Is Downton declining?


Alden Graves

In one episode of the BBC’s peerless comedy, "Are You Being Served?", the staff at Grace Brothers Department Store in London was discussing the pros and cons of good breeding in England. The country’s ultimate sociological slur, "dead common," had occasionally been directed at Miss Brahms and she took criticisms of her background to heart.

The formidable head of Ladies Intimate Apparel, Mrs. Betty Slocombe, offered her some comfort. "You know," she said, "in ‘Upstairs Downstairs,’ some of the best parts were downstairs."

"Downton Abbey" might be regarded as the heir apparent to "Upstairs," that originally ran on British television from 1971 until 1975. Richard Bellamy, a Member of Parliament, lived in a grand London townhouse with his aristocratic wife and a staff headed by a Scottish butler named Hudson.

In "Downton," Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, lives on a much grander estate with his wealthy American-born wife, Cora. The couple has three daughters of varying feistiness, Mary, Sybil, and Edith. The staff would be sufficient to manage the household chores at the Winter Palace. It is overseen by an imperious but endearing butler named Carson, whose past as a vaudeville performer was a revelation that sent a minor tremor throughout the household. (They all recovered nicely and moved on to the next crisis.)

"Downton" begins in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic caused a disruption in the line of inheritance of the estate, the lucky beneficiary being among the 1,500 unlucky casualties. The series has progressed through the First World War and advanced to the beginning of the 1920s, a period when declining social conventions and Prime Minister Lloyd George’s populist sympathies threaten the pinions of the gilded world that people like the Crawleys have glided through for ages.

(If you are among "Downton Abbey"’s legion of fans and have not watched the series to the conclusion of its fourth season, read no further. The column is rife with spoilers. )

I’m not certain that the best parts of "Downton" all happen downstairs -- who can forget Mary’s induction into womanhood! -- but there can be no doubt that the pivotal event of the most recent season happened there. It seemed to be as traumatic for viewers as it was for Anna, Mary’s maid, who was raped while everyone else was enjoying a concert in a room above.

Anna is easily the drama’s most sympathetic character, the perennial calming eye in the hurricane that always seems to be battering the interior walls at Downton. She is devoted to her husband Bates, who is Lord Grantham’s manservant. He has a dark side and a shaded, if not quite shady, past.

Anna is his second wife. The first Mrs. Bates (imagine Cruella de Vil with a British accent) turned up dead after she refused to give her husband a divorce so that he could marry Anna. Bates was tried and found guilty of murder. He was released from prison after a witness admitted to lying.

Anna kept the sexual assault to herself out of fear of what Bates might do. She withdrew into a distracted silence, reacting to her husband’s touch as if it was a snakebite. He noticed the change in her immediately. It fell to the housekeeper, the redoubtable Mrs. Hughes, in whom Anna had confided, to expain what had happened. Although she didn’t name his wife’s assailant, Bates was fairly certain who had done the deed.

We have now progressed to a recurrence of the minor "c" word that "Downton" is becoming a bit too comfortable with: Coincidence. The rapist is killed under the wheels of a tram in London. His demise coincides with Bates’ unexplained absence from Downton. (He just felt like getting away, we are told.) It evokes a kind of deja vu in the viewer, given the abrupt and similarly convenient departure of the late and unlamented first Mrs. Bates.

It is, however, the next revelation that exposes the cracks that are spreading along Downton’s once rock-solid foundation. A particularly egregious example of the major "c" word rears its ugly head: Contrivance. The question of whether Bates provided the propellant that landed the villain under the tram is left unanswered. But, eight months later (italics intended), after Anna donates her husband’s old coat to the needy, Mrs. Hughes discovers a train ticket to London in the pocket. It puts Bates in the city on the day of the death. (You can almost sense Agatha Christie turning in her grave.) He realizes immediately how incriminating the ticket is, prompting the obvious question as to why he didn’t simply destroy it or, conversely, why there was any reason to remember it at all if he is guiltless?

"Downton Abbey" is still one of the most literate dramas on television and it features magnificent production values and a brilliant ensemble cast. My questions may all be answered next season, but hopefully they will be proffered with a little more finesse than the clumsy manner in which they were posed.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.


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