Making a Costume Drama out of a Crisis

DowntonAbbeyJenny Diski on Downton Abbey, in the LRB:

Alistair Cooke can be seen in an old TV clip, thanks to the bottomless well that is YouTube, carefully cross-legged, wearing a blazer, a discreetly silver-striped black tie on a pearl grey shirt, and what can only be called slacks. He sits on a high-backed black leather and polished mahogany library chair. Behind him to his right, hung on flocked wallpaper, is an ornately framed landscape painting winking ‘old master’, on the other side an overarching potted palm, between them a window hung with heavy, draped velvet curtains, and beneath his elegantly shod feet (the lasts of which must surely have been made and stored by Lobb’s) a fine oriental carpet. The whole set trembles with the weight of Vicwardian Britishness. ‘Good evening,’ he says in his immaculately trimmed mid-Atlantic accent, so reassuring that you wonder if perhaps he is going to sound the nuclear alert. He is very nearly the perfect benevolent-English-gentleman-in-America; nevertheless his calm, almost lazy intonation reminds me of the underlying menace in the same phrase when used by that other official (though, like Cooke, miscategorised) quintessential English gent, Alfred Hitchcock. Good evening.

Beginning in 1974, for the benefit of American television viewers, Alistair Cooke introduced every episode of the five original series of Upstairs, Downstairs. It wasn’t offered as slush or soapy escapism, but as classy and educational, shown in the Masterpiece Theatre strand of the Public Broadcasting Service (as were those other great English classics Morse, Prime Suspect and Midsomer Murders). Upstairs, Downstairs, Cooke explains at the beginning, ‘follows the life of a London family through the reign of Edward VII. He was the big bearded monarch who had a notorious appetite for bed and bawd, but nevertheless was known as Edward the Peacemaker.’ Nearly forty years later, in January 2012, Emily Nussbaum reviewed the first US showing of the second series of Downton Abbey in the New Yorker: ‘To let us know that we’re safely in the Masterpiece zone, Laura Linney, clad in a black cocktail dress, introduces each episode with a tense grin, as if welcoming us to a PBS fundraiser, which I suppose she is.’ In fact, she was explicating such complexities as ‘entail’ and ‘primogeniture’ to an American audience who had already been deemed to have too short an attention span to cope with the show, which had two hours cut from its British running time.