Brideshead Regurgitated

The ludicrous charms of Downton Abbey, TV’s reigning aristo-soap

At what point in the history of domestic service, I wonder, did lords and ladies start saying Thank you to their staff, instead of just kicking them into the fireplace? When did it begin, this treacherous acquisition of personhood by the dishwashing classes? Was there perhaps a single, pivotal moment, deep in some ancestral pile, when a purple-faced baronet looked upon his vassal and experienced—wildly, disconcertingly—the first fizzings of human-to-human recognition? Blame Saint Francis of Assisi. Blame Charles Dickens. By the early 20th century, at any rate, the whole master-servant thing was plainly in ruins. Individuals were everywhere. The housekeeper had opinions; the chauffeur had a private life; and the gentleman found himself obliged to take an interest, however slight, in the affairs of his gentleman’s gentleman. “And what will you do with your weekend off, Bassett?”

I know all this—lest you doubt my expertise—because I’ve been watching Downton Abbey, the ludicrously popular aristo-soap currently airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. The motto of the show might be: “Footmen have feelings, too.” We are now entering Season Three, but really, everything you need to know about Downton happened in the first five minutes of Season One. Fans will recall the scene: Morning is breaking in 1912 England. Lawns twinkle under a fat old Edwardian sun. Upstairs, the blue bloods stir lazily in their four-posters; downstairs, uniformed menials scuttle in a fever of industry through the rooms of the great house, laying fires, opening curtains, bantering and reproving. They are building the set, essentially, for the pageant of privilege that is about to take place. A white and languorous arm extends; a bell is rung; down in the kitchen, an answering tinkle. “And they’re off,” says Thomas the footman, sneering into his porridge. Then the papers arrive: the Titanic has sunk.

Downton Abbey was created by Julian Fellowes, a sometime actor with a seat in the House of Lords and a wife who is a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. Preposterous as history, preposterous as drama, the show succeeds magnificently as bad television. The dialogue spins light-operatically along in the service of multiplying plotlets, not too hard on the ear, although now and again a line lands like a tray of dropped spoons. The acting is superb—it has to be. At the center of it all is the master of Downton, Robert, Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville. Imagine Tony Blair stripped of that wolfish gleam of self-interest, inflated with 20 or 30 brisk strokes of a bicycle pump, squeezed into a tweed hunting jacket, and then sent out into the world with a fixed frown of genteel incomprehension. Bonneville has fine comic instincts (he was tremendous, for instance, in Notting Hill), and for the role of Robert he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury. In a sense, there is something wrong with Robert’s brain: his pomposity is so complete, it is almost a state of innocence.

Robert has an American wife and three lovely, impetuous daughters—but no sons, unfortunately, which means that as the saga began, the estate’s heir presumptive was an offensively middle-class person known as Cousin Matthew. Robert also has his staff: Carson, the pontifical butler; wise Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper; selected maids of varying virtue; Thomas, a footman, chalky-white, a creature of the shadows, always sucking moodily on his cig. Then there’s Bates, heroic Bates, the valet, his voice a sexy and stoical rumble. Bates is loved by the lovely Anna (a housemaid), and hated by the hateful Thomas. The footman and his weird soul sister, the demonic lady’s maid, O’Brien—her hairstyle consisting of two ringlets perched on her forehead like horns—conspire against Bates. Soap, soap, soap, all foamily accelerated: births, deaths, Marxist chauffeurs, lubricious Turkish diplomats stalking the midnight chambers, every form of narrative contrivance whizzing and gurgling around the chandeliers of Downton—it’s like the ballroom scene in Ghostbusters.

Americans eat this stuff up, of course. Why wouldn’t they? Class in America is not the ancient, neurotic, and quasi-magical apparatus that it is in Britain. (As orcs and elves were to Led Zeppelin, a friend of mine once observed, so posh girls were to the Rolling Stones.) Class in America is a greasy pole: you go up, you go down. The closest thing this country has to Downton Abbey is the reality show Undercover Boss, in which a CEO descends, disguised, into the lower realms of his corporation, to wrestle with boxes in the loading bay and drop burger buns on the factory floor. He speaks searchingly (but not too searchingly; he must not blow his cover) with the minimum-wagers, nodding and grunting with slow-burning enlightenment: “Uh‑huh, uh-huh …” Then he zooms back up to the boardroom, to his leather throne, from which—in the big reveal—he spurts largesse over a couple of workers: a scholarship for this one, a lump sum for that one so she can get her family out of the homeless shelter. They cry, sometimes he cries, and thus are society’s inequities healed.

Less obvious is why the Brits have gone for Downton Abbey in such a big way. Cultural amnesia? Falling standards? From Brideshead Revisited to this, in 30 years—what can it portend? Not much, is the answer. The British public is sentimental and nostalgic: it likes looking at sumptuous interiors, lavish costumes, and Dame Maggie Smith. From the manicured vistas of a country estate, it gets its little hit of arcadia. Downton Abbey is a harmless, anachronistic masque of manners, in which the players keep obediently to their roles and thereby gratify the innate conservatism of the audience. I’ll say this, though. Fellowes has created one genuinely fascinating character: the simpering Molesley, valet to Matthew Crawley and a genuinely servile mind. While Thomas seethes against the class system, and Bates transcends it with his manliness and purity of heart, Molesley simply internalizes it. He reveres his social superiors; he wishes desperately to please them. There is a tortured depth to him, revealed in twisted and ingratiating smiles of which he himself is quite unaware.

Narrative contrivances whiz around the chandeliers of Downton—it’s like the ballroom scene in Ghostbusters.

Season Two, according to popular wisdom, went a little over the top. The disfigured Canadian soldier who showed up at Downton claiming to be Cousin Patrick, previously presumed to have gone down with the Titanic? Cousin Matthew’s “spinal bruising”? There was even a story in the tabloids: “Downton Abbey’s Carson Admits: We Lost Our Way.”

So what of Season Three? I’m anxious not to give too much away, because a Downton Abbey in which you know what’s going to happen is not, frankly, a Downton Abbey worth watching. But can I tease you a little? Bates, still chewing rough-voiced on the ashes of his martyrdom, continues to suffer in prison. The disgraced housemaid Ethel, upon whom a caddish soldier sired a bastard child, returns. Thomas makes another tragic gay lunge. Lady Edith contemplates a career in journalism. Financial ruin prowls the borders of Downton: it is time (most distressingly for the earl) to modernize.

On which theme, I’ll unleash the big spoiler: I know what’s going to happen, in the end, to Downton Abbey. It may take a few more seasons, several twists of the plot-handle, but the fate of the great house is certain. I submit an extract from the newly published Rod: The Autobiography, by Rod Stewart. It’s 1971, and the singer and his then-fiancée, Dee Harrington, are about to purchase Cranbourne Court, a Georgian mansion in the countryside west of London. Writes Stewart:

Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.

Season 12: Downton Abbey goes glam rock. You heard it here first.