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

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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?