News! The actress Jessica Brown-Findlay, who plays the youngest, “political” daughter of Lord Grantham in the Edwardian soap opera Downton Abbey, has said that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge told her they watch the show, and they love it – which means I have something in common with them.
This set me off on a mad royal-themed daydream as I imagined the royal couple watching Downton Abbey on TV, and remarking on the behaviour of the TV servants, and the look of the TV palace. Downton Abbey is a cultural octopus. No-one is safe, not even people with servants who actually live in palaces and own Labradors. Why?
First, let us look at what Downton Abbey is. Because TV is now our mass culture, it is interesting to analyse hit shows. From examining The X Factor, for example, you will learn that roughly 50% of the population is credulous because they think that Louis Walsh is a caring person, while the other 50% is merely cruel because it likes watching him lie to people about their dancing. And from watching Strictly Come Dancing, you can learn that Bruce Forsyth is immortal. But what is the meaning of Downton Abbey?
Julian Fellowes, who wrote it, says he doesn’t know, because he is posh and to be posh means you have to pretend that good fortune happens solely by accident, and you had nothing to do with it despite having written the brilliant script. The Earl of Carnarvon, who owns Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, thinks people love it because they miss the feudal system because the feudal system made people feel secure. Nothing makes a woman feel more secure than scrubbing a floor is this argument, which I think sucks.
“I think Downton Abbey is brilliant because it looks like a costume drama but behaves like a soap”
The actor Jim Carter, magnificent as Carson the butler, thinks it is due to the enormous cast and the fact it is not The Bill. Others think it is solely due to the presence of Maggie Smith, while yet more think it is the triumvirate of hotties Dan Stevens (presently paralysed), Hugh Bonneville (presently trapped in a script that makes him behave like a philosophising guineapig) and Brendan Coyle as the Heathcliff-esque valet, whose sex appeal is baffling yet unanswerable. Me, I think Downton Abbey is brilliant because it looks like a costume drama but behaves like a soap. The characters change personality every 12 minutes and the storylines zoom all over the place, like a malfunctioning motorcycle made of posh.
But what is in it for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge? Is watching ITV1 really more fun than counting the rooms in your castle? Do they like it because Downton Abbey is an advert for the class system, and thus for a constitutional monarchy, and thus for them? If so, they are watching a promotional video for their own existence. The aristocrats of Downton Abbey – apart from Lady Grantham, who is American and thus irrelevant – are noble and selfless, and are always arranging for servants to win flower competitions or die at home. In fact, the Edwardian aristocracy was all about insane overconsumption of claret, and shooting ducks. But in the TV version, the baddies are always servants; in fact, they are the servants who hate the class system and moan about it. The toffs, meanwhile, are saintly; even Edith, who used to be a bit evil, is now throwing concerned looks everywhere.
This is the sophisticated analysis, but I think the truth is simpler. Why do the future king and queen spend Sunday evenings on the sofa watching the soap described above? I’ll tell you. A lot of money is spent trying to convince the general population that the royal family is different from us (and better than us) and therefore need huge subsidies, to spend on holidays and clothing and servants. Apart from this, they are actually the same as us; the Queen loves Tupperware and cereal, and is, I am fairly sure, wearing NHS glasses as I type. And now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have come out to say they love Downton Abbey. By their taste in TV shall thou know them.
Stylist’s regular columnist Lucy Mangan is back in two weeks in issue 101
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