As with any pop culture that posits the upper classes as the protagonists, I struggled to care about Downton Abbey, even at the height of its popularity. As a tween I had (thought I had) enjoyed House of Elliot and re-runs of Upstairs, Downstairs though I couldn’t tell you anything about them, apart from the fact they felt intensely familiar. There is something about the way the British upper classes conduct themselves that hails back to a golden age for the South Asian diaspora, at least in my community. We might not have the material wealth to show for it (seeing as it was looted an’ all) but we enjoy elaborate dinners, have no problem hunting for our food, and keep the wealth (and all our dirty secrets) in the family, much like the British establishment. Yet as an adult with a somewhat heightened class consciousness there was something utterly revolting about Downton in its opening sequence that prevented me from watching it. I had tried when it first aired, but the gusto with which my then white mother-in-law-to-be had for it put me off, not least because she was completely swept away by the entirely inappropriate ‘May-December’ love affair between Anna the lady’s maid and Bates, his lordship’s butler (I still cannot abide their scenes together, either gagging my way through or skipping them altogether. Many thanks to Netflix for providing a handy forward 10 secs button).
I made another attempt following a discussion with a middle class pal, who’d been upwardly mobile but even he didn’t have the stomach for it. Who could blame him? The fawning over of toffs by their inferiors is truly a wretched sight to behold, and serves only as propaganda to legitimise the idea some are more deserving, and that this is ascribed at birth, irrespective of virtuousness (coincidentally it was the British whom inflicted primogeniture on the Mughals in India, ensuring the first born as heir, regardless of deserving).
None of the characters were particularly endearing for a start, not even the service staff (especially not and perhaps deliberately so). Mr Carson, the head butler is the worst of class traitors, bowing and scraping like a well-kempt Herman Munster, betraying his basic humanity to elevate himself to the role of man servant, and gatekeeper to a better future for his subordinates. Any time one of the lowlier staff members tries to make a dash for it, he shames them for their ambition as if they have no right. We’ve all encountered his kind, at their core is a burning self hatred and submitting to their ‘betters’ is an act of self flagellation, through which they are purified. It is a shameful thing indeed.
I had a breakthrough a few years back (possibly because I’d run out of things to watch). I was tickled by Lady Mary’s accent, mainly because the actress who plays her, Michelle Dockery, as talented as she is, can morph herself into anyone from anywhere, and it sounded so natural for her that I was confused as to why she spoke in an estuary accent for her interviews. I find myself mimicking it perfectly whenever there is call for derision, tongue firmly in cheek. In fact, I am proofreading this post in it right now. It’s so condescending, I love it.
As versatile as she is, I was perhaps a bit annoyed at her for taking on the role of her oppressors. Hailing from Romford, the daughter of a care home assistant and lorry driver, she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth and must be aware of what dramas like Downton serve to protect, the entitlement of the ruling classes. She either believes in what she is portraying, or she is furthering her own lot in life regardless of what it means for society as a whole. Downton lowered Dockery in my esteem and for this I was sad. I had very much enjoyed her work in Good Behaviour and Godless and whilst her acting is exemplary in Dowtown (is it acting though?) it changed who I thought she was as a person. In fact it did so for all the characters, Dame Maggie Smith isn’t a harmless old British stalwart, anymore than Hugh Bonneville, they actively promote the worst of Britain’s landed gentry (ie those landowners who believe they rightfully rule the world, because they personally panned for all that gold, and didn’t steal it from my ancestors). She is on hand to spin the truth till it no longer resembles even a shell of it, bestowing upon her class traitor grandson in law titles to make him appear more palatable to the other snobs. She is a liar but who cares when she is so charming in her nudge winkery? This is what the British ruling classes exemplify, projecting a veneer of respectability when they are anything but behind the facade. Another shared attribute with the community I was raised in.
Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the scenes in which Lady Mary romps with the Turkish attache Mr Pemuk (son of one of the Sultan’s ministers). The blatant racism and gratuitous self aggrandising aside.. “a little hospitality in an English house may make all the difference to the outcome” (for an independent Albania) – puke.. covering up the sudden death of someone she had just bedded, lying about her chastity (these are their rules, remember, not mine), and involving her own mother in the execution of said cover up, should have been enough to destroy any idea of deserving this family had about themselves but they just brush it under the carpet, and pretend it never happened, even when it is brought up by the Turkish embassy. To have such power you can lie so convincingly, and to officials, to have your own working class staff bolster the lie, to protect the shaky honour of your family.. well, how Pakistani is that? I might not like the characters very much, heck I could say the same about my own family members, but I was hooked. Something about Downton spoke to my disordered brain, because they are not normal, and they do believe they are above the bounds of what is respectful and fair (as did my caregivers).
In the last series there is a discussion between Lady Rose and Lord and Lady Grantham in which they refer to the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Lady Rose has invited Miss Bunting, a local socialist and potential romantic interest of the class traitor son in law Tom to supper as a thank you for all the work she has been doing with Daisy, the kitchen maid, much to the chagrin of her uncle, Lord Grantham, who refers to her as a ‘tinpot Rosa Luxemburg’. Lady Rose asks who she is and Cora explains that she was a communist who was shot and thrown into a river and quips that Lord Grantham wouldn’t wish such a fate on Miss Bunting to which he scoffs and grumbles like the idea isn’t so bad after all.. THIS is the true face of the British establishment. It makes a rare appearance in this televised propaganda, it is cushioned and nestled between sanctimonious airs and graces that betray the predatory and inconsequential criminality of those who believe they are superior. In my experience, the moment you profess to any kind of higher consciousness you are in fact revealing yourself to be less worthy than a can of spam with a broken key.
If it seems like I have a problem with authority, let me be clear I do not. I crave legitimate authority, because it does not exist in this capitalist world and standards have slipped beyond my worst expectations. This is what happens when money talks and integrity falls by the wayside. In fact one such example features in Downton, that I somehow glazed over the first time I watched it, Lord Grantham discovers he has lost his wife’s immense fortune after the first world war, placing the future of Downton and his entire family at risk. He did this by taking a gamble, wrongly believing he’d be quids in and rolling in it. Imagine you are Robert Crawley, seeing your entire village packed off to war, knowing many of them would die in the worst possible ways and still having the greedy belly and narcissistic sociopathy of mind to invest in companies that profit from war, built upon the blown apart corpses of the working classes. He says all this like it isn’t morally repugnant and he didn’t get what he deserved, losing it all. Of course this is exactly the sort of reprehensible behaviour we are protesting to this very day, the fortune 500 trying to trick us into war every time there is conflict, because they relish it and all its spoils. They are sadistic and inhuman, why do we still put up with it?
Any working class character not in the employ of the Grantham family is instantly dislikeable, a chancer, an opportunist, driving home the point that to protest the grandeur of the immensely privileged is a question of one’s own inadequacies. They gloss over the facts, that it is the working classes who overwhelmingly suffer a country’s lot, be that war or recession. They focus on the woes of the officer class, convalescing in the grandest halls of Downton whilst any mention of the fate of the working classes is shadowed by tales of cowardice, from the execution of Mrs Patmore’s shell-shocked nephew to under butler Thomas’ self inflicted hand injury, just so he can escape the war before it is his time. For the aspirational ones, they can never shake off the constraints of generational poverty, the returning Gwen is humiliated by one of her former peers, insinuating she is a raconteur who has betrayed her roots, simply because she failed to reveal her former connections to the family, as a lowly chamber maid. Lady Mary reacts as though she were deceived, but it was easy enough for her to come to this conclusion, because they believe the working classes are untrustworthy and on some level, the ruling classes are counting on a comeuppance.
They never seem to address the looted wealth either, where it all came from, how they achieved their titles and lands, which is strange because it is all I can see whenever I watch a period piece. Compare and contrast depictions of pre Elizabethan Britain with the Regency era, such an explosion of wealth and good taste, seemingly out of thin air, much like their enlightenment. It is why I cannot watch The Crown, even though I’ve done at least a couple of runs of Downton now, there is a degree of make believe with the latter that cannot be said of the former. The scenes in Kenya had me poised to fling my laptop out the window, the smugness and unapologetic inhumanity, those values that caricaturise the British establishment, I just didn’t have the stomach for it. And it is gut churning. In what else do the British excel, if not hypocrisy and unabashed racism?
