Monday, January 7, 2013

Downton Abbey returns

Much to the delight of American Anglophiles, Downton Abbey returned to PBS last night with the two-hour premiere of Season 3. While the show's delay in crossing the Atlantic has presented a problem of spoilers for some American viewers (including me; a Telegraph headline unfortunately gave away a key plot point), there is still much to look forward to, and the first episode, resuming the story of the Crawley family and their servants in spring 1920, did not disappoint.  Branson is still horrid. Dowager Countess Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) is still magnificent. Mr Carson is still everything that made Britain great. And the irritating smugness of Whiggish Americanist triumphalism (Shirley Maclaine) arrives with a vengeance as the consequences of the War That Ruined Everything are felt. After the show concluded I was inspired to create this chart of the reigning European monarchs of 1912 (beginning of season one) and 1920 (beginning of season three), showing how much had changed in only eight years, and also came across this interesting article on royal references in Downton.  I've also resolved to include the show's very real location Highclere Castle on a future visit to England, perhaps as soon as this summer.

It's probably fair to say that in the world of Downton Abbey, more than any other "Downstairs" characters, the dignified butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter), who last season was clearly thrilled with his employer the Earl of Grantham's gift of a book on the royal families of Europe, and Lord Grantham's Irish radical chauffeur-turned-son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) represent the two basic opposing ideological camps of the early 20th century. Mr Carson stands for tradition, duty, loyalty, hierarchy--everything that the First World War would undermine or destroy.  Seldom has a fictional character so perfectly encapsulated the worldview this blog tries to defend.  (While Monarchy per se is rarely mentioned, when it is, there is no doubt that Mr Carson is on our side.)  In contrast, Branson, who believes that morning coats are "uniforms of oppression" and cheers on the fall of European monarchies, represents the rising forces of egalitarianism and republicanism that will make the twentieth century a horrifyingly bleak and violent one, and not only for monarchists. 

As one who feels a strong urge to throttle him every time he is on screen spouting his leftist views, I have been unable to discern any reason for the popularity of Branson, whose revolutionary political agenda led to the deaths of millions, among some Downton fans other than that they think he is good-looking. Therefore I propose that the next big PBS period drama should be set in World War II France and sympathetically portray the Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier (1915-1996), who has described as having been "
unusually good-looking, almost pretty, with wavy blond hair, delicate features and deep-set, intense blue eyes." Perhaps he or a character like him could attain an affectionate following as well. If looks and charm trump all, why not?

I suppose some people watch Downton Abbey (enthusiasm for which has been criticized as "un-American," as I reported last year) and think, "how horrible that they had such a rigid class system back then."  But true Downton fans watch the show and think, Yes, that's the way things should be (at least in the first season), because inequality and hierarchy of some sort are inevitable and it's better to be honest about it. And whatever flaws Downton may have, it deserves traditionalists' gratitude for portraying an Earl (Hugh Bonneville) who is both a believer in the aristocratic tradition he has inherited and a sympathetic character, as well as his heroic butler Mr Carson with whom all monarchists of humble birth can identify.

7 comments:

Patrick Idris said...

Dear Sir, I am an (American) fan of Downton Abbey as well but I have to question your severe chastisement of Mr. Branson. Could it be that he is simply a misguided yet well-meaning young man? Or perhaps he does represent some valid moral principles that you refuse to acknowledge because of your uncompromising ideology? Surely you can't claim that all who oppose monarchy and aristocracy can be lumped in with the likes of Hitler and Stalin? Not to mention his Irish independence views are completely justified and understandable. While monarchy and aristocracy may be your preferred system of governance, surely you must admit to some shortcomings, especially in these earlier times where living conditions were often horrific. When you take into account the crippling effects of the industrial revolution on the lower classes for example, it's not really hard to see why many turned to ideas like socialism.

carmeljamaica said...

I appreciate what you have written, Theodore.

I need to speed up my time in watching though, as I am still on Season 1. It looks promising though, and I know I would enjoy it.

I have no problems with inequality or hierarchy; I wish more people would see how there is so much truth in it, not just in history, but all through the years to come.

Theodore Harvey said...

It was those who opposed monarchy and aristocracy who paved the way for Hitler and Stalin, so I think my comments were fair. While I think socialism could be considered misguided, socialism is not the same thing as republicanism. It was and is possible to seek to improve the lot of the working classes and even advocate a socialist welfare state without being a republican. But Branson describes himself as a republican, and it is republicanism for which I indeed have no tolerance. I would have more respect for Irish nationalists if they had sought a Catholic Kingdom with a Catholic King.

Theodore Harvey said...

And replacing kings with presidents has never helped the lower classes one bit.

Patrick Idris said...

Fair enough, but one can hardly blame this young chap who lives in 1920 for the horrors that followed much later. I'm sure (in fact I know)there were many socialists who were appalled by the slaughter and brutality of the later communist regimes. Not to mention that republicanism such as we have in America can hardly be compared to Hitler and Stalin's regimes..

Anyways, perhaps this is all too much debate over a fictional show. But you seem to be puzzled why Branson is even included in the show, or at least why people like him. Well, people like him existed and the show is portraying the changing political and social landscape of the times. Perhaps you detest him and what he represents but that doesn't necessarily make him an evil person. Personally I think he is brave and (in his own way) noble and as someone with irish blood I can also relate. And who knows what season 3 will bring?

Patrick Idris said...

That being said, I do agree that his behavior is sometimes over the top.

Theodore Harvey said...

Much later? In 1920 the Romanovs had been murdered two years earlier and the Red Terror was already underway. And even before 1917 the historical example of the French Revolution was already available to suggest what toppling monarchies was likely to produce. Yet seldom if ever throughout the bloody 20th century did republicans ever admit, "we were wrong; it was better under the monarchy."