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Downton Abbey: A Look into the Past when Britain was once “ Great “

When Downton Abbey first aired on ITV on the 26th of September 2010, the producers, directors, writers and cast could not yet comprehend that Downton Abbey would become a world wide phenomenon proving that English period drama is always first class entertainment. And so it took off, becoming a TV show that was awaited by excited fans just like the next season of Game of Thrones.

The writers of Downton Abbey have always put the plot and the characters into a very accurate historical setting, what most of the fans admired deeply, and let the plotline and characters be driven by actual historical events rather than random made up plotlines. So the first season starts with the sinking of the Titanic, leaving the estate without a male heir, at the end of the first season World War One breaks out, then the Spanish flu hits Downton and on and on it goes, characters living through fates that are most likely to happen to you when living in the early 20th century. And of course the series stared some of the best actors from England such as Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter and no one else but the one and only Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess (more about her symbolic character later on).

The time period Downton Abbey is set in is a time when tradition, English culture, English national identity and patriotism are valued above everything else. Clearly, the time is 1914 and the nations of Europe are about to go to war but the spirit in which Downton Abbey characters live their lives still resonates within a lot of English people in 2019. Taking back control and taking back English national identity are just two examples of how Downton Abbey can be a mirror into the past to see that many English people still think like in the early 20th century.

One essential point about history and politics is that most of the characters in Downton Abbey love the way of life it used to be and are afraid of the changing times. The United Kingom has distanced itself from Europe and the general notion is one against foreigners. So the historical and political landscape in Downton Abbey sound quite familiar to a Brexit England. 

One major theme that runs through the entire series and the film is how such a great, exuberant and especially expensive household can be run even in changing and fast approaching modern times. At that time, after the Great War many such estates simply had to close down, noble families had to move to smaller estates because the economy could simply not afford such a household any longer. The modern period was approaching. But Downton Abbey and our heroes of the show would not say yes to changing times so soon.  The fact that Lady Edith did not want to have a personal maid any longer or the instalment of the wireless were just two of the many shocks the family and the household had to go through with the changes after the Great War.

The character who had to suffer through the most of these fast, new, approaching times was no one else but the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) who was always ready with a smart comment epitomising her very high standards of tradition and being English. One of them was when she had to use a telephone for the first time and did not quite manage it: “ Is this an instrument of communication or an instrument of torture? “ Or one of her most famous statements when a working relative told her he would have time on the weekend, she, being very confused simply asks: “ What is a weekend? “. In case you do not know what a Dowager Countess is doing in her life, fact is, she is not working mondays to fridays, so she has no idea what a weekend is because for her life is one long weekend.

So the question remains why this TV show in which the wealthy were idealised, women had next to no rights and servants seemed to be devoted to their employees like they were divine is why such a conservative show becomes so popular with the masses? The answer lies with the writer Julian Fellowes who always managed to romanticise Downton in the most convincing way possible. And the romanticization of the past was the perfect platform for a pro Brexit viewer. Now, of course, not all Downton Abbey fans voted for Brexit but the spirit of the show is similar to the arguments of Pro Brexit politicians. “ In the past everything was better “ Pro Brexit politicians feel very aggressive towards European politics and in Downton Abbey, after season 2, set in 1918, Europe, was regarded as a place you would not trust and would not want to be a part of.

At the same time the TV show presents the English way of life as one of the most beautiful forms there are. Throughout the plot it becomes clear that Downton Abbey is the heart of the community and therefore must be preserved. For Pro Brexit English politicians and voters English tradition and its politics must be preserved, changing times caused by the EU would destroy them. Simultaneously, every episode manages to create a beautiful image of the English romantic landscape and presents the English as a great nation because they have just won a World War and are a big empire. Of course all of this is long gone, Great Britain has not won a war in a long time and there is no empire left.

So this image of the romantic past is probably an appealing factor to many people who are English or who love the English just like me. For Brexit- leave voters the romanticization of the past is just another weak argument because when you look at the fates of some of the characters in Downton then you are certain you do not want to live during those times.

Nevertheless, Downton Abbey manages to unite a politically divided Kingdom (remain and leave voters) through the beauty and splendour of a once romantic kingdom that is so far in the past now that we can only wonder, if all of it really did happen. Because statistics do not lie, Downton Abbey the film achieved a box office record in the UK. In the film the beauty and glamour of the English upper class is on the forefront again but towards the end when the blue danube waltz is played it is the Dowager Countess, the epitome of English tradition, history and value, who realises something no Brexit voter or politician would ever admit under torture. She argues that she is happy and does not worry about the fact that her grand children do not live the same way as she did. History is always a course of change, sometimes it is even necessary to accept change or otherwise you will be left out and be left behind. And in all her wisdom she embraces the modern way of life and the changing times. The estate Downton Abbey will adjust to the new times, just as it always did in its hundreds of years of history. It’s glamour and splendour will change but be remembered. Everything has got it’s time. The time of Downton Abbey and the United Kingdom that is not so united anymore is memory. Great Britain will very soon just be Britain.

But of course the Dowager Countess gives us also an explanation why so many English wish for the old times, why they regard themselves as different from the rest of Europe. In one of the final episodes of Downton Abbey a friend asks her why the English are so different from the rest of Europe and the Dowager Countess simply says: “ Some say because of our unique history. I personally blame the weather. “

So there you have it, whatever happens in the next couple of weeks Brexit deal, no Brexit deal, elections or another referendum, whatever the outcome, you can blame the weather and watch Downton Abbey.

2 comments on “Downton Abbey: A Look into the Past when Britain was once “ Great “

  1. Sandra sagt:

    An Dir ist ein Journalist verlorengegangen…- wobei, was nicht ist, kann ja noch werden – nach diesem Artikel bieten Dir sicher bald namhafte Zeitungen eine eigene Kolumne an.
    Ist zwar wahrscheinlich nicht primär Dein Berufswunsch, aber doch durchaus eine von vielen Möglichkeiten…. – I’ll stay tuned!!!

    Gefällt 1 Person

  2. Ein sensationeller Text: brillant geschrieben, glasklare Analyse, weitblickende Interpretation… Eine glückliche Bereicherung der literarischen Landschaft des WWW. Mehr solche wohltuenden intelligenten Sprachoasen!

    Gefällt 1 Person

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