I can’t believe I’m going to write a post defending Downton Abbey, or the Conservative politician who created it…
…but here goes…
(Oh, by the way, there’s a mild SPOILER for one subplot of Series 3 in the final paragraph of this post. And there’s a bigger spoiler for one episode of Series 2 earlier on, but since – unlike Series 3 – that’s already been broadcast everywhere that broadcasts it, I guess it matters less.)
Despite the frequently heard criticism, Downton Abbey is not a ‘posh soap opera’. For a start, calling it that is a basic category error, since it’s not a soap opera but a TV melodrama. The defining characteristic of a soap, after all, is that it is – in the words of the relevant Bafta category – a ‘continuing drama’, which is to say an open-ended, multi-faceted story that runs and runs and runs, with new episodes appearing on a continuous weekly (or even daily) basis. Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Doctors, Casualty, Holby City: these are all soap operas, and what makes them such is that they appear continuously. (OK, so technically the last three in that list are divided into series, which soap operas traditionally are not, but since a new series begins immediately after the old one has ended the difference is purely a technical one.)
Now, it’s true to say that soap operas are melodramatic – often absurdly so – but this does not mean that the reverse applies: all TV melodramas are not soaps. Only those TV melodramas that operate on a continuing basis – which put out new episodes on a weekly/ daily basis – qualify for that title. Downton Abbey, with a maximum of only nine episodes a year, falls massively short. So on a purely technical basis, it’s definitely not a soap opera.
What about the argument that the melodramatic nature of the storylines means that DA is effectively a soap, even if it doesn’t have enough episodes to meet the technical qualification? Well the problem there is that popular drama has always been melodramatic, long before soap operas, or television – or even the word melodrama – had been thought of. If you’re inclined to disbelieve me, I’d recommend reading some 16th Century revenge drama some time.
You won’t have to look far. Just pull the complete works of Shakespeare off a library shelf, turn to the ‘lamentable tragedy’ Titus Andronicus and you’ll find a scene where the foremost poet of the English language, the man widely credited with having the most subtle creative mind of all time, has his character, Lavinia – who has been raped, then had her tongue cut out and her arms amputated – identify her attackers to her father by writing their names in the mud with a stick she holds in her mouth. Later, she holds a bowl between her arm stumps, into which her father drains the blood from their lifeless corpses, while telling her that he will grind up their bones and bake them in a pie – which he does, before serving it up at a banquet during which he murders her. Next to that, Downton Abbey looks positively restrained. And, for that matter, the mysteriously disfigured stranger who turns up part way through series 2 claiming to be the long-lost heir to Downton, only to disappear at the end of the episode never to be mentioned again, strains credibility no more than the heroine of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, who goes blind at the end of one instalment only to have her sight miraculously restored at the start of the next. Yet it’s the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, that people who believe themselves to have ‘superior’ taste attack for melodrama, while they acclaim Shakespeare and Dickens for attaining the highest possible achievements in literature. Double standard, anyone?
And as for the suggestion that DA is ‘posh’ – well, that’s wrong, too. Some of the characters are posh, but the audience most assuredly isn’t. It’s not insignificant that the show airs on ITV1, rather than BBC4, or that it delivers a mass audience on that channel. It’s not a coincidence that the most relatable characters in the show – the ones in whom we are supposed to see ourselves reflected – are the servants, and that the least relatable – the comic grotesque, Cousin Violet – is the poshest of the ‘upstairs’ characters. Nor is it a coincidence that the working class characters ‘grow’ by shaking off the restrictions imposed upon them by their class, while the upper class characters ‘grow’ when they realise that they have much in common with the people they were brought up to regard as inferior.
The truth is that Downton Abbey is no ‘posher’ than any other mass-market popular drama, including soaps like Emmerdale and Coronation Street. Only an idiot could believe that the presence of glamorous costumes and sumptuous locations makes a drama ‘posh’, while a contemporary working class setting makes it ‘authentic’. Or actually, no, scrub that: not an idiot, exactly, but someone who believes that ‘ordinary’ people have impoverished imaginations, and as a result find their pleasure in watching ‘simple’ drama that looks like daily life, while drama featuring people from other times and other places is a ‘sophisticated’ pleasure for ‘posh’ people.
