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Julien Allen on Downton Abbey (episode: Series 2 finale) and Howards End

“What class am I? Ah. That’s such a difficult question to answer. Today, if you are born to be the Duke of Marlborough, then your life is to some extent steered and guided and made for you. I don’t come from that group. I come from the group below, who might be asked to dinner occasionally but on the whole...you know, has to swim through the power of their own arms.”
—The Right Honourable The Lord Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, DL, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, BBC, 2011

Downton Abbey arrived in 2009, at a pertinent time for Britain. The first conservative (Tory) government in 17 years had just been elected and Britain’s voters—and TV audiences—found themselves abruptly transported back in time to an era when the toffs were in the ascendancy and the poor didn’t make much of a fuss. Created by Julian Fellowes—the Oscar-winning writer of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, with which Downton has, outwardly, more than a little in common—and coproduced with WGBH-TV, the Boston public television channel with a track record of importing British costume drama (notably 1999’s Wives and Daughters and 2006’s Bleak House), Downton Abbey very soon became a highly garlanded international smash. Jim Carter, who plays the head butler Carson, recalls being intercepted on a remote cycling trip to the Mekong river in Cambodia by a group of Asian tourists whose screams of “Mr. Carson” echoed through the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Four seasons later, some disillusion has set in—both with the Tories and with Downton—but the show continues to find favor with American critics and still illustrates what traditional Sunday night period-drama television can do well, while at the same time demonstrating the medium’s inescapable limitations.

Concerning itself primarily with the lives and manners of the aristocratic Crawley family (known as the Granthams, after their hereditary title) in the fictional Yorkshire seat of Downton Abbey, the show is structurally fixated on issues of class. Borrowing the model of the 1970s British television series Upstairs Downstairs, it apportions roughly half the running time to the Granthams (the exteriors and “upstairs” interiors of Downton Abbey are filmed at the stunning Victorian-era Highclere Castle in Berkshire) and half to the family’s staff in their “downstairs” quarters (shot on sound stages 3A and 3B at Ealing Studios). It also finds space to shoehorn in the middle classes, in the form of upstart third cousin, hunk-apparent and bourgeois heir-presumptive to the Downton estate: Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) who—to the Granthams’ initial disgust—is employed as an attorney. Fellowes himself, a Tory member of the House of Lords, is unsurprisingly more comfortable with the upstairs, but is far too adept a writer to patronize the servants and far too canny a storyteller to neglect them. The show’s immediate mass appeal owed a lot to its detailed and unusually sensitive dramatization of the less familiar demands of being “in service”: trying simply to live one’s life, when one’s life is entirely at someone else’s behest. Indeed, the show’s biggest early draws in the UK were Lord Grantham’s valet Bates (the “housewives’ favorite,” played by Brendan Coyle) and the object of his affections, the head housemaid, Anna (Joanne Frogatt). Fellowes’s even-handed approach to ‘downstairs’ offsets to some extent the more routine period dramedy delivered upstairs by the likes of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), whose biggest problems (despite her almost constant expression of weariness) tend to revolve around which of her many suitors to sleep with, and which to marry.

It’s important firstly to note that Fellowes’s treatment of class (he has said that “class marbles almost every aspect of our lives”) is fundamentally one of form, not substance: Downton Abbey is constructed as an entertainment around the subject of class, but seeks to provide very little substantial analysis, commentary, or political argument on it, concentrating instead on providing an account of the context within which its characters, its principal attraction, are more or less fortunate to exist.

Genteel and unthreatening as this sort of character-based television is designed to be (Sunday night is a time slot usually reserved for high-rating, nation-assembling, water-cooler television), there is an ease in the dialogue and a satisfying smartness at work in the shaping of the individuals by their historical and personal circumstances, and a surprising depth to some of the secondary performances. Maggie Smith may give the most demonstrative turn as the dowager Countess, for example (a veritable Kabuki theatre of eyebrow movements and disapproving looks), but her good friend Penelope Wilton (recognizable to some U.S. viewers from Match Point or as Simon Pegg’s mum in Shaun of the Dead) plays Isobel Crawley as if she were doing Hedda Gabler, and her slowly gestating, obstinately understated performance is probably as good as anything currently on television. Whether prepared to admit it or not, many enjoy Downton (myself included) and even love it, but few take it especially seriously, any more than one would take—for all its virtues—a P. G. Wodehouse novella especially seriously, because that would really be missing the point.

