Thursday, October 15, 2015

Spilled Milk

Having had a chance to watch a few more episodes of Downton Abbey Season Five, with Season Six coming down the pike, I find myself more in agreement with Simon Schama's harsh assessment of the series' "clammy delirium of nostalgia." In my post "Upton, Downton" I compared Downton Abbey to the series on which it was modeled, Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired on PBS forty years ago and which I watched from my late teens into my early twenties with the same rapt attention that audiences now lavish on Downton. Among the many differences between the two shows that I neglected to point out - and that Simon Schama singled out for scorn - is Downton's overpowering and noxious air of nostalgia. 

Upstairs, Downstairs was a period drama about the lives of the people occupying one household in London's Eaton Belgravia district from 1903 to 1930. Because it covered such a long period in the history of England, many of the country's historical events - the sinking of the Titanic, the Great War, the General Strike, the Great Depression - were refracted through the fictional lives of the Bellamy household.  And it represented history honestly. At the end of the series, the maid Rose loses her life's savings in the 1929 stock market crash, and Lord Bellamy's only son, James, who survived the Great War, commits suicide.     

The historical period of Downton Abbey is more narrow: historical events (the Titanic, the Great War, the Irish Rebellion) are heard rumbling in the distance, but have little impact on the magnificent house and its occupants. Though popular in Britain, Downton Abbey has been especially successful in the U.S. The Anglophilia that the series seems to satisfy, however, appears to be more like necrophilia. Simon Schama, who clearly hates Downton's overwhelmingly rosy view of England's class-ridden past, and wants Americans to see the truth about the world that the series re-invents, agrees:

"Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia. . . In the current series, historical reality is supposed to bite at Downton in the form of the Great War. Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance."

When the BBC dramatization of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet novels The Jewel in the Crown was aired in the UK in 1984, the whole nation, it was said at the time, held its breath. Everyone, it seemed, took a time out to watch the program - not because they were fans of the novels, but because Britons in the 80s evidently felt overwhelmed by a nostalgia for its lost empire, its lost global prestige. 

Perhaps because I wasn't British or because I wasn't particularly interested in India, I watched only the first few episodes of the series when it aired on PBS before giving upon it. European fascination with the world before the fall - whether it was World War I or II (or, indeed, the Berlin Wall) - certainly has some justification, but history shows how, on many levels, they should've seen it coming. 

It was Robert Graves, I think, who called nostalgia "crying over spilled milk." It's a harmless but ultimately pointless exercise - until it tries, for whatever reason, to misrepresent the past.

No comments: