Today we're honored to welcome author Fay Weldon to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Weldon, a British novelist, is best known in the United States for writing The Lifes and Loves of a She-Devil, which was made into the film She-Devil starring Roseanne Barr. Weldon also worked on an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as well as Upstairs Downstairs in its original incarnation in the 1970s. Her latest novel, Habits of the House, will be released on January 15. Weldon wrote this piece welcoming Downton Abbey's return to British television, but her thoughts apply to any Downton fan. Thanks, Fay!
(Editor's note: This article contains speculation and minor spoilers for Downton Abbey Season 3.)
Downton Abbey is back. The third series starts in the United States on Sunday; we’ve moved on from the war and can happily deduce from the trailer that Shirley MacLaine turns up from the US to do battle with the indomitable Maggie Smith, the old lady with all the best lines. We hope for more.
There is a hint that his lordship may have lost his money and fallen on hard times. “How are the mighty fallen” is always a good theme—so long as the recovery is fast.
Ratings were down a little for series two. That figures. Too many war scenes and damaged bodies. As soon as I see a tin hat on TV, I shrink. Tin hats mean misery ahead. What was Julian Fellowes thinking of? We don’t want pictures of muddy trenches and suffering soldiers, we just want to look at ravishing dresses and big hats and tremble to unrequited love and forbidden lust.
With great relief, 11 million viewers turned to the first series of Downton back in 2010 to watch the upper classes at love and play. Those fanciable young men, those beautifully turned-out girls with swan necks and perfect complexions, the kind you see in cosmetic ads—gorgeous, and all safely 100 years ago. The dresses, the jewels, the large, lofty rooms, the obsequious staff, the subdued eroticism of it all—a flutter of eyelashes, a pout of male lips—oh, pass the smelling salts! The hairs on the back of the neck stand up, the breath catches.
At last, the possibility of identifying not with the distressed and exploited, but with the great, the good, the titled and the beautiful.
We don’t mind dipping just a little into the lives of the staff, enough to feel sorry for them and have a little frisson about the injustice of it all, to be able to look at the gentry through other eyes. But not for too long. We seem to prefer posh.
Downton Abbey offers dreams, and what do we want from drama on television if not dreams? We’re tired of having our noses rubbed in real life; the news is bad enough, and documentaries serve up a diet of social issues and neighbourhood problems.
Comedy brings out what is cynical and jeering in us, and makes us uncomfortable. When we get home from work and switch on we’re happy to watch The One Show (a British show, on the BBC One, which is considered a “live magazine programme” featuring topical stories and big name studio guests), bits and bobs as a transition from work to home, but at weekends we like to settle down to escapist dreams, colour, fantasy, glamour, Strictly Come Dancing (the BBC One version of Dancing with the Stars)—or switch over to Downton.
Hey, these are anxious times. We’ll be on benefits ourselves if we don’t look out; open the fridge to find that it’s bare. It’s all getting too close for comfort. With its world of benefits, petty criminals, rapes, abortions and domestic rows, EastEnders (arguably one of the most classic British soaps (ahem... dramatic programming)) begins to insult us. Downton Abbey comes over as a compliment to our taste and standards.
Domestic cops-and-robbers have lost their charm, too, though Line of Duty (British police drama from 2012) did well enough on BBC Two, attracting three million viewers. Apparently, we all wanted to see and hear that nice young man have his fingernails torn out. We haven’t quite lost our taste for murder, either, but these days we’d rather watch it happen in a foreign country, somewhere we’ve never even been on holiday. Scandinavia, perhaps?
As for doctors-and-nurses, we’ve seen every organ there is to see in the body pulsing away, every tumour growing, every limb broken. Enough is enough. Give us the perfect young bodies of Downton Abbey any day. We crave a comfort-zone ghetto to retreat to—costume drama about aristocrats a century ago.
I have every sympathy with Downton addicts, having recently fled from the grottiness and moral ambiguities of the contemporary novel to the haven of Edwardian London, to the titled establishments of Belgrave Square—modest in comparison to Downton Abbey, I grant you, but grand and titled enough—in a novel called Habits of the House, begun before Downton Abbey was a gleam in Julian’s eye.
The success of Downton Abbey takes place in an era of overall falling TV viewing figures. Cuddling up on the family sofa is not what it was. Twenty eight per cent, and rising, of all households now consist of one person, and often in housing, one fears, where there’s not even room for a sofa. The ever-bigger television screen is for the middle-aged and old. The young have better things to do. Television competes with the delights and sociability of the computer age—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, PC games, being your own avatar in Second Life.
But drama still pulls, at least according to ITV, which plans to produce 30 per cent more of it next year. The BBC, in particular, is hoist with the petard of its own moral conscience, and if drama output over all BBC channels has fallen by 9 per cent over the past year, as reported, I am not surprised. Drama departments exercise such a tight control over the political correctness of their content that it’s difficult for the fresh and lively to get through.
A few things still slip through the net, of course. Costume drama tends to be one of them, if only because the past itself was politically incorrect. Upstairs Downstairs, one of ITV’s earliest triumphs, re-emerged on the BBC. It did well, but not well enough for a third series.
Of the three million who rushed to watch Parade’s End (another dramatic BBC show set during Edwardian times ), in the hope of seeing Downton Abbey reborn, a million did not return for the next episode. Instead of finding the moral certainties of the past, it found ambiguity, characters who were not wholly good or wholly bad.
It is a wonderful drama, to my mind, but the wider audience wanted enchanted serenity, and it wasn’t there. Tietjens is morally troubled, where the Earl of Grantham is not. Sylvia is horrid but sympathetic. You have to work at Parade’s End to find out what’s going on, but after a hard day at the office, who wants more work? I do, but then I sit at home at a computer all day, writing.
Copyright © 2012 by Fay Weldon
Habits of the House by Fay Weldon (St. Martin's Press, 1/15/13, $25.99) is available for pre-order everywhere books are sold or from Macmillan.