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Downton Abbey

December 19, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last week I was lent the complete first series of Downton Abbey on DVD. It has not been shown here in South Africa, nor do I expect it to be, but I was aware that it had caused a bit of a stir in Britain when it was broadcast there earlier this year and so I was delighted when I was given the opportunity to watch it. I have to say that I enjoyed it immensely and eagerly anticipate the second series.

It is easy to see why it should have met with such favour. The show is costume drama at its best and is British to the core. Talented actors in beautiful costumes act out a convincing story. The setting, a magnificent stately home belonging to an aristocratic family in the years leading up to The Great War, provides ample opportunity for the script to be refreshingly free of the tedium of Political Correctness that is so pervasive in modern drama. There are no token immigrants occupying unlikely positions of authority or affection within the household. While a nod is given to the existence of homosexuality, it is kept discreet, not paraded as a badge of honour, as would be the case in a more current setting. Language is tempered and good manners are enforced. People of different backgrounds and education respect each other with out feeling the constant need to be rude, unpleasant or unduly resentful. The Great British Chip has yet to descend on the shoulders of hoi polloi and the upper classes are not yet ashamed of their privilege but recognise and accept the tremendous responsibilities that are attached to it. Unbridled self-indulgence is not tolerated.

On either side of the baize door, dramas and intrigues unfold. In the servants’ quarters, all the staff from butler to kitchen maid, struggle to seek happiness and improve their lives. While ambitions to progress beyond a life of service exist for some, they all recognise their good fortune to be able to work and live in a house such as Downton Abbey which offers them a home, a job and a community.

Meanwhile the Crawley family, which has produced daughters but no sons, has to deal with the fact that the estate is entailed to the heir to the title, a distant and unknown cousin, whose background is very different to their own. In a male-dominated society where women do not yet have the vote, it is the role of an aristocratic female to marry and produce heirs so that estates can continue to prosper. Lord Grantham declares that he does not own Downton Abbey, in the usual sense of the word, he is merely its caretaker on behalf of the wider Crawley family. Primogenitor dictates that only a male who carries the Crawley name and bears the title can inherit. He tells his daughter that it was his ancestors who created it for future generations of Crawleys. She is not the only descendent and when she marries, she will lose the name and there will be no title.

This classic bit of theatre holds particular interest for me because the household is very like that into which my father was born in 1914. In a vast stately home, staffed by a full complement of servants and set in parkland, designed by Humphrey Repton, the life of my grandparents and my father’s older siblings would have been very similar to that of the Crawley family. Of course, The Great War changed everything. The family moved out for its duration and the house was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers returning from Flanders. Fortunes were lost, new generations emerged and the old political order changed giving place to new. The house was eventually pulled down after the second war to avoid punitive death duties and because the estate could no longer manage to maintain the enormous staff that was necessary to run it.

Below is the house during a parade which took place the year following the birth of my grandfather.

  1. Cymbeline
    December 19, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Hello Sipu. I have not seen the series. However, I have read that the accents are not right for the time. The aristocrats speak with modern middle class accents, for example. I believe too that there are many other anachronisms. ‘The Spectator’ seems to have attracted quite a lot of witing on the subject.

  2. Cymbeline
    December 19, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    …. writing as well as witing, of course.

  3. December 20, 2010 at 5:59 am

    Hello Cymbeline. Good to see you here. I have not read the Spectator commentary but I imagine there are a number of errors in the series. It is often the case with such things. A friend of mine is an old RN Commander and he is always going on about the fact that dramatisations of naval events are inaccurate with regards to dress, style and behaviour. The same applies to films about this part of the world. I suppose sometimes it is down to ignorance and laziness on the part of the producers and script writers, but I suppose too they employ artistic licence for the sake of the show. It would have been good to watch it with my father were he still alive.

  4. December 20, 2010 at 6:39 am

    Cymbers, I discovered this letter (from Alistair Kerr), which I think you will find amusing. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3724/is_20101030/ai_n56168765/

    Actually the letter that follows, about Judaism changing from patrilineal to matrilineal descent, is interesting as well. I wonder if it is accurate.

  5. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Yes, there are bound to be historical inaccuracies. I saw those Spectator letters the other day (sister sent me a package of back copies), and like you, I was struck by the letter about Judaism and the matrilineal line. Most odd. Surely not true.

    Yes, it would have been interesting for you to watch the series with your father. My mother’s grandmother worked in a house like that. She was a lady’s maid.

  6. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Talking about costume design, productions etc ….. The other day I framed an old studio photograph of my sisters and me, taken in Ndola. I noticed the photographer had stamped his name below the photograph. Chap called Don Beaton. I wonder if he was any relation to Cecil?

  7. December 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Ha ha. Love the Beaton connection. I have a friend in that part of the world. I shall ask if the family is still there. I think you would not enjoy a visit to Ndola these days. It is very squalid.

