We all learned in school that there once was a British empire in which the sun never set. We also know that since losing their empire, the Brits have tried to reclaim it – often in co-production with US partners – by conquering the world market for film and television.
Six seasons since its start in 2010 and 54 episodes (and some season specials) later, Downton Abbey has re-established the empire to such a degree that somebody somewhere is probably watching the series every hour of the day. It is somewhat surprising that this British heritage drama series, a genre developed by BBC in collaboration with the US Masterpiece Theatre (linked to PBS), was actually developed by ITV and Masterpiece Theatre in the US.
ITV managed to get over 10 million viewers in the UK for most of the series, and the last Christmas special on 25 December 2015 was the first to beat all other programme on that particular day. So a huge national and international success, broadcast in over 220 countries and with an estimated global TV audience of 120 million. Add to that the probably very extensive sale of DVD-sets and the fact that the series can be streamed on several digital platforms, including Amazon and Netflix in some countries.
Heritage-soap or heritage-drama?
The long-running soap is a classic in British TV-culture, but most often in the form of contemporary stories set in solid working-class or lower middle-class environments. Eastender (1985- BBC) and Granada/ITV’s Coronation Street (1960-) are running head to head for this kind of audience.
The term soap, originally an American term for the cheap afternoon-series (for women), indicates a low trashy quality, a low production value, and also the condescending view of critics. However, these more or less realistic drama-series have established themselves as a TV institution that engage with contemporary issues and developments, something really many viewers can relate to and mirror themselves in.
They are cousins to the great, British contemporary realism tradition in the single drama or drama-series format. It was actually BBC’s Eastenders Christmas Day episode which Downton Abbey beat.
If Eastenders and Coronation Street are cheaper versions of the great contemporary TV-realist drama, Downton Abbey has often, perhaps especially in the UK, been considered a ‘heritage soap’ of a lower quality than those grand heritage adaptations and series based on classical literature. We might think of Brideshead Revisited (Granada, 1981) as and early classic version Downton Abbey or the many Bronte miniseries by BBC.
But the classic heritage adaptation often doesn’t have the upstairs-downstairs perspective to the same degree as Downton Abbey. In The Guardian’s Richard Vine’s final comment on the series, he claims that at home, the series has always played like a ‘posh pantomime – a fantasy vision of a Britain that never really existed, where everyone from kitchen maid to second footman is happy with their lot, because the people at the top are such bally decent chaps.’ But oddly enough he also calls the last episode ever ‘ very much a kitchen sink affair.’
It is probably not meant in any positive way, but actually the combination of classic heritage and a subdued historical and social realism could be seen as a clue to the success of the series.
The grand historical structures and everyday life
It is no coincidence that the first season starts with the Titanic catastrophe. This incident symbolises the coming modern, technological and social revolution and the decline of the traditional class society with its grand estates – and an economy built for another century.
In the last Christmas special episode in December 2015, both Lord and Lady Grantham discuss the changing times and try to convince themselves that if they adapt to the new times, they will succeed in somehow keeping their life style.
But Lord Grantham’s always more cynical mother, Violet Crawley (played by Dame Maggie Smith), is not so convinced by modernity and progress. In a response to Isobel Crawley, who points out that ‘we are moving forward to the future, not backwards to the past’ she responds ‘ if only we had the choice.’ So there is a nostalgia built into the series, a feeling of grand times disappearing.
For a heritage drama-series spanning a relatively short historical time (1912-1926) the use of real historical events is rather striking. We have the First World war of course, the Spanish Flu that influences life on Downton Abbey heavily, just as the Irish-English conflict. Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 (season five) also has strong consequences for Lady Edith.
But in general it is not these historical events that are in focus in the series fictional narrative. Here we are more likely to find more general, structural developments, first of all the technological development, secondly the women’s liberation and move towards equality, and third but not least the rise of the lower classes to a more prominent status in society.
The development towards a more modern class society in the series is clear in the breakdown of the traditional inheritance procedures. Mathew Crawley is in the beginning taken in as a somewhat low rank heir. But his marriage with Lady Mary ends with his death (in a car accident!), and in the last season she then marries a racing driver.
But perhaps more important than this narrative use of underdogs, signalling the rise of new classes, is the fact that both Lady Mary and Lady Edith at least partly divert from their expected, traditional position and become more independent and powerful. It is of course also significant that Lady Mary’s new husband (the racing driver) and Tom (the chauffeur and husband to the late Lady Sybil) start a car sales agency together. New times for those married into the aristocracy.
Downstairs: a mirror of upstairs
The transformation of patterns of life developments and roles in the upstairs world is clearly mirrored in the downstairs world. On the one hand, we have the master of keeping things as they have always been, the butler Carson; on the other, we have all those among the downstairs staff that move on and change social status.
The most obvious case of this is off course the Tom Branson – the chauffeur marrying lord Grantham’s youngest daughter and also being accepted as part owner and manager. But there is also the case of Daisy taking an education, the maid Gwen becoming a secretary, or the footman Joseph Molesley, being educated as a teacher and in the end having success in this new capacity.
It is interesting that the in-house upstairs scenes are mostly shot at the Highclere castle, the location figuring as Downton Abbey, including of course the upstairs scenes with the downstairs staff. But the downstairs locations had to be recreated at Ealing studios. Highclere facilities were not appropriate for this part of the story.
It speaks to the realism of the series that, according to Krystal Becky in The Washington Post, the production designers visited around 40 country houses to get the right period look of both rooms, furniture and equipment. It also underscores the importance of the downstairs characters for the narrative and the period picture.
In that sense, Downton Abbey, has a clear affinity to the contemporary British soaps. We do not often find servants to such a degree in the classical heritage drama based on adaptation of literary classics, although these may in other ways deal with class conflicts. But in Downton Abbey the upstairs characters and the downstairs characters have their own extended space and narrative development, and they illustrate aspects of the same historical change and move towards a modern society and democracy.
Complex heritage and the world audience
Downton Abbey cannot be described as realist historical drama with a strong critical edge and with focus on all the dark sides of the early parts of 1900. It is a broad family saga with a huge and fascinating cast of characters, where dark sides are very visible both upstairs and downstairs. Historical events and structures of change are clearly woven into the narrative with deep effects, but the family perspective always prevails.
However, Downton Abbey is much more than just a nostalgic look into a past world, gone forever. We do not see things from one perspective, not even just the downstairs and the upstairs, for both upstairs and downstairs many positions, characters and even ideological and social perspective are presented.
So even though the series paint an image of a world of yesterday, it is also a story of transformation and of universal human values and conflicts, which a world audience can identify with. World audiences seem to have a weakness for English heritage and they get plenty of it in cinemas and on TV.
But heritage is not in itself nostalgic, backwards looking. One may quote Andrew Higson’s (Heritage England, 2008: 29) general statement on heritage films: ‘Such films, it seems, are capable of producing a sharp critique of the limits of past and present social and moral formations. On the other hand, and somewhat paradoxically, they also seem to offer decidedly conservative nostalgic and celebratory vision of the English past.