The Allure of the Tales of the Working Poor: ‘Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two’

Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two is all about today, despite its depiction of “high”, then dwindling empire in the early 20th century. The television series, an ornate soap opera in Merchant-Ivory clothing that seems positively literary, follows the escapades of a highborn family of five and their legion of hapless servants. Everyone resides in an enormous and fabulous house named “Downton Abbey”. In the PBS “Limited Edition, Original UK Version” blu-ray, among the “special features”, you will find some lovely travel promotions about touring the actual location, Highclere Castle, rooted in a lush meadow somewhere in the English countryside.

Americans have always been fascinated with the British, both obsessed with and in denial about the “parental” origins of many of this country’s settlers. We American promote our “revolutionary” start point when we abandoned aristocratic excess and became instead, pilgrims, a group known for aprons and prudence, and not for gorgeous fashion and opulent interiors.

The specifics of these national entanglements are dramatized in Downton Abbey via the marriage between a British Gentlemen, Earl of Something or Other and his rich American wife. They produce three daughters, eligible bachelorettes, each created from the DNA of crass American wealth and blue British blood.

There have always been distinct class demarcations in America, but our national dreamlife insists these divisions are flexible, bendy. In America, we might still believe that folks can move up and down the class ladder based on stuff like heart and grit.

No wonder the recession and its attendant crises in unemployment, debt, and housing should popularize a television show about a real mansion. The series allows audiences to fantasize about near-miraculous displays of wealth as they simultaneously explore the drudgery of work for those who sleep in tiny, dreary bedrooms on the top floors of Downton Abbey.

The upper class stories mostly concern the romantic sagas of the three noble daughters and the complicated British laws of inheritance that put ownership of Downton Abbey in peril. It’s fun to see the eldest daughter Mary, of impeccable skin and posture, flirt with a throng of suitors, always falling out with perfect Matthew (Downton’s heir).

However, it is “the poors” who are most fascinating. Their tragic exploits make for powerful drama. The lead valet, Mr. Bates, who is prone to an array of bad luck, both distracts from and displays the class inequality on which Downton and the series is built.

Brendan Coyle as John Bates

Bate’s dignity (I think he may be the most dignified chap in the history of televison) demonstrates how his fate is a natural byproduct of class division. He shows up with a limp, and endures what might today be labeled “discrimination” due to his disability. But the injury exists as a kind of metaphor for his position in the class strata. In an early shot we look down at him from atop flights of narrow, circular stairs. How hard it will be for Bates, with his sad cane, to walk up and down these day by day, we think.

He often winces in agony as he helps the Earl dress. Later we learn he has decided to “cure” his lameness with a metal contraption that works as a kind of vice. When he lifts his pant leg, in a gesture of integrity, we see screws tightened into flesh that is bleeding, bruised, infected. Of course, this is often the plight of the poor. They try to “cure” their position, only to begin another cycle of difficulty that ultimately hinders any upward mobility.

While Bates is a paragon of gracious solemnity, he is also a magnet for disaster. His romance with the nubile lady maid, Anna, ropes her into his ongoing tragedy. The couple endure a series of events that go from bad to worse with 30 second interludes of ecstasy here and there. By nature, he will not catch a break. My favorite moment in the series may be when he hears for the first time a piece of devastating news about his fate. The moment is punctuated by Anna’s harrowing wail. Bates endures the pronouncement with a facial performance that harnesses grief, glory and sex appeal.

Like the other servants, except the for villainous Tom, Bates is content with his lot in the service industry. The head butler, Carson, adores his role and seems perfectly satisfied to have given up family, romance, hobbies and life in order to run Downton Abbey. Though the Earl offers that he has “no career beyond the nurture” of Downton, the other characters are locked into grueling servitude that is far less cushy.

Though we feel compassion toward all of them, we don’t really want revolution. When the youngest noble daughter makes off with her chauffeur in an act of mutiny, both characters are written off to Ireland, exiled. The series may dabble in politics, but it does not present the possibility for change.

The characters often lament that there has been so much change since WWI (its events affix to Season Two), but there actually isn’t much modification to the basic class system that governs the castle (rather like class systems still in place today).

This blu-ray edition includes five “making of” style production spots on costumes, romance, WWI, Highclere Castle, and the crew’s fastidious attention to reproducing historical detail with as much exactitude as possible. This effort is appreciated by fans and it helps anchor the melodrama in realism: authentic war medals, panels of onyx beadwork, period textiles, cast iron pots, and close-ups of telegraph wires, trains, and electric chandeliers. There are always trays of crystal, silver flatware and china teapots being rushed about, some overthrown on accident at dire moments.

The cast interviews in some of the special features reveal a strange class division that permeates the set. Those playing the nobles get to film in the actual castle, while the actors playing servants are relegated to recreated sets of period kitchens, basements and backrooms. There is also, we hear, “costume envy” amongst the cast. Actresses playing Ladies, in keeping with historical accuracy, must have an abundance of lavish dresses. The maids, forsooth, have only two outfits, both dreary.

If you’re the type who likes Jane Austen adaptations, period films, beaded costumes, high melodrama, high empire, corset laces, kitchen scullions, dignified men of stoic countenance, and zingers tossed off in British accents, then watch this. If you are lucky enough to have not yet seen any Downton Abbey, then go ahead and get started ASAP.

If you think you can watch just one episode and then carry on with something constructive, think again. Prepare yourself and your surrounds (stock your kitchen/put the cellie on silent) because Downton Abbey is a highly addictive castle romp. You can make your way through this collection, including special features in a little under 18 hours if you hit it straight through — and you likely will.

RATING 9 / 10