Upstairs Downton: Flogging the Myth of Nationhood

May 13, 2014 10:30 am

Sometimes, it seems that if somebody stuck a frock coat or a bodice on a dried-up dog turd, any gullible American tourist might buy it.

There’s something of that when it comes to some of our TV programmes. Throw in one of the classics – a Dickens or a Shakespeare or a Bronte – and old Uncle Sam will be creaming his pants for more.

Downton Abbey‘s roaring success at the recent Emmy Awards was the latest in a long line of the USA’s viewing public snapping up the ‘True Brit’ heritage.

When Britain ruled the waves

Photo: ITV

In the 30s and 40s, our main cinematic exports were always those classic costume dramas – Lady Hamilton, Henry V, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights – yes, virtually anything with Laurence Olivier in it. With the advent of TV, any adaption of a classic story, or an originally-penned ‘classic’ story (ie. based in the ‘golden’ past) usually received plaudits with our cross-Atlantic buddies, and went down a storm back home, let’s not forget.

At the end of the 60s, there was John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga that blazed the trail; a huge hit for the BBC, and it earned big bucks Stateside. Following in its wake, not wanting to miss a trick, was ITV’s long-running  Upstairs, Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street, then (into the 80s) Brideshead Revisited – all telling stories of the aristocracy and the upper middle class when Britain ‘ruled the waves’ and we owned nearly a quarter of humanity.

Now we have the mega-successful Downton Abbey, complete with built-in ‘ad-breaks’ every fifteen minutes, tailor-made for American TV.

It seems lots of people – both here and in the US – love those ‘good old days’ of Victorian values, the turn of the century and the era leading up to the epoch-changing disaster that was the First World War and its aftermath. But why?

Is it the search for an era that was somehow so much more secure, where everything and everyone had a place and were supposed to know their place? Is it because – especially now, in these times of economic, political decline – an anxious audience craves some form of reassurance and stability and look to times when such needs were (allegedly) met. Even if you were the scullery maid, or the footman, at least you had a roof over your head, three squares a day and a couple of pennies a week to spend – when you had your half-day off a week.

But what the hell am I talking about? Why am I getting myself in a lather? It’s just a bloody TV show, after all.

Tugging the forelock

Photo: Joss Barratt/Carnival Films

Well, every TV show is just a TV show, but aren’t they all something else too? Don’t they all put out a message of some sort? Especially a show written by the likes of Julian Fellowes, himself an aristocratic arch-Tory supporter. Downton is a picture of British society made in his own image. That golden bygone era where the ‘Lord is in his castle and his servant is at the gate’. Where the servants are themselves divided into a strict hierarchical order with the butler and housekeeper at the top, down to the footmen and maids at the bottom. And let’s not forget the decidedly middle class son-in-law marrying into the ‘old money’ of a Liberal peer.

The only whiff of a radical working class person was the Irish Sinn Fein-supporting chauffeur who married his Lord’s ‘wayward daughter’ (whose punishment for ‘marrying beneath her’ must be, and was, in a recent episode, death in childbirth). The Irishman’s visible reward of acceptance was to eat at the high table as the ‘token revolutionary’ – “Tame revolutionary, I hope?”, said the middle class son-in-law. And so it goes. The Lord and Ladies oversee how society is run, while the ‘plebs’  (if I may use that recently revived word) know their place, vie with each other for favour and loyally, quaintly, never forget to apply the correct amount of forelock-tugging.

Are these really the kind of images and impressions we want to promote about our society to audiences both home and abroad? Is it the true picture?

As far as ordinary, realistic portrayals of working class characters are concerned – where are they? It seems the only places where ‘proles’ are represented anymore are soaps. But how realistic are their many storylines that say much about the lives of ordinary people? If Eastenders or Coronation Street are to be believed, most of us are either alcoholics, drug addicts, womanisers, violent criminals or silly, nosey-parkers there just for comic relief; or are small business people, self-employed money-grabbing ‘cowboys’. Hardly a true representation of what it means to be working class.

Tough, challenging, true

No, if we want to see more realistic stories of working class people on our screens we must go back to the 60s and 70s, to the classic BBC Play for Today or The Wednesday Play single one hour TV plays.  There, issues of ordinary life were given a showcase: homelessness (Cathy Come Home), industrial disputes (The Big Flame), education (Our Day Out), alcoholism (Edna, the Inebriate Woman), young offenders (Scum), rape, religion and disability (Brimstone and Treacle) and unemployment (The Black Stuff). Each complete drama shone a searing light on a pocket of everyday life as experienced by modern, recognisable people. All brought to us by skilful writers and directors such as Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Steven Poliakoff and Stephen Frears. These were the programmes, the dramas, that people spoke about the next morning over breakfast, on the bus to work, during tea breaks. These were the ones that burst many a columnist’s blood vessel in the curtain-twitching Daily Mail and provoked many a missive from ‘Outraged, Tunbridge Wells’, or were outright condemned from the pulpits across the land. They were tough, challenging, true and, above all, raw.

Have we not today burning issues that can be portrayed in such a tight, tidy format, instead of being buried within the elongated framework of a TV soap?

And, if we must have a historical serial, why view the past through rose-tinted goggles anyway? David Cameron has announced the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WW1 to take place in 2014, and how the government will be putting up £50m towards educating us about our sacrifice to ‘fight for democracy’. Democracy? The time he is speaking of is the time in which Downton Abbey is largely set. A time when half the population – women – did not have the vote. It was also the time when Ireland was in a state of rebellion for independence from the British Empire, an empire drenched from head to foot in the blood of people across the globe.

The way David Cameron puts it, Britain went to war to defend democracy and ‘little countries’ like Belgium (itself an imperial power with possessions in Africa). Let’s have it right. The First World War was a titanic showdown between all the imperialist powers for the domination of colonies, raw materials and markets. The world was already divided up between Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, even the USA. With no more colonies available, any further re-division inevitably meant war. Talk of  ‘defending democracy’, then as in our modern day wars, only served to blinker public opinion into supporting war. After all, they had to sell it to the public, because it would be the public who would be donning the uniforms, doing the killing and the majority of the dying, clearing up the shambles created by the rich and our political classes in the first place.

And, after all, as our ‘betters’ would have us believe,  isn’t our nation really just one big family that pulls together when crisis strikes,  just like in Downton Abbey? Isn’t it so much politically safer to peddle the myth rather than the reality, to paper the cracks rather than to construct a better, fairer, more dignified society from the bottom up?

Myself, I’d rather look to the future rather than a half-baked past that never existed.

This is the lie we are selling to our televisual audiences at home and abroad. We may have our ‘ups and down(tons)’ but when the chips are down, ‘we’re all in it together’.

Like hell we are, if I may be so bold as to say so…M’lud?


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