LONDON - Between them, the Royal Family and Downton Abbey have pretty well sewn up the market for The Great British Fantasy theme park. The fact that one is “real” and the other fiction doesn’t seem to matter.
In the eyes of their adoring fans they’ve merged into an extended tableau of palaces, castles, country houses, and impeccably husbanded estates. As for the cast of characters, is Prince Andrew as priapic as alleged? Is Lady Mary Crawley taking a potential stud for a test run in the bedroom? Why bother to distinguish between the life lived and the life scripted?
So successful is this form of escapist porn that it has obliterated any rational responses. There is no movie star on earth with the face recognition of the woman who is called, simply, The Queen; there is no lifestyle more lusted after than the one so finely orchestrated at Downton Abbey, which has a worldwide audience of 120 million.
What is it that could possibly explain why this saga is so compelling? Is it that as the world becomes more and more in the grip of anomie people of many cultures project their yearnings on a parallel universe that is resolutely of another age where order is continuous and comforting even if the outward spectacle masks petty human frailties like lust, excessive pride, greed, and atavism?
I can tell you that lots of Brits hate that in the eyes of so many foreigners the realities of their country have been subjugated by this pageant suggesting a society ruled by hierarchy where every level is delineated by title and rank. Even if the audience gets an occasional glimpse from the news of a country that’s in much of the same distress as their own – after all, it wasn’t so long ago that the entire edifice of the Kingdom was nearly sabotaged by the wish of the Scots to leave it – they swiftly forget it as nostalgia drowns the present like a narcotic.
It’s really no accident that the Windsors and the Crawleys cohabit. There is a design behind it. For 40 years or more, the Queen has astutely allowed herself to be stage-managed into the role of a Very Modern Monarch. It’s a part that she was born to play. The stern core of her beliefs remains the same: that a neutral (or neutered) head of state provides a unique focus for national allegiance when it would otherwise be sought by a president with naked political biases.
But in order for this belief to remain legitimate and effective the figurehead must aspire to achieve regality. Being regal commands a level of public respect that no politician, general, or clergyman can fake. For regality to work it has to be enthroned at the top of a deferential hierarchy with titles of ancient robustness. From the monarch through the princes to the lowliest footman, power and behavior are prescribed and mutually understood.
In other hands this could seem like a ridiculous charade, a make-believe world in remote palaces intended to sustain only its own class, for which Europe has provided many unhappy precedents ending in blood, exile, and penury. But the Queen – at the start a radiant but uncertain inheritor – was able to provide the impression of increasing transparency and diminishing pomp while actually making the monarchy more secure than it had seemed for generations.
I’m not at all sure that Lord Grantham, the master of Downton Abbey, is up to this, poor fellow. We are into the fifth season on PBS and all is not well. Beyond the gates the peasants are restless. It is the early 1920s. Ill-managed aristocratic piles like Downton are fast burning up the money.
The Big Idea of Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes, was to witness social change through the prism of the aristocracy. Fellowes, otherwise known as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, member of the House of Lords, is probably the most creatively talented toff in the land. There is something personal and wistful in the way he tells this story. It’s a sort of fond lament for a class that is too self-absorbed to sense its own redundancy.
We have now reached the point where, following the traumas of a world war, socialism, via the Labour Party, is risen to power, representing people whom Lord Grantham regards as a noisome disrespectful rabble. Fellowes has created an avatar of the revolution who has now turned up in the village in the form of a radicalized school teacher named Sarah Bunting.
Lord Grantham does not take to Miss Bunting. She raises uncomfortable social issues at dinner, a breach of etiquette as well as of the host’s political allegiance. In response, Lord Grantham testily compares Miss Bunting to Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist firebrand murdered in Berlin in 1919.
You wouldn’t normally name drop Luxemburg in a soap opera, and few members of the Downton household, upstairs or downstairs, would have known who she was. But it’s typical of Fellowes to slip in references to external forces, no matter how forgotten, as bookmarks. When Lady Mary plans her carnal weekend with one of her suitors she sends a maid to a pharmacy to buy her a birth control device, furtively handing her a copy of the Marie Stopes manual, the revolutionary text of the time – never mind that Stopes’s great social mission was actually to curb the birth rate of the working class, not educate the ladies of the upper orders who were assumed to know the ropes.
