out all the stops and made it pretty damn wonderful. Standout performances include Hugh Bonneville (Iris, Nottinghill, Tomorrow Never Dies) as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and Lord of the Manor; Dame Maggie Smith (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and 2, Gosford Park, Gnomeo and Juliet, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, the Earl’s interfering mother; and Jim Carter (The Golden Compass, Shakespeare in Love) as Mr. Carson, the family’s ever-loyal butler.
Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a writer as well as an actor, and has taken prominent roles in popular television series, such as Sharpe with Sean Bean, where he gave a standout performance as the Prince of Wales, and Monarch of the Glen with Richard Briers, where he played the comical Lord Kilwillie. He also won an Oscar for writing the script of the excellent Robert Altman film Gosford Park.
Downton Abbey is based on Fellowes’ experience of growing up amongst the British aristocracy, and he has built the world of Downton brick by brick, not only by writing every episode, but by being an executive producer of the show as well.
For all the effort that has gone into creating this show, and all the richness and beauty contained within it, this show does have flaws that could annoy viewers. No other period drama that I have seen so unapologetically pushes the idea that the British aristocracy and British class system are fundamentally good and necessary. There is not one English aristocrat in the series who could be considered a bad person; the only truly malicious rich people are either foreign or newly wealthy, like Sir Richard Carlisle, the evil newspaper baron. Interestingly, with one exception the only decent working class people are those who know their place; those who get uppity and challenge the system are portrayed as dishonest and misanthropic. I also get the distinct impression that Downton Abbey is a bit like the House of Elrond, a place rarely visited by evil, where all problems are easily resolved, and there are happy endings for everybody. This formula probably contributes to the show’s popularity, but it’s somewhat disappointing knowing, as I do, that British television has produced some wonderful and gritty dramas such as Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren and Touching Evil with Robson Greene.
Downton Abbey is built on a foundation of pure escapism, and if you wish to enter into a candy-coated world filled with aristocratic opulence, unbelievably decent noblemen, and a completely unrealistic depiction of the British class system, then this show is for you. If, however, you want to watch period pieces with more social commentary, watch the television adaptations of E. Gaskell’s North and South, Cranford and Wives and Daughters.