Making a Costume Drama out of a Crisis

Jenny Diski

  • Downton Abbey: Series One and Two
    Universal DVD, £39.99, November 2011
  • Upstairs Downstairs: Complete Series One and Two
    BBC DVD, £17.99, April 2012
  • Park Lane by Frances Osborne
    Virago, 336 pp, £14.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84408 479 1
  • Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
    Head of Zeus, 320 pp, £14.99, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 908800 04 6

Alistair Cooke can be seen in an old TV clip, thanks to the bottomless well that is YouTube, carefully cross-legged, wearing a blazer, a discreetly silver-striped black tie on a pearl grey shirt, and what can only be called slacks. He sits on a high-backed black leather and polished mahogany library chair. Behind him to his right, hung on flocked wallpaper, is an ornately framed landscape painting winking ‘old master’, on the other side an overarching potted palm, between them a window hung with heavy, draped velvet curtains, and beneath his elegantly shod feet (the lasts of which must surely have been made and stored by Lobb’s) a fine oriental carpet. The whole set trembles with the weight of Vicwardian Britishness. ‘Good evening,’ he says in his immaculately trimmed mid-Atlantic accent, so reassuring that you wonder if perhaps he is going to sound the nuclear alert. He is very nearly the perfect benevolent-English-gentleman-in-America; nevertheless his calm, almost lazy intonation reminds me of the underlying menace in the same phrase when used by that other official (though, like Cooke, miscategorised) quintessential English gent, Alfred Hitchcock. Good evening.

Beginning in 1974, for the benefit of American television viewers, Alistair Cooke introduced every episode of the five original series of Upstairs, Downstairs. It wasn’t offered as slush or soapy escapism, but as classy and educational, shown in the Masterpiece Theatre strand of the Public Broadcasting Service (as were those other great English classics Morse, Prime Suspect and Midsomer Murders). Upstairs, Downstairs, Cooke explains at the beginning, ‘follows the life of a London family through the reign of Edward VII. He was the big bearded monarch who had a notorious appetite for bed and bawd, but nevertheless was known as Edward the Peacemaker.’ Nearly forty years later, in January 2012, Emily Nussbaum reviewed the first US showing of the second series of Downton Abbey in the New Yorker: ‘To let us know that we’re safely in the Masterpiece zone, Laura Linney, clad in a black cocktail dress, introduces each episode with a tense grin, as if welcoming us to a PBS fundraiser, which I suppose she is.’ In fact, she was explicating such complexities as ‘entail’ and ‘primogeniture’ to an American audience who had already been deemed to have too short an attention span to cope with the show, which had two hours cut from its British running time.

I write as an entirely partial observer. Victorian and Edwardian costume drama has never appealed to me. The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Lark Rise to Candleford, The House of Eliott, The Duchess of Duke Street: I never saw more than one episode of any of them. I even have to will myself to watch modern film or TV adaptations of Dickens, Trollope or James, and when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations, I refuse. This is not because I’m an anti-television snob. I watch TV and box sets of popular drama series in greedy excess. Westerns, thrillers, political, medical, legal and science fiction are welcome even when they’re dross. There’s no reason in principle why costume drama shouldn’t contain the elements that keep me staring at the screen during Justified, The Good Wife or Breaking Bad, but still I have to force myself to try to take an interest. It can’t exactly be the costumes; cowboys wear duster coats, medics wear scrubs, and even Columbo has a mac. Describe them instead as ‘period drama’ and ‘romantic fiction’ and I begin to understand my problem. I’m not even very interested in period cinema: Jamaica Inn is the only Hitchcock movie I’ve never seen, yet I regularly watch with pleasure some of his clunkiest films. Consequently, as well as never having seen a complete episode of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, I also failed to watch Downton Abbey when it aired, for all the excited chatter about it. However, thanks to the marvel of the box set and considerable determination on my part, I have now seen the whole thing (except for the final Christmas DVD). Having done so, I’m confident Americans should be grateful for the two extra hours of Downton-free life.

