The truth of Downton Abbey
Posted on 15 November 2010, 22:25
There’s trouble at Downton Abbey, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that her Ladyship wins the ‘Best Bloom’ prize in the village every year. Some think there’s a thief about; a liar even.
Downton Abbey, the Sunday evening period drama on ITV, has proved a great commercial success. Set in 1912, it follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their remarkable number of servants. A heady combination of Lords, kitchen maids and large fire places, it’s a cross between ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and ‘Brideshead Revisted’ and with overall viewing figures of 11 million a week, ITV have already commissioned a second series.
It was created and written by Julian Fellowes, the man behind the much-lauded film Gosford Park, another tale of life in a stately home. But instead of feeling present delight, he is, in his own words, ‘weary and depressed’. Why? Because Fellowes stands accused of stealing plot lines from other stories and not being historically accurate. Christina Davies, writing to ‘The Daily Telegraph’, said she was ‘slack-jawed’ whilst watching events unfold in the Flower Show scene. ‘Precisely the same thing happened in the film Mrs Miniver, which I had seen the week before!’ Apart from borrowing scenes from other shows, some also believe that the picture presented of Edwardian England is a little too cosy. ‘There just wasn’t that degree of contact between the upper classes and the lower classes. Things were much more separate.’
Fellowes doesn’t refute the allegations directly, but does tell us how he feels about them. ‘All we get is permanent negative nit-picking from the left. You just want to say relax! There are plenty of shows I don’t like on television but I don’t go on about them.’
Fellowes is the victim of unhelpful categorisation. We talk as if there’s a difference between fiction, history and news, when no such distinction exists. We talk as if one is somehow purer than the other but none are pure in themselves. All fiction is borrowed, all history interpreted and all news edited. This is why, as Proverbs says, the last speaker always seems most convincing: we haven’t yet spotted what they’re choosing not to tell us. If we find truth anywhere, it’s because something is discovered within ourselves by something outside ourselves. It’s called revelation. But as Jesus knew, such enlightenment is as likely to arise from made-up stories as from anything else.
In the end, it’s all just story telling; and once we put down our compulsive categorising, we become much more present to the truth of the moment. Shakespeare stole the story of Macbeth – what we’d now called plagiarising – but if that is our only concern as we watch, we are to be pitied.
My particular moment of enlightenment last week came from Downton Abbey’s troubled cook. ‘Don’t put sugar on the strawberries too soon,’ she said, as they were sent upstairs. ‘It ruins the effect.’