Up The Valley: Upvalley, Downstairs
January 10, 2013
In today’s column in the Star, I ponder our collective affection for Downton Abbey…
I’ve read that transgender females often share the lifelong feeling of being a woman trapped in a man’s body. I’m beginning to suspect that I must be transgentrified, because I feel exactly like a rich person trapped in a not-so-rich person’s life.
Perhaps this explains why I so enjoy a British television program, or programme to be proper, about a fabulously land-rich aristocratic family and the servants who bathe them. Downton Abbey, starting its third season on PBS, has become an obsession, and not just among those for whom a “Shades of Grey” fantasy refers to the color of their servants’ uniforms. This opulent period drama reminds us that people once had real problems, like one’s rightful heirs perishing on the Titanic, causing one’s estate to overlook one’s daughters (obviously) and favor instead a lower form of humanity having the bad taste to actually work for a living.
The series’ popularity in America seems surprising given our purportedly ongoing class warfare, our huddled masses yearning to breathe the rarified air of the 1 percent in whose well-manicured hands the vast majority of the country’s wealth has been placed. Today’s millionaires call themselves middle class, the citizens formerly known as middle class are now just poor people with nicer cars, and media outlets on the brink of bankruptcy are called “the elite.” Insensitive statements by billionaire politicians have only widened the deep divide separating the haves from both the have-nots and the had-it-until-we-were-cheated-out-of-its in our democracy.
And yet, a PBS series about the privileged and pampered in hierarchical old England has set viewing records, simultaneously restoring the fortunes of many a local station peddling boxed sets during the pledge break. If you haven’t seen this show, let me sum it up for you: the rich family upstairs suffers high-class problems while lounging between lavish costume changes, the servants downstairs suffer grittier problems while working themselves into exhaustion, both upstairs and downstairs are adversely affected by wars and by lawyers, downstairs dwellers sometimes kiss upstairs dwellers to the consternation of all, and the most sympathetic character is a head butler who sees the approaching apocalypse in his temporary need to let female servants wait at table. It all makes for ripping good television, with new plot lines appearing quicker than you can drag the naked corpse of a Turkish diplomat from M’Lady’s bedchamber.
Now I lap this up like a saucer of sweet milk, being a shameless trifle-eating, tea-sipping, “Her Majesty the Queen”-worshiping Anglophile. And I am not alone for — much as we Americans like to deny it — we obviously retain a soft spot in our revolutionary hearts for the mother country (many millions watched the royal wedding and the queen’s jubilee). But even those who detest the British on principle, with their wiggy House of Lords, beige food and fondness for fox hunting and grouse shooting, tune in on Sunday nights to see whether Lord Grantham’s dog, trapped in a remote shed by a scheming footman, will be reunited with her master. It’s enough to melt the heart of a Republican seeking to strip Big Bird of public funding.
Perhaps we Americans love the series because we enjoy watching the rich suffer the same troubles and indignities we do. But would we trade places with the dignified housekeeper or even the revolutionary Irish chauffeur? Or is the guilty secret of our capitalist anyone-can-make-it-here mentality really just a deep-seated desire to inherit vast wealth and privilege, like a Windsor or a Walton? At Downton Abbey, now post-WWI, change is coming and inevitable social and financial reversals lie ahead. Our sense of fairness and democracy may temporarily feed off watching the crème de la crème curdle. Still, the lavish surroundings and comfortingly-intractable social order were among the series’ delights, and it remains to be seen whether ratings will suffer as the upper crust crumbles.
One thing is certain: we worship Maggie Smith playing the dowager Countess of Downton, and wish we could turn her loose on today’s dismissive waiters, uppity colleagues and useless legislators so deserving of a good tongue-lashing. Her withering glances and delicious bon mots, always delivered under an opaque veil of politeness, pack more of a punch than hours of vitriolic speechifying. Indeed, the most evocative thing about Downton Abbey may be the pervasive air of civility wafting through its chilly halls, public rooms and private chambers. How lovely to re-live a time when one could disarm an enemy with rapier wit and saucy repartee rather than with expletives, when respect bested rancor, and when an unerring sense of duty prevailed. One thing hasn’t changed, though. It seems that there are still those among us (including some of our elected representatives) who exhibit a most disagreeable disdain toward those having the bad taste to actually work for a living.