With the release of Downton Abbey in the US comes a new tide of commentary about the British drama, which seems to be captivating audiences on both sides of the pond in addition to ushering a new era of class dramas on television. Upstairs, Downstairs has been revived while Boardwalk Empire plays with similar themes in the US, and Ripper Street takes US viewers to Whitechapel during a notorious era this weekend. Amongst all that nostalgia for a bygone age come some fascinating social attitudes, as Veronica Horwell discusses in a superb piece for Le Monde Diplomatique exploring the British obsession with class dramas.
Downton Abbey is back on the airwaves after entirely too long away, just in time for a big round of Emmy nominations (and, sadly, relatively few wins). The ITV drama won’t be hitting US shores until January, when it will be back on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, but in the UK, viewers are already raving about series three, which takes us to the Roaring Twenties, where there are some serious roadbumps ahead for our manor family amidst the drop waists and cloches.
Downton Abbey is the best show on television this year, is it not? Or at least, it has the best frocks and hats on television at the moment (sorry Mad Men, you’re so whatever year it was that everyone was into you). There is romance! Hats! It has the glorious
Professor MacGongall Maggie Smith! And Harriet Jones, Prime Minister Penelope Wilton! And Susan Death Michelle Dockery! And other people of lesser nerdy significance! And in less explanation pointy things, it’s generally well scripted, acted and a sterling example of how well the English do period upstairs/downstairs drama. Anyway, now that we’ve established how amazing Downton Abbey is (and it really is), here is the bit where I tear it apart and make pretty shapes out of it.
In May 1910 the funeral of King Edward VII drew together such a parade of European royalty that even the powerful Republican envoys of France and the United States had to suffer the indignity of bringing up the rear of the procession. Resplendent on horseback over 50 emperors, kings, archdukes and princes masked the fact that the Old World nobility were cantering head first into the Great War and oblivion.
These monarchs of the Continental courts were so closely related to Queen Victoria that she was sometimes called the Grandmamma of Europe. War seemed impossible when no less than seven of her direct relations sat on European thrones and three of those were first cousins presiding over the most powerful nations on earth: King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
ABC’s Revenge is bringing some delicious class commentary to the table in what would otherwise be a fairly conventional (though still enjoyable!) television drama. Rich girl goes to The Hamptons to get revenge on the people who orchestrated her father’s downfall isn’t exactly the stuff of which radical television is made, no, not even when she’s swapping identities with someone she met in juvenile detention. Where things start to get interesting in the world of Emily Thorne and the people she’s targeted for revenge is that members of the servant class are not relegated to the background, but instead play fully realised roles in the narrative. Important roles, at that.
With each passing day, the Mississippi River nears or sets new flood records. This spring’s titanic rainfall in Missouri, Arkansas, and other states of the Mississippi Valley has threatened thousands of people’s homes and lives. While Memphis managed to survive the worst of the flooding, the river slowly flows on, toward Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the rest of Louisiana, all still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. On Saturday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway, flooding a large section of southern Louisiana, hoping to save the cities downriver.
People call this flood, as they call other natural disasters, an “Act of God.” This line of reasoning argues that tornadoes, hurricanes, naturally-caused fires, earthquakes, floods, and other disasters are uncontrolled by humans. Thus we bear no responsibility for the disaster.
Certainly this assumption is not entirely incorrect. Human beings hardly caused the Japanese earthquake. Despite the realities of climate change, we can’t say humans hold responsibility for any one hurricane, flood, or tornado. But natural disasters also put human inequality into sharp focus. Humans choose who bears the brunt of a given disaster, choices that often reflect long histories of race and class bias . The Japanese government invested in sophisticated technology to protect Tokyo buildings from destruction. It also placed nuclear power plants near earthquake fault lines.
We’re all in this together. We must share the sacrifice. The austerity narratives of deficit reduction are everywhere. Yet the facts show that this is a false story deployed cynically to achieve the pre-existing goals of the neoliberal decimation of the welfare state and the reduction of taxes for the super-rich.
The push has come, as it always does, primarily from the Right. John Nichols at The Nation points out that, “Republicans never cared about deficit reduction when George Bush was president. And, for the most part, they don’t care now — as evidenced by broad GOP support for House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan’s plan to keep the budget out of balance until 2040 while clearing the way to begin streaming federal Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid dollars into the coffers of Wall Street speculators and insurance-industry profiteers.”
Hold on to your hats on 3 April, because the Borgias are coming to prime time. Showtime announces that ‘The Borgias will be a complex, unvarnished portrait of one of history’s most intriguing and infamous dynastic families.’ Not content with US remakes of European television, apparently we’ve moved on to US remakes of European history. After the success of The Tudors, Showtime has obviously scented money in the water and it’s willing to back it up with serious investment, with an up-front order of 10 hour long episodes that can’t come on a cheap budget when you’re talking about depicting the circles of power in 15th century Italy. Gilt alone is probably going to run them more than I make in a year.
Starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia and tantalising us with creative talent like Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), the show promises to be filled with epic storylines, because the Borgias were no slackers when it came to leading action-packed, duplicitous, and scheming lives. US audiences appear to have recently acquired a taste for high-flying historical dramas, something audiences in places like Britain have already been enjoying for decades. I’m placing bets on The Romanovs next, given that the tragic downfall of royal dynasties is part of the appeal. We like royalty here, but we don’t like to let them get too royal.
UK import Downton Abbey wrapped up its stint on PBS last weekend, complete with an appeasing note to viewers already howling about the ending (gosh, I hope the outbreak of the First World War wasn’t a spoiler for anyone), noting that another season is in production and will hopefully be making its way here soon. Helmed by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park fame, the show has made a big splash on both sides of the pond, and no wonder; it represents British drama at its best, such a brilliant distillation of art and culture that producers in the US didn’t dare attempt to produce a hamfisted ‘adaptation’ to sully the airwaves, instead going straight to the source.
Set in the tense years before the outbreak of World War I, Downton Abbey could fall into the trap of glamorising the golden age. It’s certainly set up to do so, with the drama revolving around the lives of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family living in a great manor house, the titular character. And make no mistake, Downtown Abbey is a character in the drama, just as the costuming and setting also play vital roles.
Environmentalism has an image of being the politics of the left but in reality it is the most conservative political ideology imaginable. Centred on a disgust with the masses, environmentalism’s primary concern is locking the domestic working class and foreign poor into the chains of poverty that keep them from consuming the fruit of their labour. It could hardly be otherwise – after all, environmentalism sees the poor as being of lower worth than abstract, ahistorical and unscientific notions of ‘the environment’. Continue reading