One Cheer for Downton Abbey on Ice
Well, one thing about enforced idleness, you get to catch up on the telly. Thanks to a nasty manager in my un-unionised industry, I presently have more time on my hands than I need. So, after watching all of Downton Abbey in between job applications, I have been watching Julian Fellowes’ latest opus – “Titanic”. Tactfully released (along with the needless 3D version of that film) to coincide with the centenary of the disaster, and in no way a transatlantic cash-in…
Fans of period drama, and of Mr Fellowes, will be relieved to find that his portentous dialogue is still there, the much sought after period detail (Churchill growls his lines to an officer of the Scots Guards after the Sidney Street Siege), and that the romance of country house living survives – this is still, as Nick Cohen has already noted of Downton, “MTV for Tories”. Fellowes is on record as saying that he wanted to do something different as compared to “A Night to Remember” and other celluloid versions, or Beryl Bainbridges excellent “Every Man for Himself”. He claimed that the previous dramas had focused too much on the upper classes or plebs, and not enough on those he regards as his people – the middle classes.
It may be instructive to know what Mr Fellowes believes the “middle class” is, for his background and upbringing place him far above, say, the average wage earner. It may be better to say that he comes from the “lower-upper class”, as George Orwell described himself as “lower-upper-middle class”. The Fellowes’ are part of that gang that used to be called the yeomanry – not quite aristocrats, but not on their uppers either. Rather let us say that whilst being servants of the true masters, they were also truly masters of servants themselves.
His middle class is very wide indeed, which fits into most modern british class definitions, including self-definition. This perhaps is why he is so successful, for his country house writings do seem to find a wide audience that can identify with his characters. It allows him to create sympathetic characters such as an Irish Catholic engineer, escaping the hardship and discrimination of Belfast for example. There are some problems at the top, of course, but in general, officers are decent sorts, as are the better sort of bourgeois. Snobbery is highlighted and condemned, yet there is a nasty taste at the end of all of this.
In “Gosford Park”, his first massive hit, Mr Fellowes had the luxury of setting all of the action in one location – the great house. This allowed the author to create his own self-contained society – one which he clearly feels is ideal. in the first series of Downton this theme was expanded upon at length. The lower orders know their place, the Lord is kindly and compassionate, loyalty is a two way street. Suitably enlightened middle class types can be co-opted if they wish – it really is bright and beautiful – provided that the poor man stays at the gate.
Yet this outwardly paternalistic vision of an idealised Edwardian world shows glimpses of Mr Fellowes’ real conservative prejudices when the Suffragette Lady Sybil attends an election hustings. She is injured in a violent clash with working class toughs who violently object to the pro female suffrage candidate. Mr Fellowes, like all good members of his middle class, has an undisguised fear and hatred of the industrial workers. In the first episode of “Titanic”, in the very first scene, it established beyond any doubt that discrimination against Catholics in Belfast is caused by – you guessed it – working class protestants. The owner of Harland and Wolff Shipyards can state with no contrary evidence that he is an egalitarian employer as regards to religion – flying in the face of historical evidence. This is where we see the pernicious attempt by jolly good Fellowes to rewrite history to suit the modern Conservative Party. And he does this on a scale that is only matched by Boris Johnson in its infamy. It seems that from an early age the young Julian was taught that, as Orwell puts it, “the working classes smell”.
Let us lay his awful prejudices to rest. It is true that workers no doubt did rough-up Suffragettes, as did the police, and Oxbridge students of the Bullingdon type. They were encouraged and led in this campaign of intimidation by the Tories, who mobilised the very worst dregs they could find to physically attack these brave women and their male supporters- especially those from the Independent Labour Party, such as Kier Hardy, MacDonald and the later murdered Grayson. A mainstay of the Suffrage movement were the socialist women, such as Annie Besant and Christabel Pankhurst.
Far far worse is his depiction of the Belfast working class. Modern Conservatives have sought to ignore the “Unionist” in their party name, and to pretend that they had nothing to do with the heightening of sectarian violence across Ireland before 1914. Yet it was they who encouraged the slogan “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right” against the Home Rule Bill. The Tories went so far as to applaud and back the mutiny of serving protestant Army officers at Curragh, bringing Britain to the brink of Civil War. They called for the harshest penalties for Trades Unionists, yet clemency for a potential armed rebellion against an elected government. This is a matter of historical record. Their financial backers in Belfast also armed the UVF with smuggled german rifles.
In point of fact, the great 1907 Belfast Dock Strike showed a glimpse of a non-sectarian future. The strike, mainly protestant led, was solid in both East and West Belfast, and provided the unheard of spectacle of 12th July rallies where mass meetings and marches from working class districts denounced the religious divide. Even the Police mutinied against guarding blacklegs, but I doubt that dear Julian would have anything but revulsion for this. It inspired Jim Larkin and James Connolly, as well as the founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union a year later. Those unwashed plebs, the mob that Fellowes so fears, were the real hope of a better life for all, yet he casually, almost nonchalantly slanders a whole people, a whole class.
Period drama can, and has been better than this. Lets hope that The Boat can come in again soon…