Pop Culture Rewind: Downton Abbey

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Words|| Aylish Dowsett

As a British person, I often feel it’s my silent duty to love our film and television industry. Whether it’s a cosy drink in the pub, a crowd of quirky accents, or how tea seems to solve any disaster, our screens are always bursting with drama and antics. 

But who am I kidding? I absolutely adore British TV – and damn, we’re good at it. 

Downton Abbey has become a new obsession of mine and now holds its own spot as one of my favourite shows. But with 12 million viewers watching its first season, it really is no surprise that I would join their ranks. If you haven’t seen the show and intend to watch it, I’d stop reading now, or do so at your own peril; the Dowager Countess does not think kindly of rule breakers.

Filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, Downton Abbey aired from 2010-2015, with a 2+ hour feature film gracing our screens in 2019. We follow the Crawley family and their servants over a 15-year period, encountering no less drama than you’d see on a Christmas special of EastEnders. Tragic deaths aside (Sybil and Matthew, boo!), Downtown Abbey is a brilliant show, revealing the lives of the aristocrats and, most importantly, their working-class heroes. 

Don’t be defeatist, dear. It is very middle class.” 

The struggles of the wealthy can seldom be compared to those of the poor, yet Downton does just that. Even with money, the Crawley’s are faced with similar social restraints as their servants. The class ladder can rarely be climbed, but you can also fall from it. 

Sibyl and Tom Branson’s relationship sent shockwaves through the house. As the family chauffeur, it was considered a scandal for this to happen; even some of the servants were shaken (Mr Carson pulls the best faces). 

The 1911 census recorded that 1.27 million people were employed as domestic servants in the UK, and Downton has tonnes of them. Being the chauffeur meant Branson had to ferry his employers around everywhere, often working exhausting 14-hour days. But regardless of the gossip that was sure to circulate, Sibyl stayed with Branson (yes!) and even after her death, the family grew to love him. This, of course, caused quite the disruption downstairs. A chauffeur dining with the Earl? Unthinkable. Jealousy does do strange things to people (grumpy Thomas Barrow, snide butlers and fake pregnancies – yikes). 

But whilst Branson struggled up the class ladder, there were others who were tossed from it. 

Women in Downton do have positions of power, but they never quite match up to their male counterparts. Mary is set to inherit Downton, yet in the first episode of the series, it’s made abundantly clear by lady’s maid O’brien that “she’s a girl, girls can’t inherit.” 

As well as having no claim on their inheritance, women had (and still have, sadly), no control over their own bodies. Mary cannot have sex before she is married; Edith does have sex but must hide her illegitimate child for fear of scandal; and poor housemaid Ethel falls pregnant, gives the baby up and turns to sex work so she does not starve. Money and connections save Mary and Edith, whilst Ethel is left to fall out of society, as many characters like to remind her (I’m looking at you, Mrs Bird). 

“I’m not foul, Mr Carson. I’m not the same as you, but I am not foul.” 

As one of Downton’s resident villains, Thomas Barrow is usually seen lurking in hallways, plotting schemes and getting into trouble, all whilst smoking an awful lot. But what lies beneath his cruel exterior is rarely seen by the other characters: Thomas is gay. And being gay in the early 20th century was illegal. 

According to the UK National Archives, sodomy (plus bestiality) was first criminalised in 1553. Known as the ‘Buggery Act,’ the law stated that crimes were punishable by “pains of death and losses,” as well as penalties against their “goods and tenements.” It took until 1861 for the law to be abolished, but you could still face a minimum of 10 years in prison, public ridicule and crippling hard labour. It was only in 1967, that same-sex acts were (partially) legalised.  

Understandably, Thomas struggled with his sexuality during the show. And who wouldn’t? No one wants to be punished for something they cannot change. After miss-placed feelings for fellow footmen Jimmy and near arrest, Thomas attempts to ‘cure’ his homosexuality through an advertisement labelled as ‘Choose your Own Path.’ Methods of curing were not uncommon during these times and, along with drug use, also involved electrotherapy and covert ‘assisted’ sensitisation; in other words, homosexual thoughts would result in pain. 

Aside from Mr Carson describing Thomas’s nature as “something foul,” other characters on Downton attempted to help him. Along with Anna, Mr Bates, Mrs Hughes and Baxter, Robert Crawley also saved Thomas from harm. When Robert discovers Thomas is gay, he admits, hilariously, that if he “shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss [him] at Eton” he would have “gone hoarse in the mouth.” 

Thomas is a great character and I’m so glad he was included in the show. Even with all his schemes and attempts to destroy my favourite couple (Bates), he earns his place within the Downton family. Plus, he meets a cute guy in the film. Now my inner romantic can finally be happy. 

“Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”

Britain changed dramatically during the 20th century and the Dowager Countess did not approve. With the introduction of electricity, telephones, radio and refrigerators, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Dowager faint – or complain even more. 

Only the rich, like the Crawley’s, had this new technology. In 1948, only 2% of households had refrigerators, whilst the rest of the 98% had to salt, smoke, pickle, ice and dry their food before it turned bad. Mrs Patmore, head cook at Downton, is the most nervous of this new development. When Cora suggests they replace the iceboxes with refrigerators, Mrs Patmore deflects her questions, so she asks, “Is there any aspect of the present that you will accept without resistance?” to which she replies, “Well m’lady, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of my corset.” 

Brilliant, Mrs Patmore. I would’ve hated corsets too.

Amidst all these technological developments, however, an even bigger catastrophe changed the lives of everyone forever: World War One. From 1914-1918, the National Archives recorded that 886,000 military personnel were killed, along with many thousands of British civilians. And if war wasn’t awful enough, the world was hit with the ‘Influenza Pandemic,’ or more commonly known today as ‘The Spanish Flu.’ 

The pandemic killed 30 million people worldwide and the characters on Downton certainly felt its effects. After becoming a convalescent home for officers (much to the dismay of Carson), Matthew’s fiancé was killed by the flu. As with our current pandemic, this highlights, simply, that the flu can affect anyone. Money and status won’t save you – though it might make your deathbed a bit comfier.  

“I think accepting change is quite as important as defending the past.”

Downton Abbey is a truly marvellous show full of drama, comedy, and all matter of tomfoolery. 

Without its amazing cast of characters, Downton wouldn’t be the same. Every story is unique and significant, regardless of its circumstance. For too long, film and TV have focused on the lives of the wealthy. To have money, it seems, is to be somebody. And this is why shows like Downton are so essential. The aristocrats may have been important people, but so were the cooks, the butlers, the lady’s maids, the footmen, the housemaids and all of working-class society.

There would be no upper class if they were not supported by the strong souls beneath them. 

I’ve watched many period dramas and each one has enriched my understanding of my past, present and future. We tell stories to survive and remember; after all, stories are fundamentally human. And, with the advice of the Dowager close at hand, we may as well have fun as “life is a game, where [we] must appear ridiculous.”