Downton Abbey's addictive allure

British period drama Downton Abbey has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, becoming more than just escapist TV with compelling storytelling and characters in lovely costumes. It touches on feelings about class and the world around us.
Downton Abbey's Lady Edith Crawley, played by Laura Carmichael, evolves from a manipulative and spiteful character to show a softer side as the effects of the First World War are explored in the British period drama. (PBS)

Lady Edith is on the phone from England. It's teatime in London, and the middle Crawley sister is considering how the saga of her aristocratic family and their servants has spread far beyond their well-appointed drawing room and become a cultural touchstone the world over.

"It's been mad," says Lady Edith, known in real life as actress Laura Carmichael. "That it hit globally is beyond our wildest dreams."

Lady Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, dances with the butler Charles Carson, played by Jim Carter. (PBS)

It is Downton Abbey, the British TV melodrama set around the lives and loves in a stately home in Yorkshire about a century ago. The award-winning series has been a ratings blockbuster on both sides of the Atlantic, with a successful run wrapping up on PBS on Sunday. Next Wednesday evening, Canada's Vision TV will start airing Season 1 again, followed by Season 2.

In Canadian living rooms and libraries, bookstores and lecture halls, the buzz around show has been building as fast as any zinger Maggie Smith rattles off as Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

That buzz has also shown just how much the series has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist. It has become more than just escapist TV with compelling storytelling and (sometimes backstabbing) characters in lovely costumes, and touches on feelings about class and the world around us.

"It's addictive. It's completely addictive," says Beverley Shenken, vice-president of programming in the Zoomer Media Television Division, which oversees Vision TV. "It's the sets, the designs, the costumes, the performances, the storyline."

The Downton effect

Here are a few examples of the broad swath the British series is cutting in popular culture.


boutique on Indigo Books’ website dedicated to Downton Abbey titles — DVDs, relevant books, etc. — has seen a fourfold spike in sales in the past few weeks. Public relations manager Lisa Huie says Downton Abbey is "growing a vibrant fan base."

Public libraries

The website of the Toronto Public Library posted a Book Buzz blog on Downton Abbey this week. It received twice the usual number of hits for such a page. "I was shocked, really," says librarian Margaret Elwood, who plans to add related fiction titles to the page.

Saturday Night Live

SNL parodied Downton Abbey, transforming it into something you might see on the laddish Spike TV network. Its tone varied somewhat from the real DA: Maggie Smith's dowager countess was identified as "the chicken lady."

New York Fashion Week

Designer Tadashi Shoji's Fall 2012 collection had critics wondering if it was inspired by Downton Abbey. The lace bodices and dropped waists would not have looked out of place on Lady Mary or Lady Sybil.

YouTube features

Search Downton Abbey on YouTube, and there are about 2,480 results. One of the more popular ones is Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says. 

Celebrity tweets 

Some observers credit celebrity comments on social media sites for fuelling the Downton craze. Everyone from singer Katy Perry to movie critic Roger Ebert has had something to say about the show.

But there's more to the show's resonance than that, she suggests, looking to the "99 per cent rule" of the Occupy Movement that emerged in 2011.

"It's that whole separation between the haves and the have-nots. It's a great divide and in fact in Season 2, we will see the effects of the First World War on the lives of the Crawley family and the servants who work for them," says Shenken.

'Changed forever'

"You think of the storms of war that will change the inhabitants [of Downton Abbey] forever in Season 2 and then you think of what we're going through with the economic climate — it has changed forever the way we will move forward."

Lady Edith's life certainly changes during the war, as does her character. Carmichael credits the skill of Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) for Edith's evolution from a manipulative and spiteful character to one with a softer side who gets involved with the war effort in very practical ways.

In that evolution, Fellows tosses in a Canadian twist, one that toys with Edith's heart, and touches on a central theme of Downton Abbey: the fate of the estate.

Season 1 opens in April 1912, when the Titanic sank, apparently taking down the heirs to Downton Abbey.

"It was to do with the question of the Titanic and whether or not our cousin Patrick had in fact drowned or whether or not he was picked up and started a new life with amnesia in Canada," says Carmichael.

Patrick was the fiancé of Lady Edith's older sister, Lady Mary, but Edith loved him. His apparent death left Edith heartbroken. Fellowes shakes the plot up with the possibility Patrick might actually still be alive, returning as a disfigured soldier who regained his memory and is recuperating at Downton, which has been transformed into a convalescent hospital during the war. (Melodrama, anyone?)

Carmichael liked the way Fellowes tied the plot to history.

"Julian makes these references to the world of that time and how particularly in the aristocracy, rich people were looking across the pond for opportunity and expansion."

'Feelings about the past'

Those references to the world of that time also resonate with Jacqueline Warwick, an associate professor of music, gender and women's studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"Certainly for me in Halifax, [the Titanic] — that just happened nearby, so that's definitely something that resonates with us, I think, our feelings about the past," says Warwick.

"I've noticed a lot of interest in that particular moment in history, just before the First World War."

Christmas comes to Downton Abbey: from left, Iain Glen as Sir Richard Carlisle, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley and Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham. (PBS)

A fan of the show, Warwick has just bought Season 2 on DVD. Beyond the personal interest, though, she's found a professional use for Downton Abbey.

In her second-year class entitled "Women, Gender and Music," the show became a "culturally relevant text" she used to explain a concept.

"I was talking to my students about the idea of adopting a different standpoint — explaining how our epistemologies of knowledge and power work," she says.

"In the world of Downton Abbey for example, the aristocrats know their world, but they don't know anything about the servants' world, whereas the servants know their own world and they also know the aristocrats' world.

"So if we really want to understand how an aristocratic world operates, we should adopt the standpoint of the servant, not the standpoint of the aristocrat. And in that way I think the show is doing some significant social work for us, performing some analysis for us."

'Silvered tureen of snobbery'

Of course, not everyone is a fan of the show.

Some critics have suggested it's riddled with historical inaccuracies (wouldn't the servants be dirtier, could a man wounded in war really recover the way he did on screen?). In the British media, Season 2 had a rather bumpier critical welcome than Season 1.

Rose Leslie, who plays housemaid Gwen Dawson, left, and Siobhan Finneran, who plays lady's maid Sarah O'Brien, are shown in a scene from Downton Abbey's first series. (PBS/Associated Press)

The criticism has sometimes been harsh. Simon Schama, a British history professor at Columbia University in New York, wrote a scathing piece in Newsweek, labelling the show a "silvered tureen of snobbery" and suggesting that "nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia."

At Vision TV, such criticism cuts little mustard.

"We're broadcasters. We're putting television on to entertain people," says Shenken. "We at no point are claiming this is fact. It could be based on an event but we are not the ones making the claim and I don't think that it detracts from the phenom that it's been."

Production has begun for Series 3. Carmichael has done one day of shooting, and won't reveal any hints, "other than it will be in the 1920s, which can set imaginations off."

'Dream come true'

Earl Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, heads the Crawley family. (PBS)

For her, Downton is a "bit of a dream come true." Not every acting assignment would give you two Oscar winners as your grandmothers: Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine.

Carmichael knows she's in a charmed spot in the entertainment world with her first TV job. Hugh Bonneville, who plays Earl Grantham, the head of the Crawley family, cautioned her that not every opportunity turns out as Downton has.

"Hugh really sweetly said after the first series came out, ‘They're not all like this, Laura.’ "

For now, though, she can't wait to find out happens in Season 3.

Nor can the fans. And maybe this time, Lady Edith will find a true love all her own.