Sunday night is one of the most important nights for television in America. Not because of the nightly, hair-raising national sport that is football. Nor is it award shows like the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes that can accumulate up to 50 million viewers. No, it is the British phenomenon Downton Abbey that turns a day of rest into hours of pleasure. This Masterpiece Classic BBC and PBS broadcast event has garnered a fan base of roughly nine and a half million and, on its fourth season, has received a record breaking 10 million strong audience in the United States for its premiere episode. Though the story is set across the pond and focused on a geographically and socially distant evolution of class, gender equality and race, Downton Abbey has become hugely popular in the States.
The show focuses on the affluent Crawley family, which consists of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wife, Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters, Ladies Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). After the death of the male heir to the Crawley estate (also known as Downton Abbey), the show begins a search for a new heir.
The show features a large group of “downstairs” characters, such as maids, footmen, and valets (personal man-servants). The strict British social norms that separate the Crawleys from their staff create a wide gap between the two groups. Through each episode, more characters arrive and leave the premise of the great Highclere Castle in which the show is filmed, creating a steady story of romance, comedy and tragedy.
Downton Abbey focuses on many relevant issues of today, such as class, gender equality, homophobia and race relations. Class plays a large part in the series, as the very structure in which Downton is founded upon is based on a very old-fashioned, hierarchical model. In the servants’ quarters, there is a strict pecking order that keeps someone like the scullery maid apart from the head butler. For example, ex-valet Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is extremely humiliated when he is forced to assume a footman’s role, when in fact he has been trained to be a valet, which is higher on the downstairs caste system.
This contempt for the lower class is an important throughline for the show. In the fourth season, a famous Australian opera singer comes to perform at Downton and the head of the house, Lord Grantham, refuses to let her eat with the family because she is an Aussie and a performer. He claims that they “would have nothing to talk about” (he is soon surprised when she knows as much about wine as a vineyard owner and a conversation commences).
Lord Grantham’s traditional ways do not end with the opera singer. In the premiere of season four, daughter Mary is supposed to help run the estate with her father and brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Though she has the right to assist the two men, Grantham is convinced that Mary needs her rest and they should not bother her. At dinner, he quizzes her mercilessly over unimportant facts about landownership and the Downton estate, all to prove that a woman is incapable of his job. Gender inequality is, therefore, a substantial issue on Downton Abbey.
Since the show is set in the twenties, women in the United Kingdom are becoming more liberated with their bodies and disregarding of decrepit social rules contrived by old men; not many Downton fans can forget the memorable last scene in season one when the youngest daughter, Sybil, comes out wearing bloomers.
This signals not only the beginning of a new era for England, but also for the Crawley family, as they are thrown into debates over women’s rights and social divisions. A new member of the household, however, really makes a statement by showing the Crawleys what women’s liberation in the twenties is all about.
Lady Rose McClare (Lily James) enters Downton with a bang: dancing to jazzy music in the foyer, going to lower class cotillions in York, dating men “below her,” etc… Rose is surely the epitome of an emancipated woman in the roaring 20s. She takes business into her own hands and disregards what her uncle (Lord Grantham) or any other man tells her to do. Though she may be thought of as young and foolish, Rose teaches the Crawleys about what true liberation is like.
In a London jazz club, Rose meets her boyfriend, an African American singer named Jack Ross (Gary Carr), who is socially beneath her. Though he rescues her from a drunken dance partner, her family still becomes embarrassed and escorts Rose away from Ross, the apparent perpetrator. Race is one issue that has not been very prominent throughout the series, but it certainly comes into play when Mary’s disapproving looks flash across the screen.
When Ross comes to play at Downton, Lord Grantham asks him if he has ever considered visiting Africa. His question sets the tone that African-Americans are socially below the Crawleys, no matter Ross’ divine manners. However, Ross and Rose become very close—even engaged—but call off their relationship because Ross does not want Rose to be frowned upon by society.
It may seem as though the series can’t possibly hold any more of today’s issues; Downton creator Julian Fellowes is cramming as much debatable material into the show as possible. However, homosexuality and homophobia enter the Downton sphere as early as the premiere episode for the series with the outing of the conniving underbutler, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier). His affair with the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox) strikes the hearts of viewers and, sympathizing with Barrow, they question why the underbutler is portrayed as a vicious antagonist.
Was Fellowes being homophobic for making Barrow so cruel? Why did the only gay character in the show have to be pure evil? Fellowes answered the question in an interview with the New York Times, stating, “I…felt it was believable that someone living under that pressure would be quite snippy and ungenerous and untrusting. But once you understood what he was up against, you’d forgive quite a lot of that.” The “pressure” that Fellowes alludes to is the old British legislation that outlaws homosexuality. If Barrow was caught doing anything remotely out of line, he could be carted off to prison.
However, his sexuality is revealed subtlety during the show and, surprisingly, Lord Grantham responds with an accepting speech that clears Thomas of all supposed charges. Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), is much less forgiving. While discussing Branson’s inexperienced conversational skills, Grantham comments, “Not everyone can be Oscar Wilde.” The Countess cattily responds, “That’s a relief.” It is this short, judgemental language that reveals the critical underpinnings of Downton, as well as the strict English social rules that appeared in the early 1900s.
Homophobia, class, gender equality and race are just a few of the important issues that crop up during Downton Abbey. But it is these topics that keep the show relevant and popular for today’s viewers. Fans can relate to the everyday struggles of the characters, whether they be in racial or social endeavors.
All different types of people can feel the pain that Sybil feels when she is shamed for marrying a chauffeur, or when maid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) wishes there was more for her than just being a housemaid.
The beauty of Downton is that it encourages fans to recognize these issues by placing them in as far off a setting as the beginning of the 20th century. The show reveals contemporary controversies in an era generally thought of as untouched. It makes us reevaluate both our ideas about the past and the present. Downton Abbey’s unstoppable force is due to its relevance and the connection it makes to viewers from all over the world.