As a Downton hate-watcher I am ready to give the last of the series a fitting send-off, writes Aidan Smith
It’s Christmas with my wife’s family this year and because none of us can accommodate the ever-expanding clan under our respective roofs, her parents have rented a big hoose down Dumfries way. Before I go any further I should say that – crawl, crawl – this is a generous act for which we’re all extremely grateful. But how long before I crack the first Downton Abbey joke? Oh, about 3.4 seconds.
They all love the show, me somewhat less so, and indeed the jokes have already begun. When my sister-in-law requested quail’s eggs for our festive get-together even my wife, who was in charge of the food shopping, saw the funny side. We had to point out that while Asda, the nearest supermarket, did a comprehensive selection of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and other nosh enjoyed by the lower orders, they did not sell quail’s eggs.
The biggest Downton fans are, of course, my wife’s parents who, being the older generation, yearn for the way things used to be, value good manners and, I’m sure, would know whether it’s appropriate to serve quail’s eggs to an earl on a Tuesday and, if so, what kind of spoon is required. My mother-in-law spent a long time studying the Farrow & Ball colour-chart to pinpoint the proper shade of lead grey for shutters when you’re expat English retired to south-west France. “Downpipe!” she exclaimed in triumph. “Well, then,” I said, “this house will henceforth be called Downpipe Abbey.” I think even maw-in-law liked that one.
Christmas Day sees the last-ever episode of Downton Abbey and we should all pause at 8:45pm to reflect on its legacy, even if it’s your belief that the only acceptable response to those mournful violins swelling in North Yorkshire is to shuffle in your armchair and allow your living-room to fill with a pungent scent (predominant feature: Brussels sprouts). More than 250 countries, a total audience of 120 million, have watched the six series. And if the grande finale can win the show five more prizes – maybe Best Hat, Best Snuffbox, Pithiest Remark at Breakfast, Best Display of Noblesse Oblige at Dinner, Soppiest Remark Directed at a Pet – then the total number of awards will rise to 50.
Downton Abbey began in September 2010, just a few months after Britain got itself an Eton-educated prime minister who would tell us: “We’re all in this together.” “It” was the government’s austerity programme in the wake of the financial meltdown. As the nation ate direct from tins of cut-price beans, it did not react angrily to the sight of butlers measuring the correct distances between the placing of plates, cutlery and pots of quince jelly; instead it found some weird comfort. Here was something Britain could, or once did, get right: aristocratic life. And weren’t the aristos kind to the servants? Maybe we really were all in it together.
If you weren’t swooning at a show which should have been called Downturn Abbey, then you could still have fun smelling a plot. The writer Jenny Diski, noting that Downton’s creator Julian Fellowes had been made a peer by David Cameron and that the similar-in-spirit novel Park Lane had been written by George Osborne’s wife Frances, remarked: “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 at their gate, but these days it is in the form of daydreams – circuses without bread.”
Another writer, Jonathan Coe, took a swipe at Downton in this year’s novel, Number 11. He admits he’s been obsessed with entertainment as a means of capitalist manipulation and how so many folk, living under a smacked-backside-no-supper government, had enjoyed a drama about “the warmth of the relationship between the master class and the servant class, as if these worlds existed in any kind of closeness”.
Everyone was obsessed, for a while at least. Newspapers and magazines conducted breathless inquiries into the “New Deference” and “How to be posh”. The Downtown phenomenon made it safe for Eton-educated actors to come out, Eton-educated pop bands too. Wine-coloured breeks were all the rage. Even if you hate-watched the show you never missed an episode, so that every time this closeness demonstrated itself in a blind cook being sent to hospital to see again or a drunk butler being forgiven, you could shout: “Aha! Real servants were made to face the wall when their masters flounced past! And what about that other French phrase meaning pretty much the exact opposite of noblesse oblige … droit de seigneur, the custom allowing a lord to have his wicked way with a subordinate woman on her wedding night?”
But my issue with Downton – which ultimately made me want to spoon out my eyes rather than watch another plodding minute, without caring which spoon I used – was not that I turned into a seething class-warrior over the show sentimentalising the rich-poor divide. It was less about having to endure the upper classes as suffer the low drama.
OK, look away now, in-laws: Downton has been a clunky, clichéd, blithering bore – like the batty relative posted down the far end of the grand dining hall but not half as much fun. Any quality – and any vim and wit, such as when that Turkish diplomat was bonked to death by one of the Crawley flibbertigibbets – soon vanished. Actors were out-performed by the furniture. Lines – terrible ones – were delivered by semaphore. Tedious storylines about war memorials and hospitals couldn’t be saved by the Dowager Countess’s waspish asides. While Scandinavian countries have been producing challenging, contemporary dramas, we’ve given the world a commemorative tea-towel of (barely) moving characters, bowdlerising our past.
Speaking of which, that’ll be me on the washing-up come Christmas Day.