'Downton' class divisions closer to home than Americans might think
AMERICA LETTER:The growing popularity in the US of Edwardian TV series Downton Abbey has generated much chin-stroking among America’s commentariat about what attracts millions of viewers to an English period drama about rigid class divides.
Curiously, it has prompted both the left and the right to claim that it appeals most to their respective values.
The third-series finale attracted 8.2 million viewers last Sunday on PBS, the free publicly funded broadcaster. It’s not quite a Super Bowl high – the US’s premier sporting event had 108 million viewers earlier this month – but Downton’s final episode of the season drew 50 per cent more viewers than last year’s finale and almost a million more than the 7.3 million who watched the episode in the UK.
The programme was also the most-watched series on PBS since a landmark production about the American civil war broadcast in 1990. So in other words, Downton Abbey is big here.
Soft-hearted liberals love Downton, described by a Washington Post blogger as “the PBS hit about dressing for dinner”, for portraying a more compassionate aristocracy. In Salon magazine, the main character, Lord Grantham, was described as the “platonic ideal of an English aristocrat”, much like Jed Bartlet was the platonic ideal of a US president in the political drama West Wing.
The right says the ITV-produced drama plays to the ultra-conservative Republican Tea Party faction, their hatred of death taxes and their desire to retain family inheritance.
British journalist Stuart Varney, a contributor to Fox News Channel’s conservative morning show, Fox Friends, last month described Downton as “a threat to the left” because the rich are shown as lovable and invested in their community: “Rich people are prominently featured, they’re generous, they’re nice – they create jobs, for heaven’s sake. They’re classy, they’ve got style and we love them.”
Others attribute the show’s success to American curiosity about the British class system or to simple escapism as Americans covet the lifestyle of the Crawleys and the romanticised view of class divisions on an Edwardian-era English aristocratic estate while they struggle through difficult economic times.
Viewers may also want to see themselves in working-class Irishman and former family chauffeur Tom Branson as he adapts to life upstairs after being fast-tracked to the upper class due to his marriage to the daughter of the house, Lady Sybil. For many Americans watching Downton at home last Sunday, this may have been their only experience of upward mobility.
The widening gap between the rich and poor has undermined the US’s status as the great classless society. US census bureau figures last year showed that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew to its widest in more than 40 years in 2011.
The 46.2 million people living in poverty was at the highest level in the 53 years these census statistics have been taken.
The biggest beneficiaries of the US economic recovery since mid-2009 have been shown to be the higher earners. Average incomes decreased for the bottom 80 per cent of earners and increased for the top 20 per cent in recent years.
Other studies have shown that you are less likely to get ahead in the US than, say, in Nordic countries or in Britain, traditionally famous for its strict class structures as Downton has shown.
A 2006 project by a research team in Bonn, Germany, found that 42 per cent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes remained there as adults compared with 25 per cent in Denmark and 30 per cent in Britain.
Research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about 62 per cent of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes stayed in the top two-fifths, while 65 per cent born in the bottom fifth remained in the bottom.
US president Barack Obama used his state of the union address to call on Congress to “restore the basic bargain” – that if you work hard, you can get ahead – and to mobilise a middle class upwards again. He noted that in some communities “no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead”.
The working poor, like the foot-servants in Downton Abbey, struggle to survive on the minimum wage, a level of basic pay Obama wants to increase “so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on”. Given the politically toxic environment in which he is seeking to re-establish his basic bargain society, it is easy to see why Downton has grown popular – Americans can relate to the great divide between upstairs and downstairs.