Simon Schama holds a place of honor in our home. Preparing for a trip to London in 2005, we watched his video series “A History of Britain,” over the course of several weeks. Our boys loved it so much that they would chant “Britain! Britain!” after dinner. His history of the French Revolution, Citizens, was masterful.
So it’s with the greatest respect that I disagree with him about Downton Abbey, the first television series to keep my interest since, well, The Sopranos.
Schama thinks he detects the “clammy delirium” of nostalgia in the Tea Party’s “ache for a tricorny country,” “radio ranters” selling Americans on a false paradise of pre–Social Security and Medicare America, and now viewers racing to their TV sets on Sunday nights to catch Downton Abbey, — a “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.”
Americans, Schama scolds, “desperate for something, anything, to take [their] mind off the perplexities of the present” are gobbling up this newest Edwardian-era story because of our secret longing to be members of a defunct aristocracy.
Who is being the snob here? Schama, an Englishman, proposes to elevate our taste. The series irritates him because he still recalls the sting of being “put in his place” by the “toffs” in the 1950s and 1960s. We credulous Americans are too easily swept off our feet, he protests, by these country-house tales.
Oh please. There were similar complaints in the 1970s — before the era of talk radio or the Tea Party — when Americans were swept up in Upstairs, Downstairs fever. The critics, then as now quick to suspect class-consciousness in the American psyche, assumed that viewers loved the series because it fulfilled fantasies of living the coddled life of the upper class, with scads of disposable servants warming the bed sheets, polishing the brass, and ironing the lace.
Not really. In Downton Abbey as in Upstairs, Downstairs some of the noblest characters are to be found below stairs. Bates, the earl’s valet, is partially lame from a wound sustained in the Boer War. He bears his disability — along with the cruelty of two of the other servants — with fortitude. His quiet integrity and long suffering seem to be rewarded by the love of a lady’s maid, Anna. But there are plot twists coming.
As Schama acknowledges, the series is “fabulously frocked and acted.” The sets are gorgeous, the actors stunning, the costumes dazzling, and the story captivating. It isn’t great literature. It’s melodrama, with clear villains and heroes, with boy meets girl, girl loses inheritance, girl loses boy, misunderstandings, sex scandals, blackmail, sibling rivalry, lost opportunities, jealousies, lies, flower shows, and war.