Downton Abbey is the How the Other Half Lives of period dramas. But rather than inside/outside, upstairs/downstairs emerges as the central division.
The house is everywhere. Whether it ‘s one of the stock movies about haunted houses or in literature such as Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, it’s clear that the house has another function that transcends its materiality. The house (or rather, mansion) figures prominently on British television, rather like a never ending royal wedding. As urban theorist Anthony King observed;
“Socially, buildings support relationships, provide shelter, express social divisions, permit hierarchies, house institutions, enable the expression of status and authority, embody property relations; spatially, they establish place, define distance, enclose space, differentiate area;culturally, they store sentiment, symbolize meaning, express identity; politically, they symbolize power, represent authority, become an arena for conflict, or a political resource.” (King, Global Cities. Routledge 1990)
The house is thus never a given, an uncultured or objective setting where the lives of the characters happen to take place. It’s rather a force in itself, at once reflecting and shaping value systems that are inherent to society and that are incarnated in individuals themselves. ITV’s Downton Abbey is a perfect case in point, as even the title of the series indicates the importance that the house will come to assume; Downton Abbey is the estate of the Crawley family, inhabited by them and their small army of servants.