Friday, November 1, 2013

Why I Loathe Downton Abbey


A post from last October when I was living in Seattle and I saw Downton Abbey for the first time on PBS and was somewhat hooked and somewhat aghast...(I'm a lot mellower now, I promise.)
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I hadn't seen Downton Abbey until this weekend but I knew it sounded dodgy because The Daily Mail has been boosting it for the last two years and anything The Daily Mail loves is prima facie revolting. The paper who drooled over Hitler until September 1 1939 (and secretly until May 1940) has long been a champion of reactionary rhetoric and causes. But I've been puzzled by Downton Abbey because it keeps winning awards and Hollywood is far to the left of The Daily Mail. What gives? I decided that I should probably watch this show and decide for myself, which is what I did on Sunday.  
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The first thing to say is that Downton Abbey is right wing patrician propaganda of the silliest kind. The benevolent view of the upper classes and the condescending treatment of the lower orders is so sniveling and ridiculous that I wonder that the cast doesn't blush with shame every time they go on set. All the cruelest, wickedest characters live below stairs and although the upstairs ladies and gents sometimes are a bit bitchy basically they are the benevolent overloads of the Empire. Johnny Foreigner is not to be trusted in Downton Abbey be he greasy Turk or gauche American and in one embarrassing scene even the Irish Republican chauffeur breaks down and admits that he secretly worships the English ruling class. So I can see why The Daily Mail loves this show. They would like nothing less than to turn back the clock to 1913 when the lower orders and women knew their place and puffy faced men ruled one quarter of the globe from London clubs. But why do the Emmy voters love Downton Abbey too? Well just because it's reactionary nonsense doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad show. Some of my favourite writers have been right wing nuts: Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin spring to mind. And what Downton has going for it is the fact that its pretty funny. Maggie Smith is a gem and wisely they have a policy of giving her all the best lines. Dame Maggie Smith could read the phone book (is there still a phone book?) and make it entertaining and here she has sensibly decided to ignore her actual character and just play Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell for all she's worth. However like Tom Reagan being led into the woods of Miller's Crossing the snappy dialogue does tend to dry up as time marches on. Series 2 doesn't have too many gags and when Dame Maggie isn't on screen the charisma drops by a million candle power. Without good dialogue you start to notice the actual plot and the plot, good Lord, is the cheesiest of cheesy soap opera. It's a prettily shot and wonderfully lit soap opera though, with ravishing costumes, nice frocks and an attractive cast (well attractive for England anyway). So I think the Emmy voters like Downton Abbey because most of them are actors and actors dig soap opera and American actors in particular tend to think anything from the BBC and England is classy (even though Downton Abbey is actually a production of ITV). 
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If Downton Abbey were a better show its values might stir the blood and hasten the revolution but it's so vulgar and cliched and laughable that no one is going to get too worked up about it. It gets its facts wrong all the time (in one episode set in 1918 two characters were talking about the "rising that happened in Dublin last Easter") and it gets cheesier and lazier as Julian Fellowes (his actual name is, get this, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford) runs of material. But like I say none of this matters that much. Downton Abbey can be enjoyed by many walks of American life: ladies with cats, ladies without cats who like old frocks, Anglophile gay men, conservatives longing for the good old days, and Brits abroad (for ironic mocking reasons). The intersection of all these types and thus the ideal American viewer of Downton Abbey would have to be Quentin Crisp but he, alas, has passed. 

28 comments:

Cary Watson said...

I watched one episode of this show last year and had two thoughts: it's a reboot of Upstairs/Downstairs and by Christ it's dull. It's as though they've attached dialogue and plot to an episode of the Antiques Roadshow. However, there was an excellent parody of it down for Red Nose Day in the UK that's available on YouTube:

http://youtu.be/r5dMlXentLw

And speaking of parody, I just watched a great skewering of hard-edged Brit cop dramas called A Touch of Cloth starring John Hannah. It's only an illegal download away.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

You're not the audience so of course you'll find it dull. This, I think, is a show for the ladies.

I'll check out the John Hannah cos I like him.

seana graham said...

I resent the "show for the ladies" crack.

It is crap, and I'd expect discerning gay men who still thought they were straight would find it so also.

Americans like it because it has a nice bit of British real estate as the main feature, plus period costumes. The actors are good, but the whole device was done better about thirty years ago by Jean Marsh with a great cast, including, unforgettably, Gordon Jackson. That show was good because it revealed to Americans at least that there was a life beneath the stairs that was at least as interesting as anything that went on above. And I suspect that most Americans at that time knew that if they had any relatives portrayed in the show that they would be downstairs. I suspect that time is past for the watchers of PBS and in both Downton Abbey and the new chapter of Upstairs Downstairs leave people feeling that they must certainly be related somehow to the British upper crust.

I like John Hannah too.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

All right I take back the "for the ladies" crack but somebody must watch this show. Its very popular. Or am I just misreading cultural trends? Wouldnt be the first time that that happened.

