After an autumn of high-definition radiance, the trees now look moribund and lifeless. So do the Sunday nights. Just as I got used to enclosing the weekend at 9pm on Sunday, the leaves fell from the trees and Downton Abbey shut its doors. Happily, I never glimpsed TV aerials. I was too wrapped up in the story, the clothes and the language. The cherubic Julian Fellowes has perfect pitch for the television age, writing with a sharp pen that he dips into his silver inkwell frequently. No scene takes up more space than an ‘At Home’ card that’s thick enough to hold a Champagne glass.
Admittedly, I was disposed in Downton’s favour because Gosford Park is a perfect film. The line delivered by the Countess of Trentham (Dame Maggie Smith) as she looks at her breakfast tray-‘Bought marmalade? Oh dear, I call that very feeble’-has become a regular refrain in our house: ‘Bought pesto?’ ‘Bought beetroot soup?’ ‘Bought shepherd’s pie?’ I defend my feeble homemaking by placing the accent on the pedigree of the ‘bought’-‘It is from the farmer’s market.’
I feel equally defensive on behalf of Mr Fellowes, who’s turned his writer’s eye onto class instead of urban decay, drug addiction and prostitution, although, as Charles Moore pointed out in the (other) Spectator, to make the Earl of Grantham a morally decent man, and the homosexual footman a villain, is asking for trouble. It wasn’t all perfect. The commercials came on like an unstable air mass, blowing the windows open and smothering the narrative. Irksome intrusions that only reminded me how spoiled we are to have the BBC, the last bastion against our all-pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder.
By the time we reached the high sunlit garden party, we knew that the Edwardian party was over. As the Earl read the telegram and made his sombre announcement, we knew that there were bloody war years ahead and no one, upstairs and downstairs, would ever be the same again. Stunned as they were by the news, the characters don’t know that the next series will be like Testament of Youth and the nicest young men-Matthew Crawley and William the second footman-will either die at the Somme or come home shell-shocked and maimed. Downton Abbey will become a hospital for the woundedand the Crawley sisters will exchange their beautiful dresses for starched white nurse’s bibs.
We know the First World War by heart. The earliest school trips are to the trenches and graveyards in France. The poems of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen are as familiar to English ears as Christmas carols. It is a time lodged in our collective conscience. I live on a farm bought by a cousin of my husband who dreamt of a farm in England while in the trenches in that war. He bought Wyken in 1919, and I watched Downton Abbey in a room off the kitchen that was the ‘servant’s hall’,
a phrase that entered its linguistic twilight soon after the Armistice.
I think I understand why Downton Abbey has had record viewing figures. It isn’t because we have entered a phase of ‘posh nostalgia’, not even because we’re sick of talent shows, reality TV, dancers dressed like strippers and celebrity ignoramuses-although we are. It’s because we want to believe that everything is going to turn out all right. That we will get through these turbulent times, that the war in Afghanistan will end and the soldiers will come home. We don’t want our feelings on blogs in cyberspace. We want them carved in stone like the war memorials that preside over our towns and villages. We want a world, as sunlit as Downton Abbey, made in Britain. I don’t call that feeble.