Of Downton Abbey and it’s ilk


As an ex-pat in rural New England, there are two sides to being English ‘over here’, the most noticeable is the upside, everyone thinks being English is really neat, even my foster daughter has blogged about it. People ‘love’ your accent, want to tell you what village their ancestors came from, or their experiences when they were there during their military service, which I actually quite enjoy, it’s a great ice-breaker.
I have some stock lines which I use, almost on a daily basis, for instance when someone is trying to figure out my accent, which unfortunately has faded to what can only be categorized as a rather awful mid-Atlantic drawl, when they ask “Where are you from?” I will tell them the name of the small rural New England town I am living in right now, which is obviously factually correct, but not in the spirit of the question. That question is usually followed up with something to the effect of “your accent……”. My stock reply to that is “I like to think of it as a traditional New England accent.”
If the conversation then takes its usual form, we will then progress to “How long have you been here?’ To which the answer is “Some say too long.” We might touch on subjects like, “Do you like it here?” and “Would you ever go back to England?” These questions have been asked enough of me in the years I have been here that I have fairly well rehearsed answers to them, and I will answer in the positive, I mean, I wouldn’t stay here if we didn’t like it here right? I find America and Americans incredibly interesting, frustrating at times, but very lovable.
One thing I don’t have is a large community of ex-pats that I ‘hang’ with, unlike other immigrants, after all, I came over to get away from my fellow Englishmen right? Of course there is the Irish lady who goes to the same church i do, whenever the national Anthem is played, for example every sports game, we both stand with everyone else, but do not put our hands over our hears or sing, we merely glance at each other and smirk, knowingly. Then there is the local restaurant manager who is a northerner, the local DMV clerk. but that’s about it, we don’t get together, or form any identifiable community.
Then there is the downside, you are expected to be a representative of your originating country, an expert on it, and a source of knowledge on it. As a history major in college, I am easily suborned into being, or trying to be an expert in English history, where a childhood of being taken around Castles and museums, together with my interest in the subject can make me rather a bore. Unfortunately there is a phenomenon in the US that has been identified by many comedians and cartoonists, that anything said in an English accent, or by an Englishman, sounds far more genuine and intellectual than the same thing said in an American accent. So while I do pride myself of a certain amount of knowledge, even when i am completely off target, at least it sounds like I know what I am talking about.
Which brings us to Downton Abbey. Just really the latest and most popular series which promote a romanticized, nostalgic version of English history which, by virtue of its popularity threatens to become the dominant narrative. I can recall the problems in Italy after Dan Brown’s ‘The DaVinci Code” came out, where tourists would go to Italy and demand to see things which had been invented by Dan Brown, and the tourists were terribly disappointed that they did not have a basis in reality, and were actually fiction. Now I have tried watching just one episode of Downton Abbey, so I am no expert on it, but from that I saw, the relationships I saw bore little relationship to the rather more stark reality of master / servant relations in English society in the 17th and 18th centuries. As for what work was depicted in the series, from what I saw, they completely failed to relate how incredibly hard life was for the servants. of course it is difficult for a production to show very young girls going into ‘service’ and working from before sun-up to late at night, cleaning out fireplaces, scrubbing floors, polishing silver, dusting, beating rugs, all for a pittance with absolutely no time off to ‘relax’, when they did get time away from the workplace, it was usually highly proscribed by their master, they would have to attend church or other acceptably controlled activity. And of course there was no allowance for individuality or personalities, they would have to toe the line and be compliant or face dismissal with no character reference, which would mean no possibility of future employment. And all this was seen as a step up from the usual forms of employment, such as in the mines or in the factories, where the possibility of injury or death was higher, so jobs as domestic servants were prized as ‘clean’ and safer.
So I said all that to say this, I don’t like Downton Abbey, not did I like The Tudors for similar reasons, but unfortunately they have become the modern narrative for Americans to understand, or think they understand, English history, which is of course a horrible travesty. I told the tale in a previous post of the experiences I had an a British Constable while once searching a Castle Keep after a burglar alarm. This post came to my mind after my daughter asked about a town near where i grew up, which has the same name as a town in this state, and was used recently in an animated movie she had seen recently, which prompted me to tell her about the castle there, and we looked up some picture of it online, which were, of course, beautiful. What bothers me about this is that her perception of Castles, and other aspects of English history, will be more influenced by shows like Downton Abbey, than it would ever be influenced by actual learning about the history as it really happened. Of course shows like Downton Abbey do not themselves operate in a vacuum, and to twist the words of Umberto Eco, who wrote “The Name of the Rose”, and said that “books talk to other books.” I feel that movies, books, TV shows, radio programs, advertisements, they all talk to each other in a shared consciousness or lens by which we understand events around us.
Shows like The Tudors influence other, latter shows like Downton Abbey, because they are first successful, and promote a version of history which is experienced using the social assumptions and stereo types of today, or in other words, they look at events or possible dramatized historical events through a modern lens by which modern values are used to evaluate and judge a presentation of historical events which it may have no business addressing. Then these distorted reality shows of the past, being popular and successful, influence other distorted historical reality shows, books talking to books, movies talking to movies, TV shows talking to TV shows.
With the propensity of Hollywood to produce shows and movies which are re-makes of older shows or movies, Terminator. Mission Impossible, the producers seem to take delight in echoing plot devices, in particular scenes from the earlier version, which had already been linked to in other movies, and echoing it again in the remake to evoke emotions in the viewer that remind them how much they enjoyed the original time they heard that turn of phrase, or saw that scene. We all partake of this in our own lives when we repeat phrases we share from movies, for instance by saying ‘I’ll be back.” one would be popularizing the movie Terminator. This would be a simple level of talking about movies, the phrase has entered the popular lexicon. If that phrase were then to be used in another movie, some years later, for instance Terminator II Judgement Day, it would be at the second level of use in the popular lexicon. If someone were to watch Terminator II with the second use of it, and use the phrase in everyday life, the phrase has now entered a third level of use, and the person using it may never have seen the original Terminator movie which popularized it. In another example, the original Mission impossible series used the phrase “This message will self-destruct in ……” This became a popular phrase, and so was re-used in both the later series and the even more modern movies, and so seen and used by viewers who had never seen the original series and it’s use of the phrase which popularized it in the first place.
Now where i am going with all this is that the perception we all have of both our current society, and historical events, which mapped the course of how we arrived at our current situation, is seen through the lens which are not necessarily very accurate. I would hate to think of people meeting me and thinking that I come grew up in a world something like they see in Downton Abbey. As to myself, I live in a mostly rural new England state, with limited ethnic diversity does exist, but I would hate to think of trying to relate to one of the locals of Somali descent by my understanding of the movie Back Hawk Down.

All that has taken me some distance away from what I was originally trying to say, that with the popularity of Downton Abbey, I often get asked if I have seen it, obviously the answer is no, nor will i discuss it with you, except to put it down, which is just going to annoy you because it is obviously a favorite of yours, now would you like to talk about Dr. Who?


About limey6

Father of four, husband of one, Ex-pat ex cop Englishman living in rural Maine
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