Royal SOS

01.29.14

What ‘Downton Abbey’ Can Teach The Queen

The Queen’s reserve fund is down to its last million pounds. Her palaces are crumbling and boilers need fixing. Enter the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, masters of fending off financial peril.

In Downton Abbey, the Crawley family’s tenuous hold on their fortune has so far been maintained through two things. Lord Grantham, the paterfamilias, had the good sense to marry Lady Cora, a rich American, and, as times have gotten tougher, the mysterious delivery of plot-altering letters somehow, every time, carry a miraculous reprieve for Downton Abbey. Until the next time.

If life mirrors art, the Queen might well be hoping her great-grandson Prince George eventually falls in love with the offspring of a rich American hedge-funder, who will oversee the continued polishing of the silver at Buckingham Palace. Her Majesty’s reserve cash fund is down to its last million pounds. A report published by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that for 2012-2013, the royal household’s budget of $51.38 million—which covers building maintenance, staff wages, and travel for royal duties—had been exceeded by almost $4 million.

The shortfall meant the Royal Household had drawn on its reserve fund, whose value had fallen from $35 million in 2001 to $1 million today. Thirty-nine percent of Royal buildings, which the Royal Household is duty-bound to maintain, are in an unacceptable state, the Committee found.

Such straitened times are simply ghastly, as fans of Downton will know. The fictional TV estate, presently in its fourth season in the U.S., is also—in an overt contemporary recession-era nod—obsessing over how the estate can make more money, and be “safeguarded for future generations” (translation: “Do not mess with the upper classes and their birthright to rule and procreate among their own”). The problem is Lord Grantham is too darned nice, preferring to lend a tenant farmer some money to continue to oversee his land, rather than turf him out and make money for himself.

Just as with the Royal Family and William and Kate, attention is swerving to the younger generation of Lady Mary, Lord Grantham’s daughter, and Branson, the class-conflicted former chauffeur, to somehow magic these two hoary institutions into their different modern worlds.

The Treasury should be “actively involved in reviewing the [Royal] Household’s financial planning and management—and it has failed to do so,” the PAC said, in the same week as Downton Abbey’s residents anticipate the arrival of Government inspectors to adjudicate whether it is acquitting itself efficiently: rumor has it one of them is a (dread word for Americans) Socialist, just as Margaret Hodge, the Labour chairman of the PAC, proudly is.

The Royal Household’s spending drew sharp words from Hodge. “We’re not accusing anyone of profligacy, but the Queen has not been served well by either the Royal Household or the Treasury who is supposed to supporting the Royal Household in balancing the books,” she told the BBC.

Hodge also criticized the Royal Household for not maintaining the upkeep of its royal properties, including Buckingham Palace. “The Buckingham Palace boilers are 60 years old,” she told the BBC. “It’s deeply inefficient.”

A significant financial priority for the Royal Household is to reduce the backlog in essential maintenance across the Occupied Royal Palaces.”

The Queen should again turn to Downton, which is endlessly having to adapt to modern times, signaled in nearly each episode by poor Mrs. Patmore, the cook, having a new invention foisted upon her. Last Sunday it was a refrigerator and, no matter how much Lady Cora chivvied her that it would make kitchen life easier, the cook muttered dark doubts. Mrs. Patmore also looked at the arrival of a sewing machine with curdling suspicion, though was a convert by episode’s end.

What Americans may not understand is that living in genteel impoverishment is very much a feature of the British upper classes: note the picture of the Queen greeting fancy visitors to Buckingham Palace in the Audience Room with a two-bar electric heater. It has long been a mark of the raffish upper echelons to be rolling in cash, while eating moldy biscuits and “making do” with threadbare carpets.

Yet still the Royal coffers are being emptied. Hodge said scrutiny of the Royal Household’s finances had increased since creation of the Sovereign Grant. Before the Sovereign Grant, the Queen received money from different government departments: funds for the official expenses of The Queen’s Household from the Treasury; plus grants for travel costs and upkeep of palaces, and another grant for communications.

The Sovereign Grant encompasses all three, with the Queen receiving 15 percent of profits from the Crown Estate, the organization that holds property on behalf of the Crown.  Hodge urged the Royal Family to do more with less: “We think a little bit of a more commercial approach by those who are responsible for serving the queen would serve her better in garnering more income.”

“The Queen can attract income,” Hodge told the BBC, noting that Buckingham Palace was only open 78 days a year, and had half a million visitors, while the Tower of London has two million visitors. Of course the big difference between them—which Hodge conceded—is that Buckingham Palace is inhabited and the Tower is not. How about a Prince Harry calendar? He’s already gone publicly nude in Las Vegas.

At Downton, the Crawleys—like the Royals—have their own problems communing with the hoi-polloi, but try to extend their brand—or at least keep the burning pitchforks from the door—by participating in an annual cricket match. The proles are even allowed the odd aristocratic wicket. Even the fearsome Dowager Countess—“First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel”—let that lovely old guy from the village win the rose competition at the village hall.

Like the Crawleys, the Queen—who, like Lord Grantham, is happiest with her dogs, rather than pesky concerns over, ugh, money—is under siege from modern times. As with Downton, foreigners marry into the Royal family—most recently the Canadian Autumn Phillips. On Tuesday, after the damning PAC report was published, the Palace released a statement, telling the world it is being jolly modern indeed, thank you very much.

“The move to the Sovereign Grant has created a more transparent and scrutinised system, which enables the Royal Household to allocate funding according to priorities,” a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said. “This has resulted in a more efficient use of public funds. The Royal Household was charged by the PAC in 2009 to generate more income to supplement the funding it receives from Government. This has been done successfully. In 2012-13 the Household generated £11.6 million in comparison with £6.7 million in 2007-8. Work on income generation continues.”

However, the spokesman accepted that urgent work needed to be done. “A significant financial priority for the Royal Household is to reduce the backlog in essential maintenance across the Occupied Royal Palaces. Recent examples of work include the renewal of a lead roof over the Royal Library at Windsor and the removal of asbestos from the basement of Buckingham Palace. The need for property maintenance is continually assessed.”

So far, Downton Abbey’s maintenance is not an issue; indeed, its opening credits feature my favorite image of a feather duster tickling a chandelier spick and span. Instructively for the Queen, in real life before Downton Abbey began, Highclere Castle in Hampshire where it is shot, was in need of $25 million of repairs. Now it is besieged with visitors: the castle is “Downton Abbey,” and in return the TV show is helping save the castle.

Downton can teach the Queen something subtler about turning power into profit. Viewers love the show because it contrasts rich and poor, upstairs and down, particularly when the two worlds collide. The politics of class war are safely neutered by storylines that feature an egalitarian, uniting notion of decency.

Letting TV cameras into the Palace wouldn’t be a first: in 1969 the UK feasted on the documentary series, Royal Family. So perhaps the Queen should call Andy Cohen and brainstorm a new Bravo show—The Real Servants of Buckingham Palace—with show-stealing cameos by the Queen playing Candy Crush with her ladies-in-waiting. Let’s meet the real Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson. The plaudits, visitors, and money to fix those boilers would roll in. Otherwise, the Queen will just have to hold out for one of those miraculous letters.