I’ve been rewatching Downton Abbey. Again. To my shame, this isn’t just lockdown boredom hitting home. As I near the end of season three, I’m closing in on four beginning-to-end binges in the last few years. It must be comfort viewing, I think, one of those shows you watch when you’re exhausted because they can’t surprise you and they feel snug. It must be, because there’s nothing particularly great about Downton, is there?

That didn’t stop millions watching, back in the day. The first episode was broadcast eleven years ago. But Downton’s star has waned, and we don’t remember just how popular it was. Take the second season, for example. Upstairs, Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew inched closer to one another. Quite literally — their flirtation consisted of standing a couple of centimetres nearer each episode, and looking a little bit less like they hated one another. Meanwhile, downstairs, the repressed footman Mr Bates was tried for a murder he definitely committed. But he was falling in love with Joanne Fogg’s bashful Anna, so we cheered when he won a reprieve.

“Somehow, in 2011 — a year that included Game of Thrones’ first season, The Walking Dead’s second and Breaking Bad’s fourth — it was the most critically-acclaimed show in the English-speaking world.”

It was EastEnders with posher accents and fewer smiles, the perfect fodder for 9pm on a Sunday. Transpose the plots to Cornwall and — congratulations! — you’ve created Poldark. But somehow, in 2011 — a year that included Game of Thrones’ first season, The Walking Dead’s second and Breaking Bad’s fourth — it was the most critically acclaimed show in the English-speaking world. That’s actually perplexing: those other shows are titans that started TV’s Golden Age, and have become established members of the small-screen Pantheon. What, exactly, meant Downton Abbey could stand alongside them? It must have something going for it, surely?

In a typical episode, Mrs Patmore would bang some pots in the kitchen and shout about the duck not roasting fast enough, while Lady Edith would simper vaguely and Maggie Smith would teeter around, asking: “Pray tell, what is a telephone?“. The servants happily knew their place while the aristocrats happily aristocrated about a library where nobody ever read a book. It wasn’t just what Steven Moffat called “really, really long establishing shots and people in posh frocks having conversations about things they already both know.” It was that, but the establishing shots were really, really, really, really, really long. And why wouldn’t they be, with the spectacular backdrop of Highclere Castle to roll out every time a messenger runs up from the village with a letter? Why not do that every episode?

The oft exploited vista of Highclere CastleTWITTER/GODSAVESTAVE

The closest Downton got to plot development was when Lady Mary glared at her father with even angrier eyebrows. Nothing ever changed, nobody ever aged, apart from the family dog, who was bumped off when they spotted she was called Isis and about thirty years old. Nothing fundamental had to change, though, because the joy of Downton was its familiarity, its slowness. Like the royal family and Coronation Street, the major plot points were all births, marriages and deaths. It moved at the pace of life.

“The joy of Downton was its familiarity, its slowness. Like the royal family and Coronation Street, the major plot points were all births, marriages and deaths. It moved at the pace of life.”

Back when iPlayer was still a novelty, any flagship TV show on a major channel would end up getting discussed at your local watering-hole, so we all knew a bit about the shape of the characters’ lives. Cousin Matthew’s demise in the Christmas Special was the biggest festive crisis since the USSR dissolved on Boxing Day ’91. And in those last years before the Netflixication of British telly, you could get away with a show that drip-fed us a slow weekly plot. The days when the BBC would release all ten episodes of Normal People at once were a long way off. And, to be frank, we had nothing better to watch.

Mary's cousin/husband met an untimely death in an accident after surviving both World War I and a Spanish flu epidemicTWITTER/VERLORENFUCHS

Maybe that’s why people fell in love with a saccharine Upstairs, Downstairs knockoff. But wasn’t there something about it that tapped into undercurrents in the national consciousness? Wasn’t that what they said at the time? The show’s time on air coincided exactly with the coalition years. A lot of commentators thought it offered a glimpse of the high life to a population living through austerity, and gave roots to an increasingly alienated workforce. It was a benevolent escape, their narrative went, to a historic world of steady income, steady manners and passing the port to the left.

But that view of Downton as sunlight in the gloom ignores that the show was created by a pliant member of the very government that created austerity. Julian Fellowes, or Julian, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, as his mum calls him when she’s cross, has voted with the Tory whip 320 times, and has never rebelled. It seems unlikely that he’d have wanted to just offer light relief from the policies that he helped put in place. Forget the small plot lines about Daisy putting salt in the pudding, and take a look at the broader drama. What was Downton’s goal?

“From the dialogue to the near-ubiquitous anachronisms, the show was historically incorrect in just about every way. But more perniciously, it created a whitewashed, union-jacked past.”

It clearly wasn’t historical accuracy, or an attempt to show things as they actually were. From the dialogue to the near-ubiquitous anachronisms, the show was historically incorrect in just about every way. No working-class Yorkshireman would have said “girlfriend” in 1910, Jules. But more perniciously, it created a whitewashed, union-jacked past. You might notice that the only servants who question authority or show left-wing tendencies are cast as evil; that Lord Grantham’s money comes from farming and his American wife Cora’s railway fortune, not the slave trade that underpins most country houses. The only people of colour in the entire series, Mary’s short-lived lover Mr Pamuk, and Rose’s short-lived lover, Jack Ross, were practically the only characters based on real historical figures. Perhaps you might just have found a submissive population of white, straight people in Edwardian Grantham, as Fellowes seemed to suggest. But when they went to London, or the trenches? It’s almost impossible.

One of the few characters of colour in Downton, Kemal Pamuk, was played by white actor Theo JamesTWITTER/DOWNTONABBEY

Downton’s popularity meant its inaccuracy must have influenced, in some small way, domestic (and foreign) perceptions of Britain’s past. What we see on TV becomes our mental image of bygone days. You only need to look at how often Downton comes up when Americans talk about Britain to see that Fellowes succeeded in importing his conservative worldview into millions of minds. When that sort of fictional past becomes accepted as historical fact, it leads to the belief that Englishness = whiteness, and that tradition = oppression. By the time the show had finished airing, the British public had decided that Nigel Farage was our most patriotic politician.

“The show didn’t offer an escape — it offered a delusion.”


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The country house genre that Downton leeched off is so popular, that the English canon can sometimes seem hard to distinguish from the National Trust Guide to the South-East. Thornfield Hall, Brandham Hall, Mansfield Park — lovely day trips. But Brontë, Austen and Pinter wrote stories about those houses so they could ask questions about what they represented. From its inception, the genre critiqued stiff-upper-lip Englishness and the colonial foundations on which it was built. Downton never did that. It asserted those sensibilities over and over again, telling the world that Britain was a polite nation with a mannered past.

The show didn’t offer an escape — it offered a delusion. In the hands of someone like Fellowes with a rose-fogged, ideological view of the past, “historical” drama is a very powerful tool, a rubber to erase the past. But it is also a tool that we can repurpose. I’ll keep rewatching Downton. But I’ll keep wishing, too, that we had more costume dramas that show a different past: that Gentleman Jack’s lesbian corset-rippers and Bridgerton’s Black Queen Charlotte become as familiar as Lord Grantham and the Dowager Countess. I’ll keep hoping that our image of England can be remade.