Downton Abbey: A rare treat indeed

My concern at the deterioration of television entertainment was very abruptly brought home to me by way of contrast when I saw the first episode in the series “Downton Abbey”, the lavish period-piece about the British aristocracy set in the two years immediately preceding the First World War.

The series was produced by Carnival Films for Britain’s ITV network. It cost one million pounds an hour to film, using the spectacular Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the village of Bampton in Oxfordshire, and sets created at Ealing Studios in London.

The casting is excellent, the background and themes authentic, and the plots both credible and appropriate to the era. My thanks to Buffalo New York’s WNED-TV for carrying it.

My only criticism is that the pace seems to be a little faster than necessary, perhaps because of the record-setting expense involved in producing such a major undertaking.  (See * below).

The excellent response by the British public to the initial 2010 series of seven episodes has resulted in the decision to produce a continuation of the series in 2011, and this may inspire the investment of a little more time between major plot developments.

Despite this, the superb acting completely draws the viewer into a world that is now almost, but not completely, lost to us.

The fashions and attitudes remind me of my paternal grandparents, who were born in the mid-1890′s. Thoroughly middle-class, my grandmother always wore the large, decorated hats and veils of the period, with a fox ‘stole’ slung somewhat rakishly over her long black coat.

She maintained that fashion until her sudden death in 1954, perhaps in defiance of a world that was changing in ways she neither understood nor appreciated.

The people of Downton Abbey, from ‘The Family’ to the lowest maid, would have had little grasp of modern social problems, let alone the atom bomb and the horrors of overpopulation. Radio and television were unheard of, and the appearance of a telephone in the abbey causes great consternation and upheaval, with some for and some against this bizarre encroachment into their previously predictable and protected world.

The exaggerated manners, and respect for those of higher station, are typical of my grandfather who rose from a lowly position to be the “chief clerk” of a major industrial manufacturing company in Leeds. In those days, if it was necessary to “bow and scrape” in order to get ahead then that is what one did, and he did so very successfully. When my grandmother visited him at his office on one rare occasion, she was astonished at the deferential way in which he was treated by his staff.

But, grandfather had his head screwed on straight, and sometimes told me of how men would line up at the factory gates looking for work, despite “no vacancy” signs, because working conditions were so poor that there was a good chance that injury or even death would create a vacancy by the end of the day.

The concern for the well-being of their staff shown by the British aristocracy was a welcome difference, and is accurately portrayed in “Downton Abbey”.

I never met my maternal grandfather as he died soon after I was born. He served with the Medical Corps during the Great War, and afterwards quickly earned a reputation as a man who knew how to set broken bones.

If a member of the gentry injured themselves falling off their horse while fox-hunting, a ‘sensible young lad’ would be dispatched to find my grandfather and bring him back right away. He would drop whatever he was doing and hurry to the scene, and do whatever was necessary.

A few days later something of value would be delivered to his cottage, perhaps fish or game from the estate. Payment was never offered or requested, that would have been most ‘unseemly’.

My mother married at the age of twenty, after being born in a small village in the Cotswolds and then serving in the WAAF during the Second World War. Moving to Yorkshire with my father was a severe shock to her, and she often expressed the opinion that Leeds people were lacking in civility as a result of their never having had the opportunity to be ‘in service’, where being exposed to the refined manners of the aristocracy would have had a beneficial effect upon them.

Which brings me back to my initial observation, that television fare has deteriorated so badly over the decades.

The endless parade of lavatory humour, shallow sit-coms, ‘politically correct’ and historically inaccurate movies, and endless films and television series designed to produce a quick profit rather than enlightenment and enrichment, serves to undermine and subvert civilisation and drags us back down to the level of animals, bereft of moral and spiritual strength and concerned only with the immediate concerns of pleasure and possessions.

I don’t think it healthy to dwell too much on the past, as it is so vital that we strive to deal with the present and combat the causes of our decline, but it is pleasant nonetheless to be able to go back if only briefly to times when life was simple, polite, and far less worrying and demanding for the upper and lower classes alike.

And it is necessary for us to understand and appreciate the good things about the past so that we may gain a realisation of what we have lost, and so that we may try to elevate ourselves from our present sad state of affairs.

If you haven’t seen any of the Downton Abbey episodes yet, I suggest you do so. You will find the series fascinating and thought-provoking, as well as providing an accurate and wonderfully acted portrayal and examination of a far-away world from not that long ago.

And today’s youngsters may find it to be a worthwhile and educational experience, enabling them to contrast the repressive if well-meaning attitudes of the past with the obvious excesses of freedom and license in the present.

Jeff Goodall.

*  Additional comment:

The British series of seven episodes was reduced to four episodes for North American viewing, each of the four running around eighty to eighty-five minutes and shown without any advertising. Episodes six and seven in particular are thus combined, each containing a number of important sub-plots and developments.

I was unaware of that when I wrote the above review, and that will account for my initial feeling that “the pace seems to be a little faster than necessary, perhaps because of the record-setting expense involved in producing such a major undertaking”.

Rather than re-write my original review, it seems simpler to just add this note for additional perspective.

I hope that North American viewers will be able to see the original episodes as aired in Britain at some point in the future, but I do believe that I will very much prefer the North American format, which allows the viewer to become totally immersed in the beautifully-produced world of Downton Abbey without suffering any modern-day interruptions.