This latest crop of period narratives probably began with Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park (2001): at best, a mildly amusing self-conscious pastiche, though it wasn’t clear why a film-maker who could produce Nashville and Short Cuts would bother. The writer credited with Gosford Park was the now ennobled Julian Fellowes, who strongly disputes a claim made by the film director Monte Hellman that ‘the whole script was rewritten on set and not one of his lines of dialogue remained in the movie.’ Ten years later, the storyline and script for Gosford Park, minus Altman’s cinematic originality but retaining Maggie Smith as stock upper-class matriarch, found its proper level when Fellowes, understanding what it really was, both stretched and slackened it into a TV soap opera with frocks and pinnies. Although of course the pre and post-Great War setting permits a crowd-pleasing familiarity with fashion and the well-worked ‘world will never be the same again’ trope, the real trick was to steep it in nostalgia, not really for a period of history as such, but for period television. It’s about making yet another costume drama out of a crisis.

Downton Abbey pipped to the post the return of Upstairs, Downstairs, the TV programme it was being most nostalgic about. Jean Marsh, who devised the original 1970s series with Eileen Atkins and appears in both, believed Downton Abbey was a deliberate spoiler for their new version, which had been in difficult preparation for some three years. ‘It might be a coincidence. And I might be the Queen of Belgium,’ she was quoted as saying in a Telegraph article gleeful at the prospect of a ratings war. Eileen Atkins, in the Maggie Smith Memorial Grandmama Role in the new Upstairs Downstairs (it has lost its comma with the passing years), left after the first series; rumour had it that she wasn’t happy with the scripts. Upstairs Downstairs lost: it was not recommissioned after the second series. But it looked to me quite unlikely that Maggie Smith was much delighted with the leaden script of Downton Abbey. She seems throughout to be half-heartedly impersonating Maggie Smith playing an Edith Evans role: intoning Wildean wit comes easily to her, but she’s uncharacteristically wooden – the supposedly snooty cleverness just isn’t good enough. It’s not only the repartee that falls flat: the story-lines flare up, fade and then repeat themselves like an anxiety state. The more-honourable-than-his-masters serving man has his honour tested by unconscionable people so often and so tediously that it came as a tremendous disappointment to discover that in the Christmas episode I’ve failed to watch, he is pardoned and not hanged by the neck for the murder he didn’t commit. The inevitable Lady Mary exhibits her spoiled nature and then learns her lesson several times in each season, and the irredeemably wicked footman and his spiteful lady’s maid accomplice get their comeuppance and revert to type so frequently I wondered if the Road Runner cartoons weren’t the original template for the show. The dialogue simply plods along, exhausted with overuse, until it seems that the scriptwriter eventually just stops trying: towards the end of the second series, in one of the far too many overwrought romantic moments between the star and class-crossed lovers (yes, them), Lady Mary begins a sentence: ‘It may be a cliché, Matthew, but …’

‘Period’ might be thought to be synonymous with ‘historical’, but in this kind of popular fiction it is a quite separate category. Downton Abbey (like the original and the new Upstairs, Downstairs, and the upcoming rush of novels) is historical in much the same way that Gone with the Wind and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex are historical. It takes a familiar time, draws a horizontal line along an axis, and marks it out with peak events everyone has heard of, weighting them with their most commonplace interpretations. This is then used as a moving backdrop in front of which the cast stand still and mime their progress while reiterating received opinions. The basic story is from a pattern book which all incidences of this form more or less follow. Downton Abbey, for instance, begins by contriving an excuse – an inconvenient death on the Titanic – for anxiety about the earl’s succession. The sinking handily foreshadows the Great War, which will ensure that (we are repeatedly told, before it happens and afterwards) nothing will ever be the same again.

This ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ is the single motif that conditions all the plots of the books and programmes, which otherwise are undistinguished stories of love and money lost and won. Mostly the nothing that will ever be the same is the centuries-old entitlement of a small group of highly privileged people, for whom, for various reasons, we must feel sorry, both before and after the changes (in the old world they are limited in their opportunities by their class, and in the new by their lack of preparation). Downstairs, the underprivileged but at least working working classes, who look down on their indigent or immoral inferiors, follow, honour and echo the life lived above stairs. They grumble, but their status in their own eyes entirely depends on the continuing status of their betters. However, the times being what they are (then and now), a bright and underachieving female servant is permitted to make a personal connection with a bright underachieving daughter of the house: both have noticed the women’s suffrage movement and lost men or bits of men to the evils and heroism of war. Thus by 1918 the world turns, though hardly upside down, via the social movement of women in the aftermath of the war waged by men. The servant (quite frequently called Grace) might become a typist (and sometimes will have an Engels-reading brother), and the daughter of the house finds fulfilment as a nurse or an ambulance driver, before marrying very slightly below her station (although, as not-the-oldest-daughter, she could run off with an Irish radical or stay unwed). Finally, the Spanish Flu sorts out a few hanging plot points, or resolves casting issues for the next series.

