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TV: Downton Abbey

TV: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is one of the most popular British TV shows of recent times. There are 6 hugely successful series, but the one that’s running at the moment is the last one. For many avid viewers of prime-time Sunday night television, it’s a total disaster. The show depicts an aristocratic family living between 1912 and the 1920s. However, it also shows us the lives of their servants, who are equally interesting and complicated people.


The very first episode began on a dramatic note. The Titanic had sunk the previous night, and the family awoke to find the heir to the family’s fortune dead. As the laws at that time meant women could not inherit property or money, they began the search for a male relative to take on the task of managing the family’s property, after the current Lord Grantham dies.


The characters experience a variety of different situations. Births, deaths, and marriages that bring heavy disapproval are all commonplace in the Grantham family. However, even though they live in a bubble of wealth, the happenings of the world around them have a massive impact on their lives. The First World War brings death and ruin, and the Grantham house is used as a military hospital, as were many aristocratic dwellings at that time. Spanish flu hits after the war, and the family are left wondering how and why this could have happened – like so many other families who lost loved ones to the frightful epidemic.


Then, Hitler comes into their lives, and manages to cause great grief to the family’s household – even though they are so far detached from what is happening outside the confines of their estate. We last saw the family after their Christmas party, which was a roaring success.


Nobody can say the series is really accurate, and it’s a very romanticised portrayal of both history and the relationship between servants and their masters. However, some critics argue it’s offensive to certain groups, particularly Catholics. This goes hand-in-hand with the anti-Irish sentiment many believe to be present. Tom Branson is Irish, but at the start his character is quite poorly developed. The show portrays Irish history in an unfair light, and doesn’t really explore the motives of the Irish revolutionaries when they try to throw off British rule.


Julian Fellowes has become notorious for the accuracy of his shows, because the characters are often caught saying things they never would have said at the time. Many historians, such as Simon Schama, question the documentary. The trouble is that because it’s so popular, it might impact on how people think about the past, and people may start to believe it as the truth.


Despite all that, though, the series remains popular with viewers and critics alike. They even love it abroad – for Americans at least, the series represents the British stereotype that many wish was still true. The great thing about it is that when you watch it, you can escape into the past, and forget about the troubles of the present.


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