Why do Americans love Downton Abbey so much?

Sean "P Diddy" Combs claims to be an "Abbey-head". Michelle Obama requested advanced copies of the most recent series, and invited Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern to the White House - what do the yanks see in it that so many Brits don't?

Until recently in the United States, the costume drama was a minority taste. Merchant Ivory adaptations of 19th-century novels and the imported British series shown on US public television’s Masterpiece Theatre have long been regarded as the fusty province of wistful former English majors and the sort of matron who tours stately homes in white athletic shoes, marvelling over the lifestyles of the rich and historical.

Then came Downton Abbey, the object of almost as much fascination as the Harry Potter books before it. The drama, which debuted in the US in 2011, was the highestrated cable or broadcast show when its thirdseries finale aired in February this year, reaching 12.3 million viewers and becoming the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service. It has a remarkably broad appeal. The celebrities who claim to be obsessed with it include the late-night talk-show hosts Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson, the comedian Patton Oswalt (who live-tweets each episode), the country star Reba McEntire and the singer Katy Perry, as well as bona fide film stars such as Harrison Ford (who has hinted that he would consider a role in the programme) and the hip-hop singers Jay Electronica and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

The last example may raise eyebrows, but Diddy did make a hilarious parody video for the website Funny or Die, in which he was inserted into various scenes from the series playing an invented character, Lord Wolcott. He professes to be an “Abbey-head”, but since he pronounces it “Downtown Abbey”, the sincerity of that claim is subject to some doubt. If Diddy really is an Abbey-head, he’s got plenty of company. There has been an Abbey-themed promo spot for The Simpsons (Simpton Abbey, in which a pink-glazed doughnut was placed on a china plate with silver tongs) and more parody videos than you can count, including a drag version, a Breaking Bad version (produced by the satirical TV pundit Stephen Colbert), a Sesame Street version, The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey and, naturally, a “Harlem Shake” version. Michelle Obama is such a fan that last autumn she requested advance DVDs of the third series from ITV and invited two of the show’s stars, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, to the White House.

Why do Americans love Downton Abbey so much? More than one Brit has asked me this before carefully explaining that, in the UK, the series is viewed not as top-drawer drama, but rather as the British equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty. Don’t we realise that? In fact, we do – well, many of us do – and we relish the camp element of Downton Abbey, which is why there are all those parodies. But yes, there are other Americans who think of it as their foray into “classy” entertainment (as Harrison Ford called it), because it’s full of fancy English people, is set in the past and airs on public television. That the show appeals to different audiences in different ways is surely one of the secrets of its success.

Perhaps the most benighted critics are those would-be arbiters anxious to inform the rest of us that mistaking this sort of thing for art just won’t do. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker welcomed the rather glum BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch with hurrahs, averring that he could not “stomach” Downton Abbey, on account of “its blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants”.

Cumberbatch similarly dismissed Downton as a “nostalgia trip” that was “fucking atrocious”. Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s never watched it because “that is why I left England” and Jeremy Irons has likened it to a Ford Fiesta, which “will get you there and give you a good time” but not much more. (This from a star of The Borgias!) Irons hopes Downton Abbey will serve as a gateway drug to Shakespeare, apparently assuming that viewers might never otherwise be exposed to the Bard but now they’ve got a load of Lady Mary, it’s a slippery slope to King Lear.

The “nostalgia” to which Cumberbatch referred comes up a lot in a related form of concern-trolling surrounding Downton Abbey. Doesn’t the show, commentators ask with furrowed brow, fetishise and fawn over an outdated and unjust class system? Isn’t it troubling that the American public, despite its much-touted embrace of equality and meritocracy, gobbles up this “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery”, to quote the British-born historian Simon Schama, in a desperate search for “something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present”? Schama can’t abide Downton Abbey, he wrote on the Daily Beast, having been subjected in his youth to “the motheaten haughtiness of the toffs” at a country house much like the titular abbey.

That is just the point, though: Americans may have suffered class wounds of their own, but not at the hands of toffs, whether motheaten or freshly laundered. Most Americans don’t even know what a toff is and the finer delineations of the British social hierarchy – the way a person’s speech can immediately place him or her in a very precise slot, for example – are largely lost on us. We have regional accents and stereotypes to go with them, but nothing so exquisitely telling as that. For Americans, the interlocking, classdefined relationships in a British country house in the early 20th century are intriguingly peculiar (why should Lord Grantham be taken aback to find himself related to a doctor?) or comically absurd (why must Daisy be kept out of sight of the family and its guests? And ironing the newspapers? Really?).

