the past in pop culture

Tag: Downton

It’s a Downton, Downton, Downton World


Highclere (Photo credit: neilalderney123)

What’s a Downton fan to do in the absence of the Abbey? Season three has ended and with it Sybil and Matthew, never to return. Oh yes, season four is in production but the only truly kind sister and the heir to the earl have signed off for good—unless of course Downton takes a turn towards the undead. If previously we suggested that Downton: Empire Edition might be a good idea, Downton: Vampire Edition sounds even better. Then the show could run for eternity and all that English pallor would be put to good use. At Donegal, most of the downstairs cast wouldn’t even need any new makeup or costuming.

But while awaiting these developments, we’ll need some interim entertainment. The obvious place to start is with an English aristocracy movie and TV marathon. Sure you’ve seen it all before, but it will fill up some of those empty hours. Go to Gosford Park, return to The Remains of the Day, slink on back to Brideshead Revisited. If your conscience doesn’t trouble you too much, take a tour of Upstairs, Downstairs. Some say Downton ripped it off and then resented its revival, but what’s another fox hunt or two between friends? After that, you’ll have to go a little farther afield. Bleak House beckons, and every Jane Austen movie ever.

You could try getting creative. Follow those plot leads and read Jane Eyre for another inconvenient married-man-with-a-mad-wife romantic complication. It must be Lady Edith’s bad luck to only get recycled love stories. Her earlier suitor, the disfigured amnesiac with a Canadian accent, sure did remind one of The English Patient, except of course for the fact that Ralph Fiennes didn’t whine about having a mummy’s head. Maybe it’s just that some Downton scriptwriter has a thing for movies with Juliet Binoche—Matthew’s last drive looked an awful lot like the final minute of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

If that’s too far afield, find yourself some Downton fanfiction: with two thousand plus entries and counting, you’ll have plenty to read. Prefer professional writing? Never fear: the Fellowes’s are here. Jessica and Julian have helpfully penned The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Don’t think the actual inhabitants of Highclere are just renting it out for sets either. The Countess of Carnarvon would very much like you to read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. In case your taste runs more to the downstairs, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” has been conveniently re-issued and re-titled.

For the less literal minded, Downton as metaphor might work. Downton’s depiction of a hierarchical social structure under pressure has inspired some reflections on contemporary Catholicism. On the secular side, it turns out that Downton confronts us with questions of free will and individual agency. It might seem a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to point out that Downton’s popularity can be pegged to current concerns about rising income inequality, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Too many words, not enough pictures? Let’s take a look at the lamps of Downton Abbey. We could consider the clothes as Downton struts the runway. But you don’t have to drop that many dimes to dress Downton with these outfits for under a hundred. Don’t forget our crafty friends at Etsy: handmade Downton, anyone? Once you’re all decked out, you might as well go on the road. There are all inclusive season three tours and DIY budget vacays. For those stuck stateside, a tour of the mansions of Newport might do as the next best thing. By the time you’re back, season four might be ready to roll. Finally, don’t forget to cook up some Downton dainties. They’ll come in handy in case you get the Downton d.t.’s.

Downton Abbey: Titanic Class Divides

Titanic stern

Titanic stern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Really, using the Titanic as the catalyst for the plot of Downton Abbey is brilliant. It’s shamelessly, fiendishly effective since everyone already knows that story so well. If anything, the Titanic backstory fades away too quickly. The brief, season two attempt to resurrect it through the cousin who survived the sinking—or did he?—seems to have foundered. Even for a show that’s a telenovela wolf dressed up as a Masterpiece Theater sheep, pulling out a disfigured amnesiac was a bit much. But who knows? Maybe he’ll come back as Lady Edith’s suitor yet, although only after benefitting from some kind of miraculous advance in plastic surgery. And why not, in a show that seems of be taking some scriptwriting tips from the book of books: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matthew 11:5)

Perhaps this last point really drives the show’s Titanic theme. Julian Fellowes, while working on his other show, called out James Cameron for making First Officer William Murdoch into a villain in his Titanic. Fellowes makes sure we know that Cameron dishonored an officer and a gentleman. As a good D.A. watcher could tell you, there’s hardly any greater sin than this. The controversy, such as it is, could not be more telling. On Cameron’s Titanic, an upstairs / downstairs romance might drive the plot, and the sumptuous sets and costuming might feed our vicarious desires to see how the other half lives, but Leo DiCaprio’s steerage-class Irish immigrant is not just a heartthrob but a genuine populist hero. Downton Abbey’s Irish class rebel, Tom the chauffeur, can hardly compare. He might steal Lady Sybil but his revolutionary rabble rousing is just so much hot air and when push comes to shove, he dresses for dinner and sheds a tear for the aristocrats whose castle is burned down. Billy Zane’s Cal chasing after Leo with a gun through ballrooms filling with water might qualify as melodramatic fantasy but it’s clearly class war. We know whose side Cameron is on. Downton Abbey endlessly pantomimes keeping it real by playing the servants-as-people-who-deserve-to-be-treated-as-such card. Yet really this device is mostly employed to keep the aristocrats sympathetic characters. Thought experiment: what if Cameron were at the helm of the good ship Downton?

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