Is there any stopping Downton Abbey?

Julian Fellowes's obsession with the ruling class continues to pay off.

Seriously, what is it with Downton Abbey? Eleven million of the credulous suckered in the States, a valise full of Emmies and now the Golden Globe panellists all hoodwinked by a derivative soap opera with pretensions. The septic melodrama seems guaranteed to take the National Television Awards gong for most popular drama on Wednesday. Is Downton unstoppable?

Downtonistas jack into a gleaming, fantastical world, barely on nodding terms with reality. The crippled walk again, it snows at Christmas and your regular heir presumptive, with just a touch of inbreeding, gets his Lady (there are only so many toffs to go around). The most troubling event to disturb the stagnant pond in the last episode was the "Labrador in mild peril" plot.

This pageant of neo-feudalism reads like a glossy promo for the Big Society. Who needs a welfare state when a nod and a wink from Lord Grantham will see you right? After all, "We're all in this together": the fragrant aristos have to throw their prewar style parties with no footmen, damn it, and Captain Crawley has a perfectly beastly time of it on leave without his soldier-servant.

I heard, with some surprise, Julian (you can call me Baron) Fellowes describe the portmanteau upstairs-downstairs premise of Downton as "innovative" (on Desert Island Discs on 18 December). He was referring, I imagine, to its remarkable insight - hold the front page - that servants, just like us, have inner lives that are worth documenting. Well, innovatory I suppose if you discount English writers from Chaucer onwards, who were really quite good at showing us that cooks have feelings too.

The tumbrils might be rumbling for his nobility (the war, ghastly business), but Fellowes is no indifferent tricoteuse. He's deeply, luxuriously in love with the imagined theatre and romance of the ruling classes. It's as though, when Julian looks in the mirror, he fondly imagines the doubly fictitious Colin Firth-Mr Darcy composite. In the show the lens lingers, pruriently, on the starched linen, the lustrous brass, the polished silver. The lens lingers slightly less over the horny-handed ones doing all the starching, the lustre-ing and the polishing.

When we go to Downton, we're given stories of the upper class in the upper-case to help us understand that the fragile symbiosis is under threat. In heaving majuscule, we find out that war is BAD. We also discover that times are CHANGING. In future there will be more congress between the beautiful people and all the horny handed ones. In its queasy chronicle, we're shown the beneficial openings in the world of work that the First World War provides the foxy, bored heiresses. They're allowed to slum it a little. But those bounders who try to navigate their way upward, like the self-made magnate and the ambitious footman, are cads, villains and all-round bad eggs. Downton will NEVER be theirs, sir!

Simon Schama got all Jacobinical on Downton's ass last week, accusing Fellowes, amongst other things, of "cultural necrophilia." You might well think that a historian would be the last person to throw stones in mausoleums and attack another for their love of dead things. But one sees his point.

Except that we could no more use Downton as a guide to deceased Edwardian Britain than use The Lion King as a travelogue on Africa. Or imagine ourselves to be emergency medicine practitioners after mainlining ER repeats on Sky Atlantic. Fellowes, like a dodgy medium channelling those from the farther shore, is dishing up fakeries: the quavering voice, the smoke, the mirrors, the flame. It's fraudulent Sunday night Mogadon.

I'm not altogether immune to its chiffon charms. I understand the power of a sensational, sentimental, rip-tide of a narrative. Maggie Smith, who, as the Countess of Grantham, looks increasingly to have been hewn from a single oak, has a truly magnificent way with condescension. Her retorts are stiff-backed, straight drives - which rather show up some of the cast's agricultural shots.

And master-servant tensions have had a fabulously high yield in the theatre since pre-classical Rome, via sixteenth century Commedia. A rigid hierarchy practically sits up and begs for drama, especially when the strata are pushed and pulled out of shape a little. What characterises Downton, though, is the author's palpable love and desire for one particular stratum. His nose is pressed at the pane, and his hot breath is steaming up the view.

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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