The trend is to make Lord Grantham into an increasingly reactionary figure. He’s not an insensitive social dinosaur:he practices charity as an obligation of his class, but he has no imagination. He thinks that the upstairs-downstairs model has worked damned well for centuries and should not be tampered with. Both groups know their place. All communications between them are based on this mutual understanding of position, and any interruption of such stability is foolhardy.
Standing between his lordship and the servant class is the perfect mediator, Carson the butler. Nobody has ever delivered the line “dinner is served” with the gravitas of Carson, as played by Jim Carter, whose voice can fill a room in the way that a Marine drill sergeant’s can but with a kind of oily delivery. Downstairs Carson is the stern taskmaster who misses nothing in the pursuit of immaculate service; upstairs he skates skillfully between being obsequious to the heads of family and avuncular to the young and impetuous.
What is really being exposed here is the straining machinery of a soap opera trying to sustain itself when the founding narrative is exhausted. Of course, this is no ordinary soap opera. It has exquisite production values. There is period opulence delivered with an authentic pedantry, the actors coached in their every gesture from snooty disdain to creepy genuflection. But the originality of the first series has inevitably been dulled by repetition.
All the carefully interwoven story lines of human frailty, class tensions, adultery and betrayal, murky pasts and dubious futures have become routine rather than enthralling. There’s a feeling that the actors are trapped in roles that they can’t resuscitate – any more than the widespread and sometimes unruly flock of the British royals can flee their own ordained script.
The principal victim of the Downton script is a very fine actor, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham. It would be wrong to say that Bonneville has grown into the part. He was the part from the first episode – he filled out the Edwardian suits, the hunting tweeds, and the starched shirts at dinner in a very convincing way. He was paternalistic without being tyrannical, socially correct while adapting to the transgressions of etiquette by an American wife whose fortune had saved the Dowtown treasury.
But, as the saga progressed, he was expected to be consistent rather than innovative – both as a character and as an actor. Because he clings to core values while so much around him is changing he becomes something he did not seem to be at the beginning: a bit of an old fuddy-duddy.
In five years, Bonneville has added girth. Chubby to begin with, the avoirdupois has advanced. He gets the most he can from his lines, but you sense that self-mockery is barely stifled. This is not surprising, because Bonneville is a consummate comic actor with adroit timing, given the chance. He does the semi-posh banter of the well-meaning but maladroit Englishman as well as Hugh Grant but with greater range, able to move from pathos to invincible charm in one scene.
He was at his best in two British TV comedies playing a bumbling political placeman called Ian Fletcher, first as the head of a body called the Olympic Deliverance Commission, planning the London Olympics, called 2012, and again in W1A (zip code for the BBC’s headquarters) playing the Head of Values, lampooning the BBC’s love of self-important ethical direction. And he’s currently managing to hold his own on the big screen against a charismatic costar, a young bear who wears a red hat concealing a marmalade sandwich, in the adorable movie Paddington (also notable for a bewitching turn by Nicole Kidman as an evil taxidermist who looks and sounds remarkably like Anna Wintour).
Like the Queen, Bonneville is a figurehead far outshining the rest of the cast. However, as invaluable as he is to Downton Abbey, he can’t hope for the kind of career breakout that Bryan Cranston (another born comic talent) was able to make in Breaking Bad. Walter White didn’t just evolve from a delinquent high school chemistry teacher, in five seasons he went way off the reservation and became the most unpredictable and bizarre lead ever fashioned for television, wreaking mayhem among all whom he encountered. Lord Grantham, in contrast, even if he perceives his own doom, is as confined to his role as were his relatives who went down with the Titanic.
Among the women of Downton, the plum walk-on part has always been that of the family matriarch, the Dowager Duchess, in the terrifying form of Maggie Smith. All other spines may curve and soften with age, but the Dowager Duchess’s spine defies decay and gravity. She may not move with ease but she never bends to fashion or change. Head tilted slightly back, eyes full of disdain, she delivers withering one-liners from the part of the throat that shapes haughtiness. Here is one of Britain’s thespian treasures doing light work and relishing it.
