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Many secretly think life was better when Downton's toffs ruled

By Mary Kenny

We live in an age which virtually worships equality: Equability is praised as the gold standard of all values. Corporations – and golf clubs – live in fear or being accused of an attitude of inequality. "Equality" has broken down barriers left, right and centre. Nobody would get elected today by proclaiming that they believed in the aristocratic or dynastic principle – rather than equality.

So why, in an age which exalts the principle of social equality, do so many people all over the world lap up the froth of Downton Abbey, which began its fifth series at the weekend on UTV?

This is a yarn which centres on the lives of toffs in an age – the 1920s – which welcomed jazz and Charleston dancing, but still retained many of the practices of deference to an upper class.

Taken at face value, the set-up at Downton Abbey is a deplorable confection of old-style snobbery in which everyone knew their place. The toffs might have sometimes been kind to the underlings – Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham is a pleasant old cove – and Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley is bent upon good works for the underprivileged, but it is still a rigidly organised grid of social hierarchy. And no one enforces the established order more emphatically than Carson, the head butler, so magisterially played by Jim Carter.

At an aesthetic level, you can see the appeal. The frocks. The hats. The decor. The settings. The exquisite architecture at Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed. The withering witticisms put in the mouth of Maggie Smith – the very embodiment of the commanding matriarch. And Julian Fellowes, the writer, has a great knack of engaging the viewer, when the storyline stretches plausibility. But the toffs are still the main focus.

And could the real truth be that – in spite of living in the age of equality (or perhaps because of this equality age) – many people still secretly enjoy and find comfort in the social order of Downton Abbey? Could it be that some people look back with certain nostalgia to a time when deference was also accompanied by respectful manners, when romance and love affairs required certain decorum (and when a frisson of transgression could be so experienced when decorum was flouted) and even repression?

I remember interviewing an elderly Monsignor in the 1990s, and we fell to talking about all the wonderful new gadgets available to us all nowadays. "Ah but," he sighed, "no gadget can ever be as wonderful as a devoted servant. Someone who brings you tea in the morning, looks after you nicely, and smooths away all the ruffled worries of life!"

He had been born in 1900 and recalled the Edwardian days when a London parish priest wore a top hat, and the Cockney families put out their best linen to entertain a rector to tea. His views were politically incorrect, but the admission carried certain honesty. And perhaps, in a fantasy world (which is where soap operas take us) some of us would enjoy having a lady's maid to whom we could confide – as Lady Mary does to Anna – and find all one's undies meticulously laundered and ironed.

The other memory that the old Monsignor – now long gone – disclosed was that the way to keep servants happy, in those days before the First World War, was to have an extended family network in which there was lots going on, and plenty of babies popping up a regular intervals.

It was "narrative" – events, dramas, occurrences – which made a household successful and servants loyal and diligent.

Margaret Powell, the author of a classic memoir about life below stairs, also said that staff liked to go to work in "big houses" where there was always something happening, where there was plenty of staff (the real Downton Abbey would probably have employed a staff of 60) and the employers behaved decently towards the staff.

What servants disliked was to be walled-up alone in a suburban home working for one small family – that was lonely and the mistress could more easily be a slave driver.

Downton Abbey is about voyeuristically following the lives of toffs and the mishaps, tragedies and disappointments of these gilded ones.

But it's also a clever interweaving of these lives with those of their staff: together they form a kind of community, which also has a certain appeal where globalised dislocation sometimes seems to mean fragmentation of community.

The most successful export market of all for Downton is – apart from America – China.

The series is obsessively followed in China, which is still, theoretically, a Communist country. (When David Cameron visited Beijing last year, he was plagued with questions about Downton Abbey.) Initially this might seem puzzling.

Yet, underneath, China is built on Confucian values. These teach social order, obedience to one's seniors and elders, responsibility towards those dependent on us, and dignity and decorum in our personal dealings. Very Downton Abbey?

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