Americans have always found British manners and formality amusing, especially from a distance, where it is a lot less intimidating. There are few distances more unassailable than a century. The geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downton Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality. Even if Americans might daydream about what it would be like to work as a housemaid at the abbey or swan around in Lady Gran - tham’s spectacular dresses while being waited on hand and foot, neither scenario is even remotely an option for us.

For all its unfamiliarity, however, Downton Abbey wouldn’t speak to American audiences at all if they didn’t find much to identify with in the travails and intrigues that go on upstairs and down in the scullery. “I think most of the stories are about emotional situations that everyone can understand,” Julian Fellowes, the series creator and writer, platitudinously told the New York Times.

Downton Abbey as a dramatic setting has the advantage of being both a household and a workplace, two sites that have always proven fertile ground for conflict and pathos. But there is another parallel that American viewers often bring into play when engaging with this and other stories about the British class system: high school.

American popular culture has been reima - gining 19th-century British society as a version of American high school for decades, just not in genres where it’s likely to attract the interest of critics. Romance novels have taught American readers to understand the British class system in this way. Anyone who has read a decent amount of 19th-century British fiction or social histories of the period would likely be perplexed upon dipping into one of the thousands of “Regency” and “Victorian” romances published here every year.

The characters in these historical romances don’t behave anything like the British aristocrats of the 1800s – or like any other 19thcentury Brits, for that matter. But if you’re looking for the “blizzards of anachronisms”, “absurd soap-operatics” and “Oprah-style oversharing” to which Hertzberg objects in Downton Abbey, well, pick up a paperback and pull up a chair.

In place of the captain of the football team, the Regency romance has a duke, and instead of a shy bespectacled girl, the heroine is likely to be a young lady of ordinary looks and no fortune whose inner merits the hero, alone of all others, readily perceives. Instead of a catty cheerleader as the heroine’s romantic rival, there is a society beauty, complete with a mean-girl clique that might as well have been lifted right out of a John Hughes film. The sexual mores of the characters’ social circle, instead of being founded in the Christian morality, male supremacism and class pre - judices of 19th-century England, is merely a matter of prudish scandalmongering and mean-spirited, small-town gossip. The intricate, exclusionary subtlety of centuries of upper-class manners gets translated into the bratty snootiness of American adolescence.

Downton Abbey may not fit as exactly on to the familiar stock figures of the American high school but the rigid, claustrophobic social hierarchies of the high-school experience remain the easiest point of reference for US viewers. Lord Grantham resembles the highminded yet out-of-touch principal and his daughters the student body’s most popular belles, girls whose social and romantic lives serve as universal topics of conversation. Matthew Crawley is the new transfer student, who turns out to be a catch despite his modest background. The conniving O’Brien and Thomas are recognisable as the bullies who afflict so many sensitive adolescents, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes function as the wise and seasoned teachers who can be counted on to intervene before things get too bad, and Daisy, with her string of hopeless crushes, speaks to many a formerly dreamy mouse.

All this probably explains why Schama, who has experienced the real thing, finds the setting of Downton Abbey oppressive while Americans see it as a great-looking venue, ripe with dishy spats, romantic triangles and overwrought drama. It’s not that Americans don’t grasp the injustice in the social hierarchy of Edwardian Britain; they just don’t take it seriously. It is part of the (dubious) mythos of American life that some day the tables will be turned: the ugly duckling could become a swan and the nerd a master of the universe.

For Americans, high school is rife with cruelty and unfairness, with an elite that benefits from the arbitrary blessings of birth (money, good looks, athletic prowess), but it doesn’t necessarily define you for life. High school is formative, but not conclusive. This is why you will never see an equivalent series set in, say, an antebellum plantation in the American South. Not only is that hierarchy way too close to home but (whether we admit it or not) we all know we haven’t yet escaped it.

While most of us, sooner or later, graduate from high school, to escape the British class system you have to get out of Britain entirely (like Daniel Day-Lewis). Americans look at the confining roles imposed on the characters in their beloved Downton Abbey and tell themselves that if worse comes to worst, they can always emigrate.

Laura Miller is the co-founder of and senior writer at salon.com

Grace and flavour: filming at Highclere Castle, the main location for the TV series. Photograph: Simon Paulin/Scanpix/Press Association Images.

Laura Miller is a co-founder of Salon.com

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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