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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Alan Bennett: “I hope I’m not being too old-gittish”

At 82, Alan Bennett has lost none of his wit or compassion – nor his anger at the “nastification” of Britain.

“The blond one will have to go,” declared the impresario Donald Albery in 1961, as he considered bringing Beyond the Fringe to the West End. Yet Alan Bennett, looking very much like the clergyman he once intended to be, did not go. In the half-century since, he has proved himself to be the most enduring of the four wits behind the comedy revue. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore died young: the former from alcoholism, the latter from progressive supranuclear palsy. Jonathan Miller, the great polymath, lives on in the revivals of his many theatrical productions but seems to have retreated into retirement.

Now 82 and still somehow boyish, Bennett is easily recognisable from his early photos, as he and his Oxbridge chums found fame in the revue that brought satire to the masses. He is a little slower and stiffer than he was the last time we met, and a touch deaf – Keeping On Keeping On, his new collection of diaries and writings, regales the reader with the inevitable mishearings. He has survived cancer and a stomach aneurysm and has had a couple of joints replaced, but his life seems to proceed largely unimpeded.

“You can’t sort out the symptoms of anything going round from the symptoms of just getting older,” he tells me. “I still go on my bike, because it’s easier to ride than it is to walk, and I try to do half an hour each day. There’s a niggardly bit in Regent’s Park that they allow people to cycle down . . . The canal I always find rather scary, because the rules of the road don’t seem to apply and other cyclists come along at such a rate.”

We are chatting in the lime-washed front room of the Victorian terrace house in Primrose Hill that has been his home for almost a decade, shared with his partner of 24 years, Rupert Thomas, the editor of the World of Interiors. Bennett tells me that the recent Paddington adaptation was filmed in one of the flashier, colourful houses opposite. The walls and shelves bear witness to the couple’s travels and interests – many of the paintings were bought by Thomas – and the effect is low-key and lived-in. Bennett is settled in a Carver chair by the window, beneath a portrait that looks like it’s of Thomas but isn’t. (“He wouldn’t be flattered!”)

This patch of NW1 has long been Bennett’s stamping ground. In the 1980s he lived on the same street as Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Mary-Kay Wilmers (Bennett’s editor at the London Review of Books). It’s a literary cohort captured with comic detail by Nina Stibbe, who was then Wilmers’s nanny, in her collection of letters, Love, Nina. “She’s funny, is Nina,” Bennett concedes, “but the character in the book bears no relation to me as far as I can see, and I didn’t think he was very funny, either. The notion that I could mend a fridge is absurd. I think she just wished that on to me to make me more interesting as a character, which I understand because I’ve done the same thing myself.” He didn’t recognise himself in the TV dramatisation but, he says, “Mary-Kay was happy because she was played by Helena Bonham Carter, so she found that rather flattering.”

Bennett is as active as ever, writing new plays and having older ones transferred to the big screen, most recently last year’s The Lady in the Van – the third film of his work (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) to be directed by Nicholas Hytner, whom he met while adapting The Wind in the Willows for the stage in 1989. He doesn’t regard himself as a particularly speedy writer but: “Gradually, it gets done. Nick Hytner, at the end of the talk we did at the National [Theatre in London] about The Habit of Art, said the plays were normally four years apart. He felt that was a bit long, and if the audience felt that, too, would they applaud? It was like applauding Tinker Bell in Peter Pan!” He did speed up a little: it was only three years before he was able to pop his next script through Hytner’s letter box. The extent of his work is impressive – more than a score of stage plays and a dozen films, not to mention TV, radio and books. He giggles: “It’s appalling, isn’t it!”

Born in Armley, Leeds, to Lilian and Walter, a butcher, Bennett learned Russian during his national service and then read history at Oxford. He began and then aborted a PhD in medieval history, supporting himself with teaching, at which he insists he was “very bad”. He joined the Oxford Revue, out of which Beyond the Fringe grew, and its success in Edinburgh, in the West End and on Broadway (where President Kennedy attended) changed the course of his life. His first stage play, Forty Years On (1968), was followed by acclaimed plays and television dramas and a series of poignant Talking Heads monologues in 1988. Since 1994, three bestselling volumes of memoirs and diaries, often first published in the London Review of Books, have raised the curtain on the Yorkshire boyhood that has shaped so much of his work.

In 2008, Bennett donated his papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford – all the diaries, letters and multifarious drafts of his plays. “I can’t believe that minute changes are of interest to anyone at all . . . They made out I was doing them a favour but it was the other way round, really – they were taking them off my hands.” Bennett doesn’t approve of selling archives unless a writer needs the money. “The British Library trumpets the manuscripts it’s bought for such and such, implying it’s philanthropy on the part of the writers – and it isn’t at all.”

To read Keeping On Keeping On is to be in the company of an old friend, one who defies the maxim that we get more right-wing as we get older. At the core of both the man and his work – whether he is writing about the Queen or Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who lived in a van parked on his driveway – are warmth and humanity. Although there may be something teddy-bearish about Bennett, he is never cosy: almost all of his work is quietly unsettling, raising uncomfortable questions about ourselves and about society.

Bennett is moral in the best sense of the word, preoccupied always with unfairness and injustice and thus perplexed by what Daily Mail readers find in his work. “Papers full of Charles Kennedy being, or having been, an alcoholic,” he wrote in his diaries on 6 January 2006, observing that Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith weren’t ­exactly teetotal. “Less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whisky than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.” Later that year, the news that the policeman who shot Jean Charles de Menezes was still in his post made him “ashamed to be English”.

