Did Downton Abbey lead to Brexit? How ITV’s flagship drama put the upper classes on a pedestal

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an it really be 10 years since Downton Abbey swept onto our screens in a flurry of fascinators, evening gowns and forelock-tugging footmen? At this point, it’s customary to observe how it only seems like yesterday that Lady Sybil was giving the chauffeur the glad eye. But right now, the early days of Downton seem about as far away as the Mesolithic period. This was 2010, a time before Brexit and Covid-19. We had yet to fully understand how the world was being choked by plastic, how social media posed a threat to democracy and that politics was about to be hijacked by a parade of rich clowns. What sweet, innocent fools we were.

When it first aired on 26 September 2010, Downton’s impact was huge and instant. The reviews may have been lukewarm but viewers couldn’t get enough of it, and like the ancestral pile in which it was filmed, it soon assumed Grade I listed status. At its peak, ITV’s flagship drama was drawing audiences of over 10 million. It was also awards ceremony catnip, bathed in Baftas, Emmys and Golden Globes. Inevitably, America fell hard for the series, which did more for the British tourist industry than a thousand ad campaigns from VisitBritain. Even last year’s film version, in which King George V and Queen Mary descended on Downton, turned a decent box office profit. All of which seems weird when you remember that Downton Abbey was, in fact, absolute balls.  

In fairness, it was perfectly watchable balls. Julian Fellowes, aka Baron Fellowes of West Stafford DL, gave us a rose-tinted view of the English aristocracy, represented by the Crawley family, complete with pomp, ceremony, lavish interiors, beautiful costumes and Maggie Smith’s hatchet-faced Dowager parked on an ornamental sofa rolling her eyes at the absolute state of it all (killer quote: “What precisely is a weekend?”). Among the ferociously buttoned-up Crawleys, there were buried secrets, terrible tragedies, petty rivalries and ancient grudges. Most memorably, there was the clumsy disposal of the corpse of a Turkish diplomat who keeled over while attending to Lady Mary’s lady parts (the debate rumbles on as to whether her virginity remained intact). The whole thing was as ludicrous as it was easy to watch.

Mainly, it felt like escapism. How we chortled over the cartoonish buffoonery of the upper classes, with their odd dinner rituals – seriously, how many knives does one person need? – and nodded along with their talk of duty and propriety while gazing out over thousands of acres of land bequeathed via an accident of birth. The Fellowes fantasy meant that the Labradors never crapped on the kilim rugs and the peasants knew their place. In an unprecedented case of Stockholm Syndrome, the servants were fully in thrall to their gilded overlords, intent on maintaining the class-based status quo while rubbing their hands raw cleaning the silver. Even with Cameron and Osborne installed in Downing Street, we looked fondly upon these self-interested aristos who were too posh to get dressed by themselves. In this Sunday night soap opera, untold power resided in the hands of the rich and unqualified few. Oh, how we laughed.

“Like the ancestral pile in which it was filmed, ‘Downton Abbey’ soon assumed Grade I listed status"
“Like the ancestral pile in which it was filmed, ‘Downton Abbey’ soon assumed Grade I listed status”(ITV)

Should we blame Downton and its ilk for fomenting wistfulness for a time when Britain ruled the waves? Did Downton birth Brexit? That’s probably taking things a bit far, but you can imagine Nigel Farage experiencing a stirring in his corduroys at its picture-postcard scenes of cricket on the village green, afternoon tea and white faces all around. The series undoubtedly peddled a particular type of Englishness that put the upper classes on a pedestal and looked down its nose at anyone who had no truck with the feudal systems of yore. It’s significant that every time a socialist walked into the Crawley residence, they were either shouted down or converted to the capitalist cause.

From its compellingly daft beginnings, the series soon slid downhill, and revealed Fellowes, who had previously won an Oscar from his costumed whodunnit Gosford Park, not up to the job of sustaining multiple seasons. Mad sub-plots abounded, many of them wrapped up in roughly 20 minutes, or forgotten about entirely. Remember when cousin Matthew, shot in the downstairs department during the war, leapt out of his wheelchair to assist his fiancée Lavinia with a tea tray? Or when fake cousin Patrick arrived, face bandaged after sustaining burns during the war, to claim Downton as his birthright?

Meanwhile, the characters grew stodgier than Mrs Patmore’s plum duff. Mary expostulated, Edith whined, Cora purred and cousin Matthew bored everyone to death. A nation cheered when the latter died in a ditch at Christmas. Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham, the 7th Earl of Downton, became rooted to the spot in the library, squinting into the middle distance and spewing cod-Churchillian pronouncements about our changing world. Well if only the good Lord knew what we know now. 

According to Jim Carter, AKA Mr Carson, there’s now a second film on the way. More sherry please, Carson. We’re going to need it. 

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