At least on the television you can look at the landscape in the morning mist or the stitching on the blouses while you’re waiting for her to die so that she can marry him and he can disappoint her, while they flap about awaiting the arrival of the Prince of Wales, the start of hostilities, flu symptoms or an economic downturn of unprecedented proportions. In the literary versions even the most exquisitely wrought lace cuff is only as good as its description, and if that doesn’t rise above the competent then it’s just so many pages to get through before the end. Frances Osborne’s first novel, Park Lane, is written entirely in the present tense and largely in free indirect speech, and while, I dare say, the best of writers might produce a work written in that mode which you would want to go on reading after the first page, she is not among them. Although the romantic 19th and early 20th-century novel has plenty of form, with Mills and Boon, Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele, it appears that a new sub-genre of period romantic fiction has come into being. The publicity material for Park Lane is stamped with a quote taken from the Guardian, which is certain (although not, perhaps, as delighted as the publisher’s marketing department would like it to be) that the author of Park Lane will be in ‘the vanguard of what is surely an emergent genre: books that appeal to Downton Abbey fans’. The publisher insisted that the novel was ‘signed up well in advance of the Julian Fellowes TV drama’, so, although it seems in that case to have been a long time in the writing, the astonishing similarity of events, patterns of relationships and dullness of literary style between Downton Abbey and Park Lane are entirely coincidental. And really what is there to write about in the period 1914 to 1923 other than the marriage problems of the landed aristocracy, their household servants, the war, suffragettes, and the prior sinking of the Titanic that would account for the failure of primogeniture in the TV series and the orphaning of one of the characters in Park Lane? Original thought is not a requirement. And even if you shift the period back a few years, as Fay Weldon has done in Habits of the House (she does at least have a more practised writing and plotting hand than either Fellowes or Osborne), there is still the great tottering pile, inheritance and marriage problems, the chorus of wise and anxious servants living life below but watching life above, a big ship (the Oceania), and a Boer rather than a Great War. Although Weldon does add the falling value of land and new wealth from trade and banking to the promised decline of class, certainty and empire, the slightly varied period retains the same enervated central theme. It’s just that in Habits of the House, nothing is ever going to be the same again even before nothing is ever going to be the same again.

You can use the word genre instead of ‘bandwagon’, and set aside the snowball inertial theory of commissioning (SITCOM) books, TV and film (that is, more of the same will create an irresistible roll), but it is hard not to wonder about the timing of the current deluge of Vicwardian nemesis narratives. The temptation is to look back to the original Upstairs, Downstairs and remember that the early 1970s were, like now, a time of inflation, unemployment and economic and political uncertainty. Are we also trying to distract ourselves by wallowing in a time that dressed so much better and spoke so confidently of rich men in their castles and poor men at their gate? Are we easing ourselves into an idea of radical social upheaval, or comforting ourselves that it won’t be so bad and that nothing much will radically alter? The Downturn genre soothes, suggesting that although change will happen, it won’t fundamentally upset the proper order of things – the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity – if women get the vote and servants become typists.

The difference between the 1970s version of Upstairs, Downstairs and the current one is that Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins were concerned when they devised the original to write about the unconsidered underlives, even though, against their wishes, television executives finally overweighted the actual series with the upstairs glamour. Now, however, not only is Downton Abbey written by Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, but Park Lane, Downton Abbey’s very close relative, is written by Frances Osborne, descendant and biographer of the aristocratically incontinent Idina Sackville (whom the Daily Mail called ‘one of the greatest slags of her day’) and wife of the current chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Hon George Osborne. These purveyors of escapist fantasies of love and landed wealth come directly from the social world and political party that talks compulsively of ‘honest, hard-working families’ while giving us austerity and cuts in public spending for most, and tax breaks for the already wealthy and overpaid. The rich men and women in their castles are still dishing out charity to the poor men at their gate, but these days it is in the form of daydreams – circuses without bread.