I’ve focused a little on psyops in my recent posts and this is yet another arm of that. What better way to control (sections of) the rising masses by triggering their genetic predisposition as the bearers of multiple injustices? We all know about the holocaust and the ways in which survivors of that genocide were compensated for their suffering. Who can say the same for the black and brown peoples who were similarly extinguished by cruel and unusual Europeans striving for racial purity and supremacy? Why do the Germans hang their heads in woe when the Belgians, British and French (for eg) laud themselves as keepers of our collective moral compass? They rule by inflicting anxiety and confusion on their historical victims. The horror on the faces of the Grantham lot when Lady Rose invites the black jazz musician Jack Ross and his band to perform for Lord Grantham on his birthday, as though they were to be imminently hung drawn and quartered for their stolen jewels, once again flipped my gut on its side, as it does any time I see that look befall any pale faced deceiver. How dare they? The oppressor is at once the oppressed, giving the outsider no choice but to pander to their every whim, to prove they are not as savage as they have been depicted. If we were so savage, how did they win?
“You’re a better man than I, Gunga Din” is said a number of times during the show. What better example of British duplicity and slyness than this dishonest statement? No doubt Gunga’s head was spinning from all the psyops, just like mine. For if we were to sit back and think about it for a minute, we shouldn’t care whether they say we are savage or not and treat them as we have been treated. You can’t appeal to their humanity, they have none.
Predictably, as with any other time the dreaded issue of slavery raises its ugly head we have a well meaning Englishman remind us it was the British who led the charge against it, conveniently erasing the lapsed Brits who took it to America with them. It’s quite amusing the way the UK and US distance themselves from each other when it suits. Mr Carson proudly quotes Lord Henley’s judgment of 1763, whitesplaining his way out of accountability: “If a man sets foot on English soil then he is free”.. tell that to the Windrush generation, why don’t you? I can’t say I’ve felt free at all since 9/11, my every move dissected for proof I am a terrorist. With the new AUKUS pact for military supremacy you could erase the words of any well meaning English speaking man of the last few hundred years, at least.
None of their pop culture propaganda stands up to scrutiny but who cares when so many Americans are swept away by Downton and keeping those royalty checks rolling in? The absence of people of colour for the most part is certainly why the yanks just can’t get enough, but this is another fallacy British film and tv makers seem happy to perpetuate, that Britain was whiter than white right up until after the second world war. Granted there weren’t the numbers there were today (and even those are greatly inflated) but given that the first curry house was established in 1810, period dramas serve as a propaganda for something that just isn’t historically true. They might have tried to erase every last black and brown body off the face of the earth but they missed some of us.
When the British decreed a genocide against my ancestors, the Mughals, they demanded an end to the Timurid line, chasing and killing everyone they could find. Clearly, some of us survived. I watched with curiosity how the Grantham family shared in the woes of the remaining exiled Romanoffs and how they shamed Tom for being a socialist and in support of “killing little girls in their beds”. How hypocritical it was to allude to the viceroy’s role in India at various points in the show, when they were guilty of much worse over there. It is this split from reality, this psychopathy? sociopathy? that humanises Europeans and demands empathy from even their victims when they are the architects of such destruction and inhumanity, and we, as their victims, can barely get out of bed some days for all the violence embedded in our DNA? My grandmothers were raped by serving British soldiers and left to fend for themselves after the British legally declared them whores because they were not upper class hindus. Where is the justice for that, eh Carson lad?
Downton is a fiction in more ways than one. It is not your “way of life” that is under attack, Lady Mary, but the narrative you have constructed to legitimise your greed. You took from the colonised the concept of good living, that should be a human right not solely reserved for the sociopathic class, and transferred all your worst traits over to us, for example family honour (which can often be found between a daughter’s legs). However we are fast approaching that time in history when the tables are turned. Not a day goes by without a white knight malfunctioning and turning on his very own charges, there is only so much whitewashing the British media can get away with before it becomes endemic, and it will if they carry on ignoring the problem, just like it did in my motherland.
We talk about a deserving and undeserving poor but never the entirely undeserving rich. Perhaps Downton will serve as an example of this when we finally get our revolution. I’d put it on the syllabus for sure.