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A Bit of a Spat About Downton Abbey

Posted: 01/20/2012 10:46 am

By Jacqueline Winspear

A bit of a spat blew up this week, when noted historian, Simon Schama, took aim at the enormously successful British TV series Downton Abbey. Schama is, as you may know, originally from that scepter'd isle, and doesn't like what he's seen of Julian Fellowes' take on the aristocracy and the servant classes of the pre and post-World War I era.

I'm a huge fan of Schama's -- oh, to have been a student in one of Professor Schama's history classes -- and last year I was pleased to read that he was advising the British government on how history could be brought back into the heart of a revived school curriculum; my love of history was seeded and nurtured by some wonderful history teachers in my native Britain. Schama's documentaries are compelling and have kept the attention of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. I've spent good money on his books and DVD's. But I think he has it wrong this time.

Along with other historians, such as A. N. Wilson, he seems to have forgotten that Downton Abbey is not a documentary, but fiction. And as fiction, though deeper truths underline the story, to weigh it down with facts would diminish the pace, burden the viewer and give more power to the TV's remote control.

Describing Downton Abbey as a, "steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery," Schama cites the depiction of the Great War as being one of the areas where the series is at fault. I confess, as in Stephen Spielberg's War Horse, the battlefield scenes drew back from depicting the blood-laden fact that the 1914-18 war was a conflict in which 10 million men died, but they give us an impression of what came to pass -- and perhaps that's all we need to keep us coming back for more. Schama asserts that if the series were true to life, then Matthew Crawley would not have returned from the war, and the estate would have been caught in the downturn that hit agriculture in the years following the war, a time when Britain also struggled under the weight of war debt. On the contrary, I believe certain characters stand for the reality of what happened in the war -- Matthew Crawley was one of 1,350,000 British men who came home seriously wounded; a new footman represents the hundreds of thousands who were profoundly shell-shocked, but were expected to just "carry on," and a member of the Downton household staff is among the 750,000 men from Britain who died.

Criticism has been leveled at everything from the odd TV antennae left standing during filming, to contemporary traffic signs visible in a street scene, to the costumes. Oh dear, haven't these experts ever been to a party? Are they so tied up in critical knots that they can't just sit back and let people be entertained? Because that's what Downton Abbey is -- it's entertainment. I have seen many movies set in past times and spotted the modern age creeping in; a halogen headlamp on a car in the 1930's, a TV antennae in the 1800's, a place where the yellow line in the road wasn't completely covered, or a dress that wasn't designed at that point in time -- but I can forgive those details when the essence of the era is wrapped in a story that keeps my attention.

But if I'm watching one of Simon Schama's documentaries, I want to learn something, and I want him to have his facts right; I want to know he's basing his interpretation of history on solid research -- and that's exactly what he communicates so brilliantly well. Many of the Downton Abbey viewers have been inspired to delve a bit deeper into British social history of the early 20th century, and they'll be looking to the work of noted historians such as Schama to fill in the gaps with documented facts and informed opinion -- be sure, he has an excellent canon of work ready to read or view.

Jacqueline Winspear is the author of the between-the-wars historical mystery series featuring ex-Word War I nurse Maisie Dobbs. Like Simon Schama, she is originally from the United Kingdom, but now lives in the United States. Her new book, Elegy for Eddie, will be published in March. To read Jacqueline's blog, and to buy her books, visit her on Red Room.

 

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