In contrast, Lady Mary Crawley, from the beginning a magnet for lustful young bucks, is oddly unsympathetic. The character is written in a way that makes her appear to see her privileged life as victimhood. In the role, Michelle Dockery undermines her natural beauty by conveying the limpness of a half-cooked halibut, a female equivalent of the male “chinless wonders” so often seen in English period drama from Galsworthy to P.G. Wodehouse. It’s the wrong pitch for a romantic lead.
Other actors are so hobbled by the ostentatious sets, sartorial accuracy, and lack of character development that they end up being little more than talking wardrobes. The Crawley family is trapped in its own terminally boring rituals of attitude and behavior.
And this is where the stamina and resilience of the Queen’s performance is vastly superior.
For sure, she had a couple of missteps when she seemed to have lost the plot. A serious fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 did $50 million of damage and her first response was to expect the restoration to be made at the public expense, not from her own vast fortune. But she saw the error of her attitude and repented, opening Buckingham Palace to visitors in order to help meet the bill.
Then, of course, there was her response to the death of Princess Diana, when she remained too long on her Scottish estate rather than return to Buckingham Palace where her subjects expected her to show up to share their grief – in that case she made a recovery from the unforced error worthy of a Wimbledon champion.
Since then the Queen has kept herself serenely above the rest of the royal cast and their excursions. She has never betrayed any disquiet over her heir’s maladroit passage from the loss of Diana to his embrace of Camilla. This is the long-running tortured heart role that has at times cast Charles as the dark prince of the story, in which his personal spin doctors have attempted to counter the public view that he couldn’t wait be rid of Diana and moved with indecent haste to the woman who had, all along, been his real love.
The spin was never convincing. But that phase is over now. Camilla has grabbed the All About Eve plot line and, in supplanting Diana, become the pushy pursuer of the limelight, thrusting herself into the family photo ops as though she was always meant to have a lead billing. Charles, it is said, is happy and uxorious.
That said, Camilla has no chance against the new female lead among the next generation, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. Kate is Diana without the missionary zeal. She’s not going to rebel against what the script requires of her: everlasting fidelity and spellbinding glamour. The real question for the dramatist is where the story line goes after the Queen abdicates or, the more likely course, dies in the role. Will the country buy into Charles III and, therefore, endure that fate until King William V ascends and, eventually George VII – the current darling of the nursery – steps up?
It all seems too speculative for anybody to care, because the Queen’s presence is so commanding. This September she will pass an historic point, reigning for longer than Queen Victoria and thus become the longest reigning monarch in British history. At that point it seems to me that she deserves another accolade, a Lifetime Achievement Emmy for her role in that always compelling saga, Buck House (as many of her subjects call Buckingham Palace).
Meanwhile, the “Downton effect” has lifted what was already a boom in foreign visitors to the great houses and estates of Britain. This includes at least a million visitors annually from the U.S. who spend upwards of $1.5 billion on trips specifically to drool over the stately homes and estates (many being kept afloat by the income from visitors) – often beginning at Buckingham Palace.
When the Queen is away at her Scottish estate at Balmoral from August 1 until September 27, the state rooms at Buckingham Palace are open to guided tours. These rooms are a good deal more lavish than those in Highclere Castle, the country house that doubles as Downton Abbey.
Highclere’s occupants, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon and Lady Carnarvon were having a rougher time keeping up the place than Lord Grantham; at least 50 of its rooms were uninhabitable until 2009, when money from the TV production began flowing. This was followed by a surging new revenue stream generated by Downton tours, which are already fully booked for 2015.
However, Highclere is in fact not a castle but a 19th century pseudo-Jacobean country mansion, really a modest pile. The grandest of all English country houses, and the most impeccably preserved, is Chatsworth in Derbyshire, seat of the Duke of Devonshire, dating from 1549. Only 26 of its 126 rooms are open to visitors, but it’s the 12,300-acre estate that is the most jaw-dropping spectacle. Chatsworth’s landscaping is quintessentially English, using the natural setting as the frame for the best that sensitive gardening and land management can create, and on a scale that makes it truly glorious -- as well as real, not a facsimile for television.
The Devonshires, let it be said, have been powers in the land since the 16th century. Among the marquee names of the stately home business, the Windsors are relative parvenus. The House of Windsor dates only from 1917 when the family name was changed from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to remove all association with their German kin, with whom Britain was at war.