A soapy new ITV costume drama called Downton Abbey, set 1912 in an English country house, a sort of Upstairs, Downstairs story about aristocrats and servants, debuted recently, to pretty huge ratings in the U.K. A taste:
A children’s choir singing “Every Breath You Take”? What glorious cheese! What’s not to love? Also: Maggie Smith, a goddess, stars. And it’s from Julian Fellowes, who wrote The Young Victoria and the deliciously snide Gosford Park, among other lush truffles of historical magnificence.
When you can’t take modernity, let alone reality, things like this — as far from our lives as it’s possible to find — can be the ultimate escapism. While adaptations have their own pleasures, as Moir observes, these pseudo-soaps can be even more engrossing— certainly more lurid — in the right mood. For Americans, of course, these just serve to reinforce our stereotypes and ignorant, sepia-hued misconceptions. But we do like having those things reinforced; it’s something of a national pastime, really.
Stein ropes a wide variety of British costume dramas into her deliberation, including UD, All Creatures Great and Small (which is more comedy than drama, but still), and the more recent Lilies and The House of Eliott. She wonders:
What is it that’s so appealing? Is it the juxtaposition of real social problems with tidy endings? Of the visual pleasure of costumes without having to wear the corsets? Of rules and rigor as an unlikely modern fantasy? Probably some of all the above, and, as Moir points out, a goodly dollop of anachronism. (And no doubt you could make a compelling argument here for the allure of Steampunk.) We still want modern values to win, of course — but maybe with some tea and cake thrown in, and how about a pretty hat?
For me, it’s the bottling up of emotion required by the (stereotypical) British stiff upper lip, until it just won’t stay bottled up anymore, which results in exquisitely drawn out encounters full of subtext and seething with feeling, and eventually explosive outbursts. Like in this simply delish moment from Downton Abbey — Upstairs, Downstairs it ain’t:
Perfectly lurid and wonderful, crashing modern sensibilities about what is or is not appropriate up against the notions of a century ago.
What do you think? What is the longstanding appeal of British costume dramas?
(I’ll be curious to see if there are major differences between how U.S. readers and U.K. readers respond…)
(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)
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