This is just to add a few thoughts to those of Jacqueline Winspear's post yesterday, where she describes how she appreciates Simon Schama's contribution to historical learning, but believes his opinion of Downton misguided.
Frankly, the academic's remarks are prejudiced, subjective and, even worse, unintelligent.
Simon Schama is no negligible writer, but he is an unappealing presenter with a tendency to bang his own drum. Since he blazed a trail for the docudrama format which has made history accessible to a wider audience during the last decade or so, other historians have come along who have greater power to engage. Judging from the calibre of his comments, nothing but the green-eyed monster is at the root of Schama's distaste. For a veteran in his field, that is not easy to forgive.
If Downton is so unworthy, why does it merit his attention?
And what, automatically, makes drama any less truthful than documentary?
The Downton Abbey series has striven to condense most aspects of a turbulent and fairly short English epoch which turned the nation (and the world) upside down, leading to the flawed democracy we cherish today. Those years, paving the way for WWII, were a rubicon dividing everything that went before from the life we've experienced since. There really was a major reshuffle and conscious re-evaluation of the class system, a rooting for enfranchisement and a say in personal destiny. The lower orders with noble ideals about honour, service and patriotism, instilled from above, realised how betrayed they had been into becoming cannon-fodder in a war that was conceived from a clash of monumental egos. Prior to that, generations of retainers often worked in the service of the same household. They knew their place but they were definitely part of an extended family.
WWI brought Gehenna and a confrontation with the depths of depravity to which mankind is capable of sinking. Afterwards, all strata of society were left clinging to the wreckage of a structure that could not be rebuilt. What was there to believe in? Notions of honesty and common decency were soon outmoded. People began to pursue their own interests. No, all in the garden hadn't been perfect before, but everyone had a purpose, an identity. Now, the signs on the elevator floor had become hopelessly muddled.
Good for Downton that it has awakened reflection and tapped into our nostalgia for bygone values. And good for Julian Fellowes that his brainchild has provided wholesome, and dare one say, educational, distraction from the subversive fictions of newcasts and the plethora of all brands of entertainment anxious to rub our noses in gloom, squalor and the baser instincts of human nature.
We've been there. We don't need a revisit.
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