Although the BBC-PBS series “Downton Abbey” has entered only its fourth season, it seems to me it’s been around ever since Queen Victoria died. It’s splendid story-telling, which is one big reason PBS has no shame in running each episode about 20 times. This allows you and me to keep from losing track of the plot and characters. It also allows PBS to frequently interrupt each episode and beg for money, and thus keep giving the world top-quality programs.
If you’re not familiar with DA (as I’m sure show-biz folks call it) please be assured I won’t try to spell out complete details of the goings-on. They are too complex to be captured in any column less than 10,000 words long.
A capsule outline might go this way: Downton Abbey is a 1,000-acre West Berkshire spread whose center is a three- or four-story mansion topped by dozens of prickly spires. Inside this English fortress are a married couple named Robert and Cora Crawley. They have three daughters and several layers of servants whose duties and status rankings would make a Pentagon organizational chart seem like a child’s scrawlings.
Ownership and control of the premises depends on who is married to whom, and for how long, provided none of the main characters are killed off in war, childbirth or traffic accidents. The Crawley parents want their daughters to find suitable husbands. Of course they do. If you’ve read much British fiction you already know that spouse-hunting was the chief activity of the upper-classes from the Battle of Hastings until the end of World War II. But the daughters have minds of their own, and therein lie many of DA’s primary plot lines.
One daughter, Mary, dares to do a quick roll in the hay with a visiting Turkish diplomat, who immediately collapses and died. This left Mary vulnerable to later blackmail threats. Her sister Sybil ventures into the new world of women’s rights. The third sister, Edith, wants to find the right guy, but keeps getting dumped. Other complications arise from war with Germany, battle wounds, Spanish flu, death from childbirth, and financial disaster when Robert Crawley’s investments in railroads go off the tracks. His wife Cora has a miscarriage resulting from her slip on a bar of soap, strategically placed by a vengeful servant, Mrs. O’Brien. Sweetness and light, tinged with acid, stream out of the Abbey’s several hundred windows.
DA’s talented creator and sole scriptwriter, Julian Fellowes, promises to churn out at least a fifth season, and won’t say how many more might follow. Perhaps our grandchildren will slip into adulthood enjoying DA as much as today’s fans do. Fellowes has caught flak from several directions because of his abrupt killing off of some major cast members. His defense, in some cases: he had to do it because the actors suddenly quit or their contracts ran out.
For many viewers, part of the fun is figuring out the pecking order of the servants. Some work upstairs, some downstairs (a la the similar TV series of many years ago.) As a servant climbs the slippery status pole, he/she seems to grow increasingly protective of his/her position. The DA staff contains many more women than men, which should imply pleasant pickings for the men. Except that some of the male servants are gay. This is one TV series that demands viewers pay extra close attention, just to keep track of who’s knifing (or shagging) whom.
The DA story opened just before the start of World War I, when British society was still highly structured into a few socio-economic classes, and everyone was expected to stay in the level he/she was born into. But then a few million young men were killed in the War to End All Wars. Women won the right to vote. Labor unions grew stronger. Nazi Germany began to make threatening noises. Telephones and electric food mixers invaded homes. Housemaids and hod carriers began to find employment as secretaries and skilled factory workers. As DA leads its viewers through all these changes, you feel like a passenger in a gilded, drama-filled time machine.
Like most BBC productions, the writing and acting of “Downton Abbey” are superb. You don’t have to be an Anglophile to appreciate DA. But it will help if, like me, you are fed up with the obscenities, explosions, gun-fights and curbstone grammar that dominate so many of American movies and TV shows. DA illustrates a culture that is long dead. But it’s delightful to see it resurrected again on our TV screens, if only for a few hours each year.