This may be the last season for Downton Abbey. Actually I felt they should have killed it off two years ago. There is something about period series that become stiff and mundane, what had been a good idea dies the death of a common soap opera. Yes, I shall be pillared by so many lovers of English Drama, but I believe there is a difference between drama and contrived emotional role playing. Yes, it’s suppose to be historic but in all honesty does Julian Fellows really believe that the great and not so great families of the nobility were possessed of such noblesse oblige and lack of self interest? One need only pay attention to the literature of the various periods to catch the popular sentiment of lack of interest on the part of the nobility. Running great estates was for the help and the little people. It’s always about the money and the privilege on the nobility that mattered Of course the idea that those who lived in such great estates ran pillar to post each week because there was constant upset and new forms of interest is simply beyond belief. Let’s face it, most of their lives were boring occupations of time. The endless rounds of entertainment, the lack of any real work to perform, what did we expect from such individuals? Many of our own rich spend their lives in a similar manner. Yes, wealth is nice, you can surround yourself with art, beauty, great food and wine, meet individuals who actually work for a living while preforming some vital service or creating some form of art, but what more is there to do? Oh yes, there is the charity work where one goes around meeting people and attending fashion shows, art shows, and other embellishments of public adoration. Pardon me if I remain a bit skeptical. I do remember Marlene Dietrich talking about visiting soldiers in hospitals and sitting with them for a while, talking individually and even writing a letter to a loved one form them. Most showbiz people of that era had intimate situations with these wounded men that left some feeling of pain. These were often not passive encounters but real engagements with men who were wounded and perhaps dying. Well, it’s one of those you had to be there experiences to understand.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Forsyte Saga, the acting was great, the screen play very loyal to the books by John Galsworthy, and the historical angle with the questions of social relationships and political progress were deftly explored. But that is what Galsworthy did, he explored without undue sentiment, the questions individuals had of their own eras. He was not speaking to future generations, although that is what every published writer does by default, it was his own generation that he addressed. He was carrying on a conversation with his own social group. How does a woman function in society where she is always subject to being treated as property? Didn’t Virginia Woolf address these sames problems in her writings, A Room Of One’s Own? There is a difference between discussion of important concepts and passive entertainment. Downton Abbey belongs to the latter. Is Lady Mary a slut? Do I really care? I’m just glad I don’t have to live with her. And in a real sense, I don’t care for any of them, not even Tom, who doesn’t really know his own mind. The only honest personality is the dog, she’s true to character. Daddy cares more about the dog than about Edith’s problems and her own passions. I think that would be enough to make me go out and get pregnant and I’m a man. Self centered nobility has rarely been my cup of tea, or coffee, which I prefer.
Actually, Downton Abbey is really a continuation of Upstairs, Downstairs, which was created because an actress and writer didn’t think the Forsyte Saga did justice to those who were in service. Well, normally, when we write about the nobility those who are in service are last on our minds. Why should that be? Because they are suppose to subsume their individuality into their positions which are ones of serving, not originality. Life in service is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Long hours, a few benefits, a lifetime of working. Of course one could always to the hard physical farm labor or sail on His Majesty’s Ships. Yes, there were a number of occupations that offered far less security against death, greater danger of being discarded at a young age into destitution, I would think a better study of life in service would be Remains Of the Day, a rather interesting look of how submerging oneself in that tradition of service a great house often comes a a personal moral cost. When we put our trust, our own sense of being in something that is so imperfect as English nobility, or any nobility, for that matter. we accept a sense of degradation from that choice. One is apt to feel cheated by the less than anticipated greatness of the institution.
Will Lord Grantham’s dog die? It must if it is to have any meaning in life, but remember Don Bluth’s dictum, All Dogs Go To Heaven. That will be the fate of Isis. As for the rest of the family, well, that would take a legion of screen writers to sort through. Not that the series was boring but that it was incidental, an asterisk by a word or phrase in a book that could be explained by a short sentence or two. Will those living fifty or sixty years from now find it interesting? Some fifty years after the Forsyte Saga aired I would not believe it would attract many viewers from the twenty and thirty year olds of today. I think it might bore them to tears for they have not a common reference point from which to view that history. And in another fifty years or so the same will be true about Downton Abbey. Of course the main difference is that the Forsyte Saga was filmed in black and white, so today’s youth has so very little tolerance of any film that isn’t in color. I grew up in a world where television was black and white and color as a luxury ten years later. The remote control was new, one changed the channels by walking over to the set. And there were three main channels and a couple of auxiliary ones, not the hundred or so one can subscribe to when one wants cable TV.
What is of popular interest informs us about our sense of values. The writing for Downton Abbey tended to emphasize the far more liberal and todays modern view points. Downton Abbey is as much about our own times as it is in a peripheral way about a much earlier generation, one none of us which has much knowledge and no remembrance. We look at the past through a culturally warped lens and expect to find some sort of ancient wisdom where none never existed. Yesterday is always comfortable as we use our selective memories. Tomorrow is by far more dangerous because it has not turned to memory yet and is beyond our control. This is what defines our problem, time rooted in the past and lose in the future. It is lack of control that makes the future dangerous.