Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Downton Abbey: A Christian's Entertainment Consideration

If you have not heard of the British television drama Downton Abbey (*watch your autocorrect, it will want to spell it Downtown), at some point you will. And if you have heard of it but know little about it, well I hope I can help just a bit in your consideration of entertainment, as your life permits.

It is a difficult thing in matters of liberty such as this to write about something which might, even in the mildest manner, cause another believer to stumble which is precisely why God teaches us in his Word to use or express our liberty judiciously. On this occasion however, I do believe that qualifying my review with a strong warning and that I am categorizing this as something not necessarily for all, I am confident by my personal experience, that for many it will not be a problem but in fact will be quite a pleasant experience as goes entertainment. But for the weakest, if you find yourself easily led about into offense by entertainment and its subsequent mimicry which offends your conscience, to you who think such a thing possible of yourself, abstain at all costs. To all others, please hear me for a moment.

Entertainment by the world for Christians is dreadful in plenty but occasionally possesses sufficient art and standards that we may indulge in such recreation. And as goes television, certainly there is much to which we should object. However, now and again a series such as Band of Brothers and its follow-up, The Pacific, is produced which meets the threshold of acceptable story telling and drama for many. I believe Downton Abbey will meet this threshold for the majority.

Story Setting 

Downton Abbey begins in 1912. The abbey is an estate which belongs to an aristocratic family. Its patriarch is Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham and is played by Hugh Bonneville. His wife, Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, has her role filled by American actress Elizabeth McGovern. Both are exceptional in their performances.

The first episode begins with Lord Grantham receiving news that the Titanic has sunk and his two heirs (the law at the time only permitted a male heir) presumed dead, seeing they were on the Titanic. Robert Crawley appears to be in his mid-fifties, thus he has great concern seeing that the remainder of his heirs are no heirs at all, namely his three daughters. Nevertheless, there is a third cousin, Matthew, by law, is the next in line to inherit the estate. But it is akin to having a stranger come in to possess Downton; its property and wealth, lock, stock and barrel.

What you keenly become aware of early on is the intention of the story with regard to Downton Abbey. It views the estate, as does Lord Grantham, as an institution and not merely a family possession. For example, the staff -- the butler, housekeeper, valets, footmen, kitchen and housemaids -- are not merely transient. They are career attendants, not just for aristocrats but institutionally for Downton Abbey and particularly for this family. That is not to say that some of the younger attendants do not seek to move up in this field either while at Downton or by applying to other households but some have invested their life in Downton which reflects the reality of career estate servants both past and present but particularly in the past when opportunities were much more limited and class structure more definitive. Thus, they are part of those experiencing the potential unknown change coming to the Downton Estate. They have no idea of the projection of Downton that will be set by its new heir, the third cousin Matthew. Thus the stage is set for the first season’s drama.

What you will find is a pleasingly purposeful function of social class in the series. Some have criticized it as anglophile indulgence (that is the deliberate elevation and celebration of English-Anglo culture at what some might consider near the end of its peak) where all things Anglo and their virtues are glorified in a kind of class/racial narcissism. I find this cynicism not only unwarranted but such complaints jutting from petty and envious hearts who refuse to recognize and appreciate the high order of Anglo development and its subsequent culture which is typified in Downton Abbey’s story. 

The Rest of the Family, Major 

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). As I alluded to earlier, the immediate family consists of Robert and Cora Crawley, Lord Grantham and Countess Grantham and their three daughters. The eldest is the irascible Lady Mary. She is self-aware enough to understand her egocentrism but not compelled sufficiently by this understanding to allow it to buffer her easily discontented state. The law does not permit her to be the heir thus she is conflicted. There is no legal remedy. She is intelligent and presented as classically attractive, though at times her constant state of stress show thorough on her face and it is not an endearing visage. One thing does stand out which is that she clearly accepts her role as the eldest daughter and enforces its properties without apology. 

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael). The second daughter, Lady Edith, is more reticent than her older sister and given to sympathy more easily. She is deliberately less instantly beautiful than Mary with whom she competes, which is to say nothing of her having to deal with her subordinate sister, Sybil and her headline grabbing behavior. Ah, the middle daughter in her expected setting. Edith’s beauty, though not immediate, is not lacking and builds during the series. However, her amenable disposition does not mean that Edith does not have cards to play and does so demurely, both to viewer satisfaction and disappointment. 

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay). The last of the trio of the Crawley ladies is Sybil. Lady Sybil seeks emancipation from the constraints of aristocracy but does not do so necessarily in direct rebellion to her heritage. That is to say, Sybil does not display categorical contempt for her aristocratic status. Rather, Sybil seems to be driven instinctively to the view that aristocracy's social boundaries are too binding for her more free spirit. She is happy to dispense with its privileges. If she were American and it was the 1990’s you might find her living in Portland. 

Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. The mother of Lord Grantham, Violet Crawley, is played by easily recognized British actress, Maggie Smith. She exemplifies an older woman of this kind of estate who, though not possessing any direct power, nevertheless wields her own influence, often selfishly but sometimes understandably so. And Violet is not fearful of conflicts though she does not always win them. She solicits the viewer’s disdain but not enough for the audience to lack sympathy at times. 

The Heir, Cousin Matthew. Matthew is the reluctant heir who lives in Manchester. He is Robert’s third cousin and by law the inheritor of Downton Abbey. He is a professional middle-class solicitor (lawyer) which of course is considered a “working man” to aristocrats and is received with a degree of social scorn by the eldest of Lord Crawley’s daughters, Mary, when he arrives to Downton with his mother. Matthew attends to the estate with a working class mentality and immediately fails to appreciate the purpose and function of the staff. He can hang up his own clothes, dress himself and get his own tea. Matthew adroitly matures in his perspective on the matter and later I will describe a scene to highlight this. Actor Dan Stevens succeeds in not only filling the shoes of this character but in helping us identify ourselves where presumptions about aristocracy and prejudices against it should be tempered with the understanding that society often misjudges its virtues and value. 

Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s Mother. Isobel is the widow of a doctor and herself, a trained nurse. She and Matthew live together in Manchester before the change of Downton comes to their lives.  Isobel is a well-rounded woman whose upper-middle class life has not made her lust for greater social status, instead her experiences in the field of healing broken bodies has produced a humble yet ambitious woman whose idealism propels her to good works. Unfortunately, Violet Crawley, Downton’s "mother", sees this other new older woman as invading her matriarchal space. Thus an uneasy relationship between the two is born with Violet as the obvious antagonist. 

The Staff 

Downtown Abbey’s butler, Mr. Carson, is cast ideally with JimCarter. He is not Richie Rich’s butler in the least. The story present a realistic butler with an interesting past. As the butler he superintends the servants. And his style of oversight brings to Downton Abbey a Shepherd’s rod and staff while staying thoughtful to the foibles of both those under him and those over him. Most viewers will be attracted to him as a noble figure.

His female counterpart is Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper (do not be misled here, housekeeper here means the administrator of the maids and housekeeping responsibilities). Phyllis Logan seems born for this role. She is the staff matron whose humanity is not kept secret while her dignity is never compromised. You would wish to know someone like her in your lifetime and benefit from her virtues.

The role of ex-comrade in arms and now valet to Lord Grantham is Bates, played by Brendan Coyle. Bates was Grantham’s batman in the Boer War and suffered a serious leg injury and now comes to Downton to serve his former military superior, Lord Grantham. Politely but dejectedly, Bates is dismissed from his position because his injury prevents him from fulfilling his duties as valet. However, as he is chauffeured away in a motor car Robert regrets his decision to dismiss him and allows the virtue of compassion to reign in the matter. Thus he chases down the motor car. He instructs Bates to get out, return to the house and resume his position and that nothing more will be said of this. Thus Lord Grantham redeems Bates who rejoins the staff. 

Rob James-Collier is cast as Thomas Barrow, the shrewd and manipulative first footman who is described by the cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesly Nicol), as a tortured soul in reference to his homosexuality. Actor Thomas Howe is second footman. He is the very earnest William Mason who intends a life of displayed virtue and character. The animosity between first footman Thomas and second footman William is brought out early in the first season.

Enough cannot be said about the remainder of the characters on the staff and praise given to the quality of their development. The acting is superb and the players convincing. The staff is thoroughly enjoyable and the series treats them with significance and interest both regarding their interaction with their aristocratic employers and among themselves. It is no whitewashed or sanitized version of such goings on, as one might expect. On the contrary, we see true value in peer to peer, aristocrat to servant and servant to aristocrat interactions. Lord Grantham is a respectful man to all, family and staff and his household reflects it, if not demands it. 

A Couple Early Notable Scenes 

A Lesson in Respect. As I related earlier, estate heir cousin Matthew is inept regarding his appreciation for the roles of the estate staff.  At one point, Matthew insults his valet (Molesley-Actor Kevin Doyle) by telling him what a silly job he has for a grown man. However, he does so not necessarily in a manner which intends to injure, though it does, but out of ignorance and arrogance, not understanding the purpose and function of such attendants.