    Re Judaism, probably not true, but bloody clever if it is.

    I have posted this on Bearsy’s site, where I have taken a bit of flak. I think I rather get up people’s noses sometimes. I do not always mean to, though there are times I do it to annoy someone who is being particularly self righteous. The trouble is that one is not always prepared to spend the time forming a cogent argument, so sometimes things come out not as they were intended.

  8. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Yes, I have seen the piece on Bearsy’s site.

    It is true what you say about aristocratic families not all being selfish monsters. Although I never knew my mother’s grandmother, I believe that there was quite a lot of admiration and affection for the family for whom she worked. And this in spite of the fact that she later married a coal miner and union leader. People know how to see kindness, and nothing is clear-cut.

    On the other side of the family, one of my grandmother’s sisters was governess to a very grand family. She devoted herself to those children, and never married. When the children grew up, and she was no longer needed, the family gave her a private income – she never spent any of the money and left it all to the children she had more or less brought up.

    Pity about Ndola.

  9. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    PS The Judaism thing seems to imply that an enormous amount of Christians were rapists. Surely not.

  10. December 20, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    It is very interesting what you say about your governess relative. I believe such bonds are more common than people realise. People stick with what they know and love. They dedicate their lives to schools, hospitals, churches, communities, individuals, causes, even animals. Why should your aunt have cared for anybody more than those children she raised, especially as she had none of her own?

    No, I don’t imagine that Christians had/have a greater propensity for rape than other creeds. But perhaps a group of them were going through an awkward stage and felt that this was a way of resolving their problems. From time to time there have been progroms. Maybe one of them involved an unusually high occurrence of rape?

  11. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I think that the family was Jewish and I think that the younger son proposed to her at one time. She refused.

  12. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    I wonder how your family’s Catholicism was perceived in England at the time?

  13. Cymbeline
    December 20, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Brideshead Revisited.

  14. December 21, 2010 at 6:10 am

    Good morning Cymbeline. My father converted to Catholicism when he married my Scottish mother. Both sets of grandparents were friends, so it was not too much of a shock to my father’s parents. However, according to him, he was made to face a degree of social isolation from some of the C of E families in the area for having switched feet. I honestly do not know if that is true or not. He claimed that it was one of the reasons we left England to move to Rhodesia. As far as I am aware the Scottish family was highly regarded and did not face prejudice for being Catholic. The family had a strong connection with one of the big Catholic schools in England and many Catholic intellectuals and writers came to stay. Ironically, Evelyn Waugh was well known to them, but there seems to have been a fairly strong mutual dislike, with one or two at least. I do not think the inspiration for Lord Marchmain came from there.

  15. Cymbeline
    December 21, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Hello again Sipu. Thank you for your interesting reply, and rather sad if your father was made to feel uncomfortable for having converted. Such things mattered very much then; perhaps they still do. Social complexity. Fascinating about the Evelyn Waugh connection. What an interesting family.

  16. December 21, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    I suspect my dad was given to bouts of melodrama from time to time. My older sister told me that the reason we left England was that my parents could not longer afford shoes for all of us. She too is prone to exaggeration. Mind you, I come from a very large family, so maybe she had a point.

    Have you left Martinique and gone home? I saw a mention on Brendano’s site. I always think of Irma La Douce when I think of Martinique. The Valse Milieu and the ‘smell of stale Gauloise’.

  17. Cymbeline
    December 22, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I have left Martinique, aye. Not sure about having gone home though. I am not French and I had never set foot in this part of France before. Think Lola rather than Irma. Lola’s city. (Jacques Demy).

    Funny about the shoes. We once arrived in Heathrow to a British winter, wearing slip slops. We had long grown out of the shoes we once had.

  18. December 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    You are in what Time described as the ‘most liveable city’ in Europe, then. That is good. I do not know it either, but I hope you are happy there.

    My very English brother-in-law insists there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I have never learned the art of acquiring or wearing the appropriate clothes for Britain. Like you, probably, we wore no shoes as children except for mass on Sundays. As Dad started the car, we would rush to the sandal draw, which for some reason was in the dining room, and scramble to find a pair that fitted. It did not help if you had a sibling with the same size shoes as yours. One of you would be unlucky. They were off the moment we got back home. Our feet grew to be amazingly tough, though not very pretty. Prissy aunts would scold my mother when they came to visit. But we climbed rocks and ran through the veld without discomfort.

  19. Cymbeline
    December 22, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Yes, it is a very civilized place. Oysters and Muscadet, trams, opera, theatre, solid buildings of elegant tuff. It is also the centre of the world – the centre of the world if one puts all the continents together, apparently. I do not really notice the fact that I have to wear shoes. There are historical links to Martinique, because of the slave trade. All we need to do now is spend a bit of time in Guinea, to get the feel of the whole triangle.

    I once climbed a volcano barefoot. My feet were very hard indeed at one time.

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