Sarah Sands: 'Downton Abbey' is sloppy tosh. That's why we love it

Share
Related Topics

What a terrible weekend for the BBC. Not only did strike action take from us the Today programme, Front Row and other middle-class pleasures, but it's been beaten in the field it used to call its own. The most perfect middlebrow drama this year concludes tonight – on ITV.

Downton Abbey is the answer to the eternal question of what makes us happy: a costume drama on a winter evening. We knew this from Cranford, but that was an unsurprising triumph, for we are primed to expect such things from the BBC. The success of Downton Abbey stole over us like winter mist. Even as astute a critic as Rachel Cooke wrote off the first episodes as creaky and preposterous. TV folk were busy fussing over Saturday night audiences. They could only envisage family showtime and tears.

What older audiences yearned for was stiff upper lip and a bit of action below stairs. There were other, unexpected pleasures, such as spotting mistakes. Detecting Edwardian TV aerials and double yellow lines became a national parlour game. Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, who has developed a Maggie Smith-style ability to take offence, attributes the carping over period detail to left-wing people "who are insecure socially". But he can't have noticed the hue and cry in the Telegraph over social solecisms. It is not peculiar to the left wing.

Charles Moore wrote in The Spectator that it was bracingly bold in these times to make the Earl a goodie and the gay footman a baddie. Richard Dennen, in the Evening Standard, mused that he too had enjoyed rogering a butler while staying at a relative's Scottish castle.

Meanwhile the "socially insecure" enjoy the servant plot lines. Not just because of Bates-lust. Housework is a lapsed art, which we regard with mystified fascination. When the National Trust advertised a housekeeping course, my career-minded friends squealed and fought to sign up to it. I was as intrigued by the servants' rooms as the wicked aristocrat in search of incriminating letters.

The National Trust has offended some purists by offering an "experience" of famous houses. Instead of filing past a rope, visitors can sit down and read books and imagine themselves into the life of the house. Downton Abbey is a television equivalent.

What of the plot, chunks of which have been allegedly lifted from Little Women and Mrs Miniver? Well, when Russell Davies drew on the best storylines in history for Dr Who, we applauded his ingenuity.

These are the safe ingredients for blockbuster television and, indeed, all drama; a house, a letter, a disaster, an unacknowledged love, a lost fortune, a stolen object and a person wrongly suspected, a hero/heroine feared dead but nursed back within one episode, a secret and war on the horizon. Fellowes has chucked all these in and the result is delicious.

There have been other theories on the particular alchemy of Downton Abbey. The Edwardian period is far enough away to look like history, but not so far that we don't want to live there. It is also bang on the school history curriculum. It has made or rescued the careers of many of its actors. It has raised a puzzled ITV into BBC heartland. It has changed the dynamic of our weekend. How shall we manage tomorrow?

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas