“Rest in peace Margaret Thatcher. Rest in peace, cheeky gal. You would have loved Binley Mega Chippy”. It’s with these words that Isaac HP, friend of the anxiety ‘what are you listening to?’ TikToker OshuClips, sent his love to the conservative leader of the late 20th century. While I’m sure Thatcher would have loved the chip shop in Coventry that stole TikTok’s heart, there’s another British institution she would have loved more: Downton Abbey.
Located in the aristocratic hills of Yorkshire, Downton Abbey tells the story of the Crawley family and their servants. Despite their polished public image, the Crawleys’ six-season runtime is characterized by scandal. A Turkish ambassador dies on Lady Mary while making love out of wedlock? No male heir to their royal estate? A visiting duke having an affair with a footman? There are numerous cupboards in the Crawley mansion, and each houses a more debauched, non-Edwardian skeleton than the last.
“The Crawleys’ six-season lifespan is characterized by scandal”
Some reviewers, however, think these skeletons are a distraction. While it can be fun to marvel at the weekly white-tie banquets, Downton sanitizes the history of Great Britain. It takes it bloody inequalities of the post-Edwardian period and markets them as something to be cherished rather than atoned for.
A quick dive into the Downton Abbey Wikipedia page tells the same story. Cora Crawley, the domain’s mother, is announced as Soft voice and family oriented. While Thomas Barrow – one of the only duty officers to rally against the privilege granted to the Crawleys – is charming reference as accomplice and smarmy. In the viewer’s mind, the beneficiaries of the land estate are the doting mothers, and those who criticize its inequality are the villains.
For most, this won’t be much of a surprise. A show hosted by a Tory peer with the name that makes Pfeffel Johnson’s Boris Alexander blush is set to glamorize British history. The fact that it places the aristocracy on a pedestal is not so shocking when its author, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, is seated on this same pedestal.
This story, however, paints only half of Downton’s conservative narrative.
You don’t need to change the structural problems with the system, suggests Downton
Enter Margaret Thatcher. After achieving electoral success in 1979 and winning a 144-seat majority in 1983, his political career was built on fighting the growing power of the welfare state. Alongside a unhealthy dose of Victorian values, Thatcher viewed the “nanny state” as a political virus rather than an antidote. Where Labor promised to reallocate state power to those who needed it, Thatcher denied the assumptions on which their policy was based and turned to charity. In the words of Gordon Brown, livelier and more beautiful, “[Thatcher] drawn [charity] from the riddance of social history, dusted [it] off and, much to the embarrassment…of British voluntary organisations…presented [it] as a vital component of a resolutely modern Thatcherism”. This Thatcherite ethic, however, can be expressed in fewer words: there is no need for a welfare state – good people, who want to do good things, will fill the void.
This extremely conservative message – which even Liz Truss would laugh at from the Cabinet Room – is at the center of Downton. Let’s take a look at Thomas Barrow, the ugly footman. Downton Abbey Twitter loved to hate Barrow and what he stood for – someone with a burning desire to rise above his designated rank.
Luckily for conservative OAPs who love the spectacle, Barrow finally gets rid of this meritocratic illusion. After regularly criticizing the system for the better part of five seasons, he begins to realize his place in the domain’s servant class and is eventually rewarded with a promotion to butler in the series finale. The all-merciful Crawleys, despite his communist groans and moans, extend their generous hand and reward him. You don’t need to change the structural problems with the system, suggests Downton; if you accept the way things are, you will be rewarded with good people who want to do good things.
So don’t let people convince you that Downton Abbey is harmless and outrageous entertainment. It is the host of a virus. While their top hats and tails may not be Thatcherite blue, every minute their characters appear on British television they’re casting a dangerous shade of Thatcherism across the country.
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