An admirer of Gordon Brown, Bennett told me in 2008 that if David Cameron were elected, it would be “government by estate agent”. Things turned out worse than expected, and his discomfiture and anger are palpable throughout the diaries. “I blame it all on Mrs Thatcher,” he tells me several times during our conversation, regretting the end of consensus politics.

That the Liberal Democrats went into coalition was incomprehensible to him from the outset. “The Tories are not to be trusted. You knew they would just take advantage. When it was plain we weren’t going to get proportional representation, which might have saved the day, that was really the end of it . . . You look back and you think Macmillan was a liberal prime minister. He was prime minister of the whole country, despite the fact that he was aristocratic. [Thatcher] bequeathed the fact that they just govern in favour of a class.” While Blair was “hard to forgive”, Cameron was “contemptible”. As for Theresa May: “We’ll see.”

Shopping in Camden Town on the morning after Cameron’s 2015 victory, he felt a sense of “bereavement in the streets”. He wanted a Labour government so he could “stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well intentioned”.

Were he a party member, he wrote last year, he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, “if only out of hope that the better part of salvation lies not in electoral calculation but in the aspirations of the people”. When I ask whether he would have done so this year, however, he equivocates. “I can’t say that, no. Let’s see how things turn out.”

Bennett was surprised by the Brexit vote, “but then so was everybody else. Little England – I hate the notion. The sense of helplessness is new. It seems there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m afraid my reaction is that I shan’t be here much longer.”

Education is the issue about which he is most passionate. That students are “saddled with these enormous debts is just monstrous”, he tells me. “I feel it’s a mockery.” It is, he believes, “the mark of a civilised society that you do not think: who’s going to pay for my education? Mine was paid either by Leeds City Council or by the state, so it didn’t cost my parents a penny from start to finish.”

Leeds Modern School, which Bennett attended from 1945, was “a grammar school, though I always thought of it as just a state school. The grammar was Leeds Grammar School, a really snobbish place, and still is.” He went to Oxford after winning a Senior City scholarship. Had he been required to take out a loan, he would not have gone to university. It is “a standing rebuke” that Scotland still provides free education. When he gained the Freedom of the City of Leeds in May 2006, he said in his acceptance speech, “I feel I was given the freedom of this city more than 50 years ago . . . I was given an education for life and a freedom for life that education gives you.”

“The other thing I’m old-fashioned about is public schools,” says Bennett, who believes that their charitable status should go (“Blair could have done it easily, with the majority he had”) and that public and state schools should be amalgamated at sixth-form level – which would immediately dispense with the “need” for grammar schools. “It wouldn’t be an enormous social up­heaval and, once you’ve merged them at one level, the others would gradually follow.”

The iniquities of private education were the subject of “Fair Play”, a sermon that Bennett delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 2014. “I can understand the Etonians saying they refuse to feel guilty about it, but it’s a waste, that’s what’s wrong with it,” he says. “People are wasted. They don’t reach their full capacities. And not to reach your full capacities because your parents are in the wrong position is dreadful.”

In the King’s College sermon, he suggested that if something isn’t fair, “then maybe it’s not Christian, either”. So is it possible to be Conservative and Christian? “If I said no, the shit would really hit the fan!” he answers, giggling. “I don’t know. I’m not competent to say that.”

Devoutly religious as a teenager, Bennett wrote in 1988 that he had “never managed to outgrow” his religious upbringing, and the diaries are full of references to hymns, readings, religious paintings and churches, about which he is knowledgeable “in a slapdash way”. With Thomas, he likes to visit “tiny churches in the middle of nowhere” – buildings that haven’t been “knocked about” by the Victorians.

There is a sense in which Bennett is an Everyman, quietly advocating for the confused, accused and misused and railing against the “nastification” of Britain. Compassion is evident everywhere in his plays and in his life, although typically he denies that offering Mary Shepherd of The Lady in a Van refuge on his driveway was altruism (she was less of a distraction there than when she was parked on the street, under constant attack from unkindly passers-by).

The diaries reflect his quiet fury at various ways in which standards have slipped. Abu Hamza’s opinions, he argues, are “reprehensible . . . But he is a British citizen and he should not be extradited to the United States.” Watching the Trooping the Colour ceremony, he notes that there are “no grieving mothers, of course, and the deaths that have been mentioned are all noble ones and not due to inadequate equipment”. Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms leave him aghast.

He writes of “ideology masquerading as pragmatism”, as shown in the fate of the East Coast Main Line, which was sold back into private ownership despite turning a profit while publicly owned. Bennett is a frequent passenger and, he tells me, “The people on it, who tend not to change and are funny and eccentric, are its saving grace.”

The BBC, which has been the outlet for so much of Bennett’s work, is similarly short-termist in the way it operates. “It’s to do with the way the whole thing is financed,” he says: another black mark against Thatcher for the damage that she did to the corporation’s management and principles. He is irritated by “the form of the programmes now, where someone is sent home at the end and they’re lined up and told which one it is”. He occasionally watches The Great British Bake Off but The Big Allotment Challenge was a particular affront: “Allotments are co-operative enterprises, not competitive, except for marrows. That business of saying someone’s not as good as someone else – I just hate it.” He and Rupert watch the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory “to fill a gap. The rest is . . .” He trails off. “We don’t watch Scandinavian crime. Too gloomy.”

Bennett is wary of becoming a codger and feels that he should shut up. “I hope I’m saved from the worst of it by Rupert, who’s thirty years younger than I am. He pulls me up if I’m too old-gittish.”

“Keeping On Keeping On” by Alan Bennett is published by Profile Books and Faber & Faber

Liz Thomson edited, with Patrick Humphries, the revised and updated edition of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood