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'Downton Abbey': Escapist Kitsch Posing as 'Masterpiece Theatre' | The Nation

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'Downton Abbey': Escapist Kitsch Posing as 'Masterpiece Theatre'

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The news that Shirley MacLaine is joining the cast of Downton Abbey next season to play Martha, mother of the wealthy American-born Lady Grantham, comes as something of a disappointment to aficionados of the ludicrously popular British TV series. It would have surely been more within Downton’s soapy spirit had the legendary MacLaine been cast as a working-class alcoholic barmaid who’s the presumed-dead, illegitimate half-sister of that smug dope the Right Honorable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. The last time I saw the Earl, a keen family man after all, his lordship was about to indulge in an indecorous tryst with one of his maids. So who’s he to talk, eh?

About the Author

John Heilpern
 John Heilpern, who was born in England, writes the Out To Lunch column for Vanity Fair.

Then again, Mr. Bates, the Earl’s ill-fated, devoted valet with the messiah complex, seems to have murdered his blackmailing witch of an ex-wife, whom he thought he’d divorced. And where does that leave Anna, the smitten, long-suffering chambermaid Mr. Bates was about to marry at last? Meanwhile, the craven Uriah Heep of a butler, Mr. Carson, will be moving on to serve his beloved Lady Mary, the Earl’s eldest daughter, during her allegedly future marriage to a nouveau riche newspaper magnate who’s an Edwardian Rupert Murdoch. You will doubtless recall that Lady Mary disgraced herself in the first series when she scandalously lost her prized virginity to a visiting Turkish attaché who died on the job in flagrante delicto. He was only young.

War breaks down barriers is a common thread in the second series. The Earl’s beautiful, mildly conscience-stricken third daughter, Lady Sybil, is on the verge of an inappropriately déclassé affair with Tom, the socialist Irish chauffeur who hates the ruling elite (but he doesn’t hate Sybil). The second daughter, meeskite Lady Edith, was snogging the local farmer but she isn’t anymore. Thomas, the embittered homosexual first footman, is still plotting indiscriminately against everyone, of course, while Dame Maggie Smith as the fearsomely crusty Dowager Countess continues her impersonation of Lady Bracknell.

Best news of all! Severely depressed Matthew, the third cousin once removed to Lord Grantham and heir to the title who was crippled from the waist down fighting courageously in World War I—and won’t be able to produce an heir, to boot—is about to have a miraculous recovery! In last week’s episode, he felt something briefly stirring. It happened after the Earl’s closing minute’s silence with the entire “Upstairs, Downstairs” household gathered to mark the end of this simply ghastly war.

In spite of all this—and so much more—I was surprised to learn that the TV rights to Downton Abbey have been sold in over a hundred countries. I didn’t know there were a hundred countries. But the phenomenal success of the series does not prove that the whole world is nostalgic for the snobbery of the British class system. It proves only that the whole world loves a soap opera.

When it comes to culture with a capital “K,” however, anglophile Americans do not acknowledge that England lost the War of Independence. They swoon over Downton as a superior soap opera—as any old Masterpiece Theatre import is invariably claimed to be a masterpiece. But Downton is escapist kitsch, obviously. It is saying, We all have our problems underneath. And more insidiously, it thus presents the comforts of a pandering parallel universe in which everyone—scullery maid or countess, common hoi polloi or aristocratic toff—is the same, only unequal.

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey’s creator and writer, is an odd duck obsessed with the nuances of class and social etiquette. He is the Nancy Mitford de nos jours, minus the noblesse oblige. The parvenu son of a Shell executive and former diplomat, he married Emma Kitchener, a distant relative of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, and former lady-in-waiting, or official companion, to Princess Michael of Kent (known as “Princess Pushy”). Astonishingly, Fellowes has tried to claim that upon the death of the surviving Earl Kitchener, who was childless, the laws of succession should be changed so that his wife could inherit the title.

Fellowes once described himself as “bottom of the top.” (Not quite upper class, you see). In an effort to belong among the toffs, he even changed his surname to Kitchener-Fellowes. It’s as incredible as anything you’ll find in Downton Abbey. Yet, for many years, he was that classless thing—a jobbing actor. In desperation, he even went to Hollywood in search of work and was shortlisted to take over from Hervé Villechaize as a butler on Fantasy Island. He later played the role of the intriguingly named Lord Kilwillie on the British sitcom Monarch of the Glen and penned a novel, Snobs, about social climbers in search of a title. He also wrote bodice rippers under the pseudonym Rebecca Greville. (Hence the bodice ripping in Downton Abbey).  

It wasn’t until Fellowes was in his fifties that his break came with Robert Altman’s 2001 Gosford Park (the goings on of the aristos upstairs and the plebs below stairs again). He won an Academy Award for the script, and his checkered life since then has been gilded. He recently completed a new version of the Titanic disaster (first class and steerage again); he also wrote the successful stage version of Mary Poppins; and Downton Abbey will soon enter its third season with the unlikely entrance of m’lady MacLaine.

But nothing we can imagine could have made Fellowes more ecstatically happy than his elevation to the House of Lords last year. A lifelong Tory, the newly ennobled Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes was duly anointed Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, and proudly took his seat on the Conservative government benches to rule on the issues of the day.

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