Downton Abbey is bearing down upon the autumn TV schedules as implacably as the Red Army marching on Berlin, its advance preceded by a saturation media bombardment. Disapprove, if you like, but Downton cannot be stopped. There are just too many people for whom gorgeous frocks, big houses, soap-operatic plots and the guilty thrill of masters and servants are irresistible. And not all of these people are women.
Downton is presented as escapist fantasy. Yet its success coincides with the precise moment when the real world is reverting to the social order that the show depicts. The gap between the super rich one-tenth of one per cent and the rest is now so wide that an oligarch class of bankers, entrepreneurs, hyper-celebrities, corrupt dictators and former Communist officials can live a life whose opulence is beyond the wildest dreams of dear old Lord Grantham.
With that wealth come servants. They are not, perhaps, the chambermaids of old, though many a Filipina maid in the smarter parts of London might beg to differ. They are bodyguards, private jet and yacht crews, chefs, nannies, gardeners, therapists and PAs. They may even think of themselves as professionals. But they are servants.
Struck by this parallel, I had the idea of writing a modern Downton, playing on all the same narrative and voyeurist strings, but starting in 2012, rather than 1912. Yet my agent and publishers swiftly disabused me. It wouldn’t work, they said. Everyone would hate the rich too much. They wouldn’t love them the way they love the Crawley clan.
For just as the Downton phenomenon is happening in a new golden age for the grossly overprivileged, so the rest of us have really started to hate the rich. Five years of recession have stripped away the delusion that we were all getting wealthier. Meanwhile, the people whose excesses helped create the crash have escaped it, not just unscathed, but even better off than before. And their limitless sense of entitlement renders them utterly untroubled, let alone apologetic for their good fortune.
I know a director of a bank that has been fined around $1bn for various forms of impropriety. He greeted the meltdown in 2008 by telling me: “It will do people good to have a little less to spend.” I asked an old friend who married a banker how her life had changed. “It means that when the baby cries in the night, I’m not the one who has to get up,” she replied.
In the hands of a more daring writer, Downton Abbey would use a story about the past to make a commentary about the present. But Julian Fellowes, who seems to possesses the crashing snobbery of a man who knows that he’s not really all that smart, has no interest in irony or subtext. Downton is precisely what it claims to be: a celebration of privilege. The complexity lies in the viewers, loving the fiction of the past at the very same time that they fear and resent the truth of the present. The story that no one wants to tell is actually much more interesting.
David Thomas’s latest novel, Ostland, is published by Quercus, price £16.99