Cinema and Media Studies Downton Abbey
by
Katherine Byrne
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0321

Introduction

Certainly the most successful period drama, indeed perhaps the most popular television show, of the 21st century, British series Downton Abbey (2010–2015) has become a force to be reckoned with in popular culture. It borrows the format of popular 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs (ITV), following the lives of a fictional Edwardian family and the servants who look after them in the eponymous house. Season 1 opens in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, in which the heir to Downton is lost: the plot then follows the family coming to terms with the arrival of the next in line, a middle-class lawyer with a very different view of life from their own. The next five seasons—there are six in total—follow the inhabitants as they cope with the change the 20th century brings, including the First World War; the woman’s movement, which liberates some of the female characters; and the changes in taxation and society, which make the estate increasingly difficult to maintain and run. The last episode is set in 1925, and a film based on the show is due out in 2019. The series was loved by fans both in the United Kingdom and the United States, but received very mixed critical reception. Critics on the left criticized the show for its glossy and nostalgic view of the past, and of interclass relations, linking its ideology to the politics of its writer, Conservative peer Julian Fellowes. Others praised its positive view of human nature and escapist charm, at a time when austerity was making itself felt in the United Kingdom. Either way, it undoubtedly rekindled viewers’ appetite for period drama on a scale not seen since the 1970s, and has also stirred up debate about the part played by television in representing, accessing, and understanding the past.

Class, Nostalgia, and Ideology

Most academic responses to Downton appear as individual articles or book chapters: there is only one edited collection, Stoddart 2018, and one journal special edition, Taddeo and Geraghty 2019, concentrating solely on the show, and no monograph devoted entirely to it as yet. Many of these works are interested in Downton’s politics and ideology, in particular its representation of English national identity, and its view of history. A strand of Downton criticism, like Byrne 2013, Byrne 2015, and Copelman 2019, is primarily interested in the values of the show, positioning it in relation to austerity: Baena and Byker 2015 considers its use of nostalgia, and Chapman 2014, Magee 2018, and Gullace 2019 focus on its production values and its reworking and revitalizing of the period drama genre. Stoddart 2018 has the most wide-ranging collection of essays focused on the show, and Leggott and Taddeo 2015 reveals its importance as an influence for other contemporary period dramas.

  • Baena, Rosalía, and Christa Byker. “Dialects of Nostalgia: Downton Abbey and English Identity.” National Identities 17.3 (2015): 259–269.

    DOI: 10.1080/14608944.2014.942262E-mail Citation »

    This article locates Downton Abbey as an example of what it describes as “reflective nostalgia,” and gives an overview of some key writings on nostalgia and national identity and suggests how they can be applied to the show.

  • Byrne, Katherine. “Adapting Heritage: Class and Conservatism in Downton Abbey.” Rethinking History 18.3 (2013): 311–327.

    DOI: 10.1080/13642529.2013.811811E-mail Citation »

    One of the first academic articles to respond to the early success of Downton Abbey, this essay argues that the show can be considered “post-post-heritage,” in other words a return to the values Higson and others identified with heritage drama back in the 1980s. Byrne examines the way the Abbey functions as a state in microcosm, and how it puts forward a conservative ideology where hierarchy is accepted and obedience is rewarded.

  • Byrne, Katherine. Edwardians on Screen: From Downton Abbey to Parade’s End. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137467898E-mail Citation »

    This monograph examines the representation of the Edwardian era in popular culture, with Downton as a point of reference for the whole book. It has chapters on other period dramas considered sources for, or in dialogue with, Fellowes’s, including “Downton for grown-ups,” Parade’s End (2012). The chapter which focuses on Downton contains some material from Byrne 2013, but also considers the show’s representation of WW1, and its treatment of the 1911 Insurance Act.

  • Chapman, James. “Downton Abbey: Reinventing the British Costume Drama.” In British Television Drama. 2d ed. Edited by Jonathan Bignell and Stephen Lacey, 131–142. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chapman’s essay discusses how the drama functions as “quality television,” writing about its production, popularity, and reception, and how it fits in with this tradition of British television. He also points out, however, that as “authored drama” it also has as much in common with the soap opera, and that the sense of intimacy and use of melodrama it borrows from that genre allow it to be more progressive than it might first appear.

  • Copelman, Dina. “Consuming Downton Abbey: The Commodification of Heritage and Nostalgia.” In Doing History in the Age of Downton Abbey. Edited by Julie Anne Taddeo and Christine Geraghty. Journal of British Cinema and Television 16.1 (January 2019): 61–77.

    DOI: 10.3366/jbctv.2019.0456E-mail Citation »

    Copelman builds on Hatherley 2016 (cited under Neohistorical and Memory Studies) to examine how Downton is a “cultural manifestation of neoliberal austerity,” encouraging the audience to come together as a community bonded by the ways they can consume the show.

  • Gullace, Nicoletta F. “A (Very) Open Elite: Downton Abbey, Historical Fiction and America’s Romance with the British Aristocracy.” In Doing History in the Age of Downton Abbey. Edited by Julie Anne Taddeo and Christine Geraghty. Journal of British Cinema and Television 16.1 (January 2019): 9–27.

    DOI: 10.3366/jbctv.2019.0453E-mail Citation »

    This essay argues that the show distracts the viewer with historically accurate sets, props, and costumes but that at its core its liberal policies are much more in line with modern value systems to create what Gullace calls “a habitable past.”

  • Leggott, James, and Julie Anne Taddeo, eds. Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama Television from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited collection features essays on a wide range of period drama from the 1960s onward, including The Paradise, Call the Midwife, and Poldark, but Downton Abbey informs and provides the key point of reference for the whole book. There are several chapters specifically about the show, and others which provide useful comparisons and other relevant reading about the position of period drama more generally.

  • Magee, Gayle Sherwood. “Revisiting Gosford Park.” In Exploring Downton Abbey: Critical Essays. Edited by Scott F. Stoddart. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.

    E-mail Citation »

    This considers how Fellowes’s first venture into heritage film evolved into—or indeed, contrasts with—Downton, and also examines the show’s soundtrack and use of music, a topic not covered in much detail by any other critic.

  • Stoddart, Scott F. Exploring Downton Abbey: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.

    E-mail Citation »

    This extensive collection of fourteen essays on Downton covers a wide variety of approaches to the show. It is structured using the house itself as a conceit, with sections on the library covering masculinity, and so on. Such an approach—with no chapter numbers—is both entertaining and a little unwieldy, but the number and range of essays allow areas of the show neglected by other critics to be explored in detail here.

  • Taddeo, Julie Anne, and Christine Geraghty, eds. Doing History in the Age of Downton Abbey. Journal of British Cinema and Television 16.1 (January 2019).

    E-mail Citation »

    This special journal issue is the only one of its kind to focus almost entirely on Downton, and brings up to date key issues surrounding historical interpretation of the show. Taddeo’s introduction reminds us of the way these kinds of period dramas divide historians: some have dismissed Downton, while this collection does an excellent job of convincing the reader that it is in fact an important and complex means of accessing and thinking about the past.

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