I watched Downton Abbey for the first time over Christmas and immediately had a sense of déjà vu . It was just like Upstairs Downstairs forty years ago, except the colour was better and the story-lines more dramatic: faithful servant set to be hanged, sweet young lady has a fling with a Turkish chap. Watching it was like sinking into a well-padded armchair while the Christmas dinner settled into the digestive system: no effort required, all the thrills and spills strictly controlled by the sense of order and good-natured kindness supplied by the lord and lady of the house.
There are two things worth saying about a programme like Downton Abbey. One is that the British do it superbly well. The great house itself, the rolling lawns, the whiskeys by the fire before or is it after dinner: all these are as important a part of the product as any of the plot-lines or characters. The second thing worth noting is how evenly balanced plot and character is. There may be a bounder among the upper classes who has been trying to win the hand of that nice dark-haired woman, but he’s got his counter-part in the mocking, ambitious young footman who hides milord’s dog so he can find it for him and thus receive the gratitude his career needs. The final touch of balance is provided by the way friendships and caring span the classes, like the way the master of the house and his soft-eyed wife (shades of Miss Ellie in Dallas) are terribly upset about one of their servants being charged with murder – so upset they’re prepared to risk a social cloud over their house and family if only justice can be done.
It’s all a bit bread-and-circuses, a bit Premier League football –done well and offering a powerful if passive thrill, so that most of us don’t much mind that we kinda know we’re being sold a myth. In football the myth is that the players are modest and manly sportsmen, shaking hands at the end of a hard-fought contest; in Ancient Rome, it probably was that the Emperor was an essentially nice man, if a bit given to making the thumbs-down gesture. In Downton Abbey it’s that the British past was warm-hearted and orderly, and that when faced with a crisis, personal or national, the lord of the manor is sure to stand shoulder to shoulder with the faithful family retainer. Oh, and that accepting life as it is, is what makes for happiness,
No, that background music, it’s not Jingle Bells. you’re hearing. It’s There’ll Always Be An England.