You won’t need me to tell you that there’s a nasty undercurrent of snobbery in much of the criticism of Downton, but it’s not just the obvious sneering at popular drama by people who believe themselves to be above such ‘populist’ fare. There’s an equal but less obvious snobbery in dismissing the show as being for ‘posh’ people, based as it is on the assumption that costume drama is beyond the pale for ‘simple folk’. And when you get people (as you do in the comments thread under any Guardian article about the show) attacking Downton Abbey in the belief that this makes them some kind of class warrior, fearlessly shouting down a hideous manifestation of upper class entertainment – well, then you know you’re in the presence of a middle-class wannabe whose only contact with the people they imagine themselves to be fighting for is via Eastenders, which they unthinkingly assume must be pretty much a documentary.
The great irony is that there are other shows that are much more deserving of dismissal as ‘posh soap opera’ than Downton Abbey. These are shows that are designed to appeal to a self-consciously ‘sophisticated’ audience but actually rely on ‘soapy’ traits for much of their appeal. Traits such as: comfortable familiarity with characters established over many years; complex, convoluted plots that only really make sense to people who follow the show; the satisfaction that comes from seeing a good character rewarded or a bad character punished; the frustration when the reverse happens; the teasing delay in denouements and resolutions eagerly expected; the sudden bolt from the blue that unexpectedly disrupts all those expectations; and so on. You know, shows with names like The West Wing, and The Sopranos, and The Wire, and Mad Men.
The supposedly golden age of US TV of recent years consists in large part of shows that really are, in terms of the people who watch them and the dramatic tropes they deploy, ‘posh soap operas’. Needless to say, aficionados of these shows – who are often first in the queue to dismiss Downton Abbey – don’t see it like that. They’ll eulogise their favourite shows for things that are standard in any soap. I distinctly recall an episode of The Review Show where a panel of distinguished ‘cultural commentators’ praised The Wire for the fact that each episode didn’t open with a recap of past events, seeing it as proof that this was a sophisticated drama that didn’t make concessions to an inattentive audience – but when was the last time you saw an episode of Eastenders open with the caption “Previously in Walford…”? But then that’s the thing, you see. You and I have probably watched at least the odd episode of Eastenders here and there, while ‘cultural commentators’ tend not to have, and so don’t know what they’re talking (or should that be chattering?) about.
This is not to say, of course, that Downton Abbey is great TV drama: it isn’t. I like it well enough as a way of passing an hour or two, but I like it with the same part of my brain that enjoyed Dallas and Dynasty as a kid, and revelled in Brothers & Sisters more recently – the part of my brain that can take pleasure in a rollicking story while simultaneously taking pleasure in spotting all the goofs, oversights, inconsistencies and downright contrivances of this kind of drama. It’s not a question of watching ironically – I’m far too middle-aged to get away with anything so hipsterish – or of appreciating it in a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way. It’s a question of enjoying it straight and revelling in its preposterousness at one and the same time, without either kind of pleasure diminishing the other.
And there is certainly much to find preposterous in the show. I’m never quite sure why people focus on the melodramatic plots – which aren’t all that melodramatic, at least to anyone who’s ever read some ‘classic literature’ – or the much-commented-on linguistic anachronisms. The real anachronisms are the social attitudes.
Characters pay lip-service to period-appropriate prejudices against women, ethnic minorities, gay people, working class people, and so on, but when push comes to shove they abandon those prejudices in favour of doing what a modern audience would regard as the ‘right thing’. And that’s not a surprise of course, since it’s hard to make an audience relate to characters who act in ways that would seem to modern eyes to be monstrously cruel. I’m glad of it myself. It was sweet to watch all the characters – servants and aristocrats – rally round Mr Barrow and protect him after his moment of passion-fuelled madness, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also hoot at the sheer preposterousness of a rural community in 1920s Yorkshire in which pretty much every living soul is a stranger to homophobia. I can do both simultaneously – appreciate the cuddliness, and laugh at the ridiculousness – and it’s that which makes Downton Abbey a (minor) pleasure to watch.