PA­TRICK FREYNE

I’m not con­vinced ‘Downton’ is his­tor­i­cal – ex­pect David Cameron to get a walk-on part this se­ries

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TICKET STUBS -

We are all Down­to­ni­ans now. In a re­cent tele­vised speech, union leader Frances O’Grady warned that the UK was turn­ing into Downton Abbey. This was in­ter­rupted, with­out irony, by some royal baby news (he’d killed again, I think). The world of Downton Abbey has not, as I once pre­dicted, led in­ex­orably to Downton Soviet. I should re­ally have noted the “baron” at the front of its cre­ator’s name. Baron Ju­lian Fel­lowes might as well have been named Toffy Toff­in­g­ton and his pro­gramme, Oh What a Lovely Class Sys­tem.

For some, it’s not so much a pe­riod drama as a lost idyll/ fu­ture utopia. His­tor­i­cal facts are treated pretty ca­su­ally. Char­ac­ters are end­lessly re­fer­ring to the fact that the

It’s not so much a pe­riod drama as a lost idyll/ fu­ture utopia. Char­ac­ters are sus­pi­ciously pre­scient about the fu­ture

world is chang­ing and are sus­pi­ciously pre­scient about the fu­ture. “Oh, tis a new era,” sighs Daisy the scullery maid, while iron­ing a fresh copy of Buz­zfeed for his lord­ship. “Soon, we’ll have the sec­ond World War, hy­dro­genated fat and the iPhone 6.”

De­spite this fetish, change ac­tu­ally hap­pens slowly on dozily soapy Downton. After a few no­table deaths (what­shis­name, for ex­am­ple), the main­stay char­ac­ters are still there, in roughly the same po­si­tions or­bit­ing fa­mil­iar plots. The dowa­ger count­ess con­tin­ues to wink at the cam­era while look­ing like, and pos­si­bly be­ing, a su­per­cil­ious meerkat (Downton Abbey = Meerkat Manor?). Lady Mary (aka Downton Julie Brown) is, as ever, a sulky posh vapour who is fa­tal to men, while lady Edith has given her se­cret child to peas­ants (it’ll be boss­ing them around in no time, given its su­pe­rior breed­ing).

Pos­si­ble sources of re­bel­lion have been house-trained. Brother-in-law Tom – or “Un­cle Tom” as he is known to his nephew and Ir­ish peo­ple – was orig­i­nally a repub­li­can/so­cial­ist Punch car­toon, but he has since re­alised that he loves the English class sys­tem. In the new se­ries, I ex­pect, his fea­tures will get rud­dier and he’ll start dress­ing like a pearly king. Ne­far­i­ous un­der-but­ler Thomas will also give in to des­tiny and start sport­ing a cape, top hat and twirly mous­tache.

Else­where, Bates the valet is still tran­si­tion­ing into a dole­ful basset hound. It’s his job to dress lord Gran­tham. Gran­tham doesn’t think it’s weird that a grown man dresses him. But if some­thing hap­pens to Bates, trust me, there’ll be some dress­ing-him­self ac­ci­dents and it’ll be shell­suits and one­sies for his lord­ship for the rest of the se­ries. Bates is reg­u­larly sus­pected of crimes he did not com­mit, like Ec­cles the bor­der ter­rier in Corona­tion Street.

Car­son the but­ler is the most loyal re­tainer and a pro­tec­tor of the old ways. He would give Gran­tham a kid­ney if Gran­tham sud­denly de­cided he wanted three kid­neys. And if Car­son in­jured his hoof and needed to be put down, Gran­tham would do the deed him­self. “Goodbye old friend,” he’d say, rais­ing the shot­gun to Car­son’s tem­ple.

Some­times in Downton the lower or­ders at­tempt to im­prove them­selves (up­pity flib­ber­ti­gib­bets) and mid­dle class do-good­ers like cousin Iso­bel say things like: “Why must the ser­vants toil so, while we live in lux­ury?” Gran­tham then picks her up by the lapels and shouts “Be­cause it’s lovely.”

This is usu­ally fol­lowed by shots of gleam­ing cut­lery and shiny bells and a happy maid laugh­ing con­sump­tively.

There will be more of this sort of thing, be­cause Fel­lowes dis­ap­proves of im­po­lite ag­i­ta­tion. His­tor­i­cal change, a la Downton, hap­pens in a con­text-less flurry of baf­fling cos­tume changes, pub quiz fac­toids and no­blesse oblige.

Ac­tu­ally, I’m no longer even con­vinced Downton is about his­tory. I’m wor­ried that in the fi­nal episode David Cameron will ap­pear and it will be re­vealed that the pro­gramme isn’t set in the past at all, but in his house, last Wed­nes­day. “Sur­prise,” baron Ju­lian Fel­lowes will say.

Then they’ll both laugh and dis­man­tle the wel­fare state, live on tele­vi­sion.

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