Yet at times the show does attempt to engage its audience more forcefully and aspires to a more enduring dramatic legacy. On such occasions, Fellowes has a regrettable tendency to pull the pin out of the grenade—delivering moments of high melodrama designed to make the audience gasp. (If viewers are in company, they will normally immediately chuckle at one another for doing so.) In the final episode of the second season, the bombshell in question was the decision by the family’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) to elope with chauffeur Branson (Allen Leech). This star-crossed relationship is set up during previous episodes and the stakes are raised by Branson’s unapologetic, outspoken Irishness and his shameless attendance at ‘socialist’ rallies (comprising little more than the sight of people talking fairly gently about politics in a public space, but obviously still disgraceful) as well as by modern gal Sybil’s egregious, episode-closing decision to wear “trousers.” The elopement plotline, then, smacks of the sort of narrative electro-shock an episodic series needs, but also hints at Downton Abbey’s principal preoccupation: the eventual erosion of the status of the landed gentry by the dilution of its blood, and with it, its moral authority. The show may deal with masters and servants, but it unquestionably sees the world through the eyes of the masters, something which the Downton servants themselves are duty-bound—and occasionally proud—to strive to do as well.

We have one of American independent cinema’s biggest success stories, Merchant-Ivory Films, to thank for a suitable point of comparison. The production company’s adaptation (written by the masterful Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who regrettably passed away, unnoticed by the film world at large, in 2013) of E. M. Forster’s classic novel Howards End shares many traits with Downton. These include first and foremost a central theme: the socioeconomic forces at work in England in the early years of the twentieth century. But they also have in common a central plotline—an illicit relationship between members of different classes—and a central conceit, which is that the stoic houses that give them their titles are intended as symbols of England, and their foundations ground each of the stories in the viewer’s mind, while events unfurl in and around them.

Leaving aside the relative strengths of the source material (this has to be a fair fight) and concentrating instead on their chosen methods of storytelling, the most superficially noticeable difference between Downton Abbey and Howards End is how much time the film seems to have to work with (especially when you consider that it lasts 140 minutes to Downton’s 2000 and counting). Plenty occurs in Howards End which would fill numerous episodes of Downton Abbey (an encounter, an affair, probate fraud, another affair, an illegitimate birth, an exile, a marriage, the revelation of a shocking adultery, manslaughter, familial humiliation, reconciliation), yet still, through its mature reliance on implication and suggestion, not one such plot development feels rushed or thinly presented. Furthermore, Ivory allows himself, despite the amount of story he has to get through, enthralling sequences of unhurried stillness and beauty that punctuate the action and enrapture the viewer—such as the dream walk through the bluebells and the lovers’ kiss on the river, where Bast (Samuel West) loses control of the oars and he and Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) veer into the weeping willow branches. These moments of poetry and lyricism are emblematically essential to the story of Howards End, but they also constitute a luxury, aesthetically speaking, which Downton Abbey simply cannot afford. The first and most intrusive demand of the television format is the obligation to move the action along; moments of stillness or silence—sequences portraying characters not speaking to one another—are a gamble. The makers of Downton Abbey simply can’t allow people to switch over or off once the commercial breaks kick in. By contrast, Downton’s postcard cutaways (of the house, the village, etc.) are pretty, but doggedly functional, signifying no more than where the next scene is going to take place. The most elliptical thing in Downton is quite literally the feather duster in the opening titles.

Jhabvala’s genius in adapting Forster is underlined by her readiness to espouse the novel’s symbolism whilst redacting its literary heft clean away. She was one of the very few adapters of great literature to recognize that over-literacy is the enemy of great cinema. In so doing, she places Forster’s philosophy about the need for the English classes to connect with one another—a stance which is quite earnestly, almost angrily, dealt with in the novel—into the mouth of a playful, almost naive Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson in wonderfully skittish, Oscar-winning form) then proceeds gradually to transform Margaret’s character into the voice of reason, as the drama around her intensifies. Despite its token protestations for and against modernity, no such central cause or voice drives Downton Abbey, whose characters are merely puppets in a show which relies heavily on dramatic irony: we are amused by their inability to see what lies in store for them. Downton Abbey may have some measurable historical or even educational value, but its principal purpose is to make its characters (and their story arcs) sufficiently attractive and interesting for you to tune in next week.