I'm sorry but I just can't forgive Gordon Jackson for giving the game away during The Great Escape. The Gestapo guy goes "good luck" and he goes "oh thanks very much" and he and Richard Attenborough both get captured and shot by the SS.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0wNl66tT3Q

dear oh dear...

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Haven't seen Downtown Abbey, doesn't look like I would get into it. But the wife and I are hooked on Call The Midwife.

adrian mckinty said...

Sean

Call the midwife has passed me by but I see that Jenny Agutter is in it so thats a good thing.

seana graham said...

Gordon Jackson should be forgiven anything.

Paul D Brazill said...

The bits I've seen seem like a bad French & Saunders sketch though 'frocksploitation' isn't really my bag- or wicker basket.

I loved Upstairs Downstairs as a kid, mind you.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Well it was hardly his fault. The Germans were sneaky.

adrian mckinty said...

Paul

Frocksploitation. Love it. Thats about 80% of the British film industry right there.

San Diego Wedding Photographer said...

I'm planning to watch it but it seems that your review is not good. I just had a second thought now.

seana graham said...

Oh go on ahead, SDWP. If you really are a wedding photographer, you might pick up some good ideas from the show, and that's not a joke.

Declan Burke said...

It'd be stretching the point to call Downton satire, but on the occasions when I've sat in (Mrs Lovely Wife is a fan) I've had the impression that the upper crust are taking a bit of a pounding.

By the way, Julian Fellowes is the writer behind Gosford Park. Which makes Downton a spin-off of sorts. Which is a shame, because Gosford Park is absolutely brilliant.

Cheers, Dec

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Adrian- Good call, although Helen George really does it for me!

adrian mckinty said...

San Diego

As you can see from the diversity of opinion here you should decided this one for yourself.

adrian mckinty said...

Dec

Nope, it only seems like that. The truly wicked are the lower orders. It's the flip side of Gosford Park which was satirical in intent. This is more reverent soap opera.

adrian mckinty said...

Sean

Her of the platinum blonde pixie cut? Yeah that'll work.

Alan said...

Adrian,Downton Abbey seems to strike at the psychological "Heartland" of many Americans.Their is a feeling that anyone with that accent must be quite clever and suave. Surely it must follow that upper class patricians are not like the odious original Dickens drawn exploiters.Lastly there is not an egg head intellectual among them.I take issue with linking Jean Marsh and Gordon Jackson with these trite poseurs.As to the reactionary press admiring their values the latest scandal with Brooks and Coulson should set them back a notch.Downton Abbey is just silly drivel and sadly makes me long for the original Forsyte saga.Best Alan

seana graham said...

They don't make them like Jean Marsh and Gordon Jackson anymore, Alan. Well, Jean Marsh is still alive and more or less well, but there are no replacements in the wings.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan, Seana

My feeling is that with Upstairs their heart was in the right place but with Downton Fellowes's heart is definitely not in the right place.

Mike R said...

Adrian

I like Downton Abbey a lot particularly compared to just about anything else on network tv(e.g. CSI and all its versions, Criminal Mind, Bones, House, Grey's Anatomy etc.). I don't watch it for historical accuracy or any other lofty goal other than it is an hour of escapism just as I enjoy a good trashy novel (Not yours - yours are so much better than that - but still entertaining!).

By the way, I watched the "Kill List" a few weeks ago after your non-recommendation and thought "Well that's two hours of my life I'll never get back."

adrian mckinty said...

Mike

I told you NOT to watch Kill List. If you're going to watch one of his try Sightseers...

Is it harmless fun or is it insidious propaganda? Probably the former. I think I fell off my high horse in the last year...

Brendan O'Leary said...

I can't stand Downton but then I generally dislike any soap-opera type of thing.

The other thing that grates me is the anachronistic dialogue, not just the phraseology but the insertion of modern preoccupations.

Men talking at length about their feelings and suchlike, even if only to state "I'm an Edwardian man and therefore don't like talking at length about my feelings and suchlike".

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

But the punters lap it up, don't they? This is what they want, evidently and this is what PBS and ITV are giving them.

Macca said...

I was reading an interview with an English writer or actor or something (I can't remember who it was, only what he said) and he was raving about how great the American stuff on TV is at the moment - Mad Men, Breaking Bad et al. The interviewer (an American) asked him what he thought of Downton Abbey and he said "I never watch it. I've seen it before", going on to explain that, being English, he'd already seen a ton of these kinds of shows - posh people, period settings, class differences etc etc.

Having grown up in Australia, watching period BBC drama after period BBC drama every Sunday night on the ABC, I can definitely relate to that view. I'm sure the thing is nicely made and all, but I just can't face the idea of committing to hour after hour of nobs and aristos with their lovingly designed costumes and their shiny authentic old cars. Been there, done that.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Ha ha. I gave up on reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot because, as good as he is, I began to think, "I just can't be arsed with these people any more" .

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