Later, after becoming more familiar with Downton and developing a relationship with Lord Grantham, the younger Matthew (somewhere in his early 30’s it appears) voices his objection to having a personal attendant. Lord Grantham crafts his answer by explaining that everyone has their part in the operation of Downton. He emphasizes the point by explaining that their servants are not aristocratic trinkets. Rather, he informs Matthew that they perform real functions and he is failing to appreciate their contributions. Lord Grantham follows this by asking Matthew that, after he releases his valet to a jobless condition does he also plan to relieve the housekeepers, the butler and the kitchen staff too as he dismantles Downton Abbey? It is a poignant moment for the future heir as he stares up with a look of understanding that he has dishonored the service of his valet and the frankly, all of the staff. 

My Take. I see things through spiritual and doctrinal eyes. This is not the intended lesson of the story, though there is a lesson of respect. However, I cannot help but relate this to our service to Christ as we serve others. Our Lord was quite serious when he taught that even giving a cup of water to those who thirst will be rewarded. Every single person in the body of Christ has a calling. They have a part of Heaven’s Estate whether it be giving a glass of water or overseeing other servants. And it is to the good pleasure of our Lord that this is so. There is no place for a Matthew in God’s Kingdom and fortunately Matthew matured in understanding the value of the least to the greatest. They are all necessary and all warrant appreciation and reward. 

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.  In a scene where the eldest daughter is lamenting to her father that she should rightfully inherit Downton and that it is unfair that the law does not allow this and it is unconscionable that this third cousin will inherit the estate, Lord Grantham gives an explanation that represents concepts and thinking which is greatly absent in the world today. He tells his daughter that the estate is not the work of his hands. Rather, he inherited it himself. Lord Grantham understands it is bigger than him; it is an institution. Thus, he further relates that he is its abbot, its caretaker. If he were its owner, if it were the product of his own efforts, he could and would give it immediately to Mary, his oldest daughter. But it is not and as well, that to allow Downton to be split apart for the sake of each child or one child grabbing what they may from it and departing to a life of leisure is to not give but to destroy. Sadly, poor Mary refuses to have her mental tumor enucleated.

Again, with my eyes I think of the Church of God. It is not ours, we are its caretakers. It is not something with which to enrich ourselves but to insure its continuation by way of sound and noble principles which, fortunately for us, are principles about which we are not left guessing. This is why personality driven instead of principle driven forms of the church along with their novel theologies are anti-institutional, they are anti-estate and anti-intentional with regard to what God wants for his church. 

The Staff and their Sub-Class. Interestingly you might think other than the butler and housekeeper the staff is all equal. Not so. There is a class structure even among the servants and they are not shy or ashamed of enjoying its privileges. The major staff are served their three meals a day by their own attendants who are on the lowest rung of the ladder. Only certain staff sits at a communal table to enjoy the service of this lowest class at their meals.Yet, they know better than to look down upon those who even serve the servants. What a lesson for us all. 

Final Words 

This is not an important issue, our entertainment. But it is a real part of our lives. And I have found Downton Abbey to be a worthwhile television production. It has its weaknesses when examined in detail but all stories do because fiction requires a suspension of reality to one degree or another. As well, there are a few scenes I believe unnecessary and gratuitous such as the homosexual kissing of a footman (Thomas) with a Duke early on in the series (this is not the only homosexual issue to rise in the program, there is a second). It certainly is not for children.

However, the script and content are far more satisfying than most productions. The English accents are probably not accurate with regard to the time period but they permit Americans a pleasant experience seeing that subtitles are not needed for strained cockney accents.

There is an admitted regular absence of the church in the series which would normally be part of aristocracy's life during this period. Though its presence is mild there is no habitual evocation of divine values in the dialog by the characters. It seems somewhat out of place but is not surprising coming from writers living in a very secular British society these days.

The series is in its third season which has just begun. From what I described, the early part of the first season, there is much change coming and challenges to everyone. WWI will insert itself along with financial difficulties. So it is not merely a story of continuity of all things but a story of change. As Mr. Carson hints in the first seasons, “Life alters you”. This will be thematic throughout the series.

It must be remembered that it is entertainment and that is all. People who have lives which are empty from divine values and particularly a relationship with the Lord, might find themselves too pleased with such a program as they would any form of escapism. Nothing should become a substitute for our time and walk with the Lord and certainly not entertainment. But, as time permits and if you believe you are able to enjoy this form of story telling, Downton Abbey, I believe, communicates a fictional narrative in a way that qualifies as appropriate and satisfying for many Christians.


Vintage Lover said...

This was the BEST review ever for any form of entertainment! Thoughtful, soft spoken, etc. Thanks! :)

Alex A. Guggenheim said...

Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, those were kind words. It prompted me to reread this piece and of course I now spot about 6 editing needs which I may go back and touch up. Thank you again.