Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Downton Abbey

The Crawley sisters of Downton Abbey: Edith, Sybil, Mary
I often dream of large houses, not necessarily grand ones; sometimes they are decrepit and run down and I am trying to navigate them, often unsuccessfully. There was an abandoned seventeen room house on our street which had me intrigued for many years before it was finally purchased and renovated.

Perhaps it isn't hard to explain my fixation on the British PBS TV series Downton Abbey then (represented on screen by Highclere Castle) where the real estate fascinates as much as the characters. It couldn't be more different than anything I have known in my own life and yet it completely fascinates me. Of course, there is the typical upper class British twittery and senseless opulence but there is something about the interaction between the classes, the whole Upstairs, Downstairs aspect which compels me to watch. 

The series began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the presumed loss of the Downton Abbey estate heir, Patrick Crawley. Patrick Crawley was a cousin of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville - I still think of him as Hugh Grant's hapless friend in the film Notting Hill) - the current lord of the estate. Because the estate is entailed in such a manner that none of Richard's three daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) or Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) may inherit, it must go to a male heir. With Patrick gone, it now falls to cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who is - horrors! - a practicing solicitor who lives in (egads) Manchester and is decidedly not one of the idle rich. 

Of course, this series, written and directed by Julian Fellowes, perhaps best known for the film Gosford Park, goes places that the original Upstairs, Downstairs TV series could not, nor would not, go. There are the expected star-crossed romances: Lady Sybil, third daughter of the manor, and the handsome radical, an Irish chauffeur named Branson (Tom Branson) not to mention the Lord of the Manor who fixates on a widowed house maid named Jane who eventually leaves his employ. There is the gay footman who eyes every upwardly mobile opportunity and handsome face out there ... yes you read correctly.

But there are strange and interesting undercurrents too that help it rise above the average upper crest mansion porn. Rob James-Collier (better known as the character of Liam Connor on Coronation Street from 2006 - 2008) plays Thomas, a sinister footman who is not only gay but actively evil and plays it with great relish. Thomas tries to plant false evidence that a perceived rival named Bates, the valet to the Earl of Grantham, is a thief. He threatens to blackmail one of his "betters" with whom he served as valet until the man steals the letters back which implicate him. Don't feel too sorry for the blackmailed man - he wants to marry the eldest daughter Mary on the condition that she inherit even while he dallies with Thomas.
Dishy Thomas, beautiful, gay ... and evil
Thomas, once eager to go to war in WWI against the Hun in France, willingly has himself shot in the hand in the trenches to return back home. He dabbles in the black market after the war only to be tricked by more devious minds than his. He is ambitious and he can be ruthless but the character is also layered. He has aspirations, resents that his opportunities are limited merely because he's a working class lad and ridicules the other servants who mourn for the lady of the manor who has had a miscarriage and was carrying a male heir. He scornfully asks why they should care so much for a woman who barely knows their name? But Thomas' character is textured, vulnerable. Few know about his sexual orientation and he is careful not to reveal himself. But he does show his vulnerability when he comforts and aids a blinded soldier who eventually kills himself. James-Collier makes it difficult to despise him despite his reprehensible actions.

The sour-faced lady's maid Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) also has a malevolent streak which she only partially succeeds in concealing. Her unfounded fears that she is about to be supplanted leads her to do a despicable and life altering act that critically changes the course of the family's fate. She also tries to undermine the Lord's valet (a position that she covets for her colleague Thomas) and jeopardizes the whole of the family in doing so with her scheming. And yet she also selflessly nurses Lady Grantham through the deadly Spanish flu and shows a shell-shocked fellow servant, Mr. Lang, the little kindness that he receives in the house as a faltering valet.

What Fellowes excels in are the relationships between the women of different classes in the house. Would you believe that the head maid (Anna) would aid her mistress (Lady Mary) in removing the dead body of a lover from her chamber? Or that a Lady (Mary) would decorate a chamber for her maid's honeymoon night in the manor? I do. I believe these scenarios. I think of the emotional relationships that women today have with their aestheticians, their hairdressers, their masseuses, their cleaning ladies ... the confidences shared, and the secrets concealed, and I believe this part of the Downton Abbey story completely.

Elizabeth McGovern as the American heiress Cora
Of course there are certain cliches that persist ... the Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith as the Earl's mother) keeps things hopping with her barbed remarks about the lower classes (for instance, how Lady Sybil's chauffeur/paramour makes the new previously disliked heir Matthew look like a Hapsburg). American heiresses in the mid to late 19th c. were seen as cash cows who could siphon new money into crumbling estates and legacies (most notably Winston Churchill's mother Jennie Jerome). Fellowes said that his story was in part inspired by the presence of these American women - some 350 or so who married into the British aristocracy. Most Brits unreservedly support the war in the series except in the person of Branson, the Irish chauffeur, but even he cannot bring himself to accept the killing of the Czar Nicholas II and his family in Russia.

And frankly there are scenes that I think would just never happen - the grudging acceptance by the lord of the manor of the marriage of his youngest daughter Sybil to the chauffeur Branson. Never ... gonna .. happen. Those nighttime rendezvous between daughter and chauffeur, highly unlikely. 
Would the Earl of Grantham keep in his employ a lame valet with a prison record even if he was a comrade from the Boer War? Would the dowager countess advocate to have a footman be treated in the local hospital after he is gassed at the front because she pities the father of the boy? Fellowes, who is affluent himself (Lord of the Manor of Tattershall in Lincolnshire), keeps insisting that the aristocracy could simply not afford to mistreat servants as they would leave - after all they weren't slaves! 

It all has a tinge of "It was horribly unfair wasn't it? But didn't we get along so well - looking after each others' interests?"  I wonder. Possibly, these acts of kindness were commonplace ... it's a lovely dream though isn't it - of how class relations worked back then?


Cheryl said...

I loved this series and I cannot wait for the second season to become available! Period pieces fascinate me as well - there is something so interesting about seeing how people once lived!

Michelle said...

Downloaded season 2 off the Internet - very very good as well!