The Return of Downton Abbey

DowntonAbbey2019PosterI went to see Downton Abbey, the film, last night. Well, I had to, didn’t I, given that I have written about it with enough seriousness that I am seriously considering including my article on the television programme as part of my REF submission slate? And yes, I enjoyed it, a couple of hours of beautiful costumes and historical and dramatic silliness.

But goodness me, what a shaggy dog story of a narrative! Branson alone had three different plots – a Boys’ Own Paper adventure, a Mills & Boon romance and an encounter with Princess Mary that was so underdeveloped that it’s origins and significance were completely obscure. Given that pretty much every one of the major characters, both upstairs and downstairs, had their own plot lines (sometimes multiple), encompassing pregnancy (wanted and unwanted), illness, power struggles, theft and sexual jealousy, there really was far too much going on. There was also, particularly towards the end, some extremely heavy-handed special pleading for the significance of the aristocracy to national life which felt out of time. It was, as David Cannadine has argued, ‘the period since the Second World War [which] has seen the almost total disintegratin of patrician high society’. [1] I don’t believe that Lady Mary would have needed telling by anyone that the Big House formed the centre of community life c.1927.

There were other moments where, as so often with Downton, I found it hard to sustain my suspension of historical disbelief. The relationship between Princess Mary and Lord Lascelles was one, principally because, for all the focus on the King and Queen’s anxiety about their daughter and her relationship, the characters were entirely undeveloped. I don’t know enough royal history to comment on how accurate even this superficial representation of their relationship might be in relation to the historical record. However, the dramatic arc made no sort of psychological sense purely in terms of the portrayal of the characters as human beings.

The storyline that really had me yelling at the screen (internally at least, so as not to spoil the enjoyment of my viewing companions who had kindly included me on their evening out), however, was that involving, yet again, Thomas Barrow. I have noted before how Barrow’s identity as a gay man in an era when sexual activity between men was illegal and subject to prosecution has been used by the programme to obscure more interesting histories of medicine and war disability. This time, this identity was given a social, rather than a medical, storyline to make a plea for tolerance of difference in sexuality that was framed as modern beyond the scope of 1920s imagination. Yet just because sex between men was illegal in interwar Britain does not mean that it was either unimaginable or unknown at the time. Barrow’s naive wonder at the all-male dance club that he is taken to suggests a life entirely sheltered from same-sex encounters. Yet we know that he served as a soldier during the war, when the sight of men dancing together would not have been either unknown or particular shocking in male dominated spaces of rest and relaxation. Nor, indeed, as Helen Smith has pointed out, would Barrow have had to have left Yorkshire to encounter the idea of sex between men as part of a range of expressions of sexual desire (although the club itself appears to be a less likely phenomenon to be found in a city like York). As Smith notes:

Encounters took place all over the region, and were not limited to large towns and cities. … Away from work, men met in pubs, cafes, toilets, urinals and the street, often with the purpose of sex in mind. However, the north differed from London, as well as from large American cities such as New York and San Francisco, in that these venues of sex and socialisation did not become linked to form a distinct and often visible subculture. These examples of sex between men still operated under the veil of discretion and privacy … and this ensured that venues where men could meet other men for sex remained part of the wider landscape of working-class social life and entertainment. [2]

Smith’s argument is mainly concerned with working-class men in industrial occupations in the region. Working in domestic service in a rural location may have isolated Barrow, but I can’t quite believe that, at his time of life, he would be as innocent as he is portrayed here.

None of which is to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the film, not least because one of the pleasures of watching Downton for me has always been the opportunity to pick historical holes in the plot and presentation. But there were also incidental pleasures: drooling over the costumes, particularly the hats and tiaras, the former of which has inspired me to branch out from my collection of cloches to search for a) something like Lady Mary’s feminine pseudo-Homburg and b) an a-symetrical number as modeled by the incomparable Dowager Duchess of Grantham; the joy of  Maggie Smith out-act everyone else on screen with the mere lift of an eyebrow; watching Smith, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton enjoying themselves doing what they love so well. And there were the cultural references, intended or not, which kept me amused throughout. From the visual reference of The Night Mail in the opening sequence through the BOP and Mills & Boon plots involving Branson already noted to the undeniable overtones of Bertie Wooster’s morning-after recollections in the raid on the nightclub, Julian Fellowes once again plundered the culture of interwar Britain for his ideas and images. There was even a bit of Laurel and Hardy slapstick in Mrs Patmore’s subversion of Mr Wilson.

So, yes, I enjoyed myself. The film ticks all the boxes I wanted it to – luscious visuals, good, comforting acting by familiar faces, some good, if rather obvious jokes, and just enough historical anachronism to keep me nicely irritated. I’m not sure I would recommend it as such, but I am glad to have seen it.

[1] David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), p.691.

[2] Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p.154.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s