If that makes it sound like a soap opera, that’s because it is one. Its basic dynamics are no different from Coronation Street or Eastenders: multiple story arcs, love triangles, guest cameos (Shirley MacLaine, Nigel Havers), characters being abruptly disposed of when the actor in question leaves the show, others falling by the wayside through lack of audience interest, or being reinvented. It even has “Christmas specials,” one-off episodes for broadcast during the Christmas period—months after the season is over but designed as season-enders for America—wherein the audience is fully aware that something climactic will occur against a background of festive jollity. In a sense, then, Downton Abbey is a successful double throwback, not just to blockbusting period British drama like Brideshead Revisited and The Forsyte Saga, but also to the age of expensive American soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty, which were essentially aspirational—creating a fantasy world of opulence rather than seeking to dramatize real life—as opposed to soap operas like Coronation Street or in America, Guiding Light, which were early attempts at mirroring their audience, an empathetic approach now being gradually obliterated by the fairground cruelty of reality television.

Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast’s relationship in Howards End has its own tragic dimension, but it is also highly symbolic of a connection between classes and of a succumbing to artistic and political impulses. The sight of Helen and their child living with the Wilcoxes at Howards End in the mesmeric final shot of the film is filled with profound meaning and hope, built up by brilliant, incrementally emotive writing. If we look at what happens to Branson and Sybil, by contrast, after they have done the deed, the severity of television’s limitations begins to infect the drama: once the Granthams have shunned the couple for a plausible amount of time (but fearful of depriving viewers of the attractive Lady Sybil for too long) Fellowes gives them a child and has them return to Downton and her father’s grudging forgiveness. Shortly, Brown-Findlay, fresh from her success on the show, decides to pursue a film career, so in another (even more contrived) climax, Fellowes kills her character off, leaving poor old Branson to mope about the castle for another season and a half without any credible purpose, other than to put on a substantial amount of weight and remind the family from time to time that he’s not really one of them and that it might be a good idea if they occasionally paid a bit more attention to the poor. The child, meanwhile, is barely seen and only occasionally mentioned.

If one really believes (as we hear so often) that the television series format liberates writers to their own imagination, then one is ignoring the demands of ratings, star power, ongoing audience internet commentary, overseas sales, the passage of time, episodic narrative necessity, and most tellingly, the bitter consequences of simply running out of ideas. Contrast this with film and the imbalance is obvious: as a means of making a credible artistic statement, film already has a colossal advantage: it is self-contained and isn’t beholden to a need to secure repeat viewers. (Two recent exceptions to this rule spring to mind: David Simon’s The Wire, a television series commissioned and written in a purely self-contained context, with each series pitched as a complete story with no necessity for a further series; and Netflix’s House of Cards, each season of which is shot in its entirety and released onto the internet in one go, thus creating a prototype hybrid TV show/very long film, but subject to the same self-imposed narrative limitations as described above).

It is also often said that with the ascendance of HBO and subscription channels in general, television can now afford to be more risquĂ© than film with its themes and language. Without laboring this issue whilst discussing Downton Abbey (not all television needs to be raw, terrifying, or subversive), it is still worth mentioning that Howards End is frequently extremely shocking—consider the Basts standing starving at the Wilcoxes’ wedding banquet; Henry (Anthony Hopkins)’s treatment of Margaret when she confronts him about his affair with Jacky Bast; or the attack on Bast by Charles (a mad-eyed James Wilby)—sequences much stronger than any in Downton Abbey because the latter’s insistence on driving numerous plotlines and its constant renewal and replacement of characters prevents it from ever summoning the dramatic strength to involve us to the extent that Howards End does. Moments of supposed dramatic intensity in Downton Abbey (such as one belter in season 4 which I won’t spoil) feel forced and out of context: like barrel-scraping for ratings.

For anyone who believes culture is best woven from a broad loom, there is a slick, diverting quality to Downton Abbey that merits respect, but its adherence to the television formula means it simply cannot hope to compete as drama with a film like Howards End. Its characters, straitjacketed into their preordained roles, cannot develop or thrive when their purpose is just to deliver what the audience expects of them. Furthermore, the pleasure Julian Fellowes derives from studying class is principally in the observation—of its details and idiosyncrasies—rather than in any ideological motivation, and this approach perfectly suits the parameters inherent to a television soap opera. Where Fellowes might occasionally shed a privileged tear for a forgotten past, Forster anticipates and engages with the future with a political urgency that underscores and empowers his occasionally rhapsodic romanticism. Forster’s loathing of prejudice and his justifiable fear of an England where the Wilcoxes have their way (the primacy of commerce, the removal of society) contrasts strongly with the more indulgent historical sketches of Downton Abbey. Even if some of Fellowes’s characters yearn to “connect” (Branson and Lady Sybil, Lady Edith and magazine editor Charles Edwards), their bonds are principally presented as an inconvenience for the upper classes. The Granthams’ only connections are superficial and transitory, while the Schlegels and the Basts connect us all to the real world.