Downtown Abbey and its lessons for our time
Boddice ripping period dramas are not usually my thing. But I suspect that when Julian Fellowes wrote Downton Abbey he had in mind the old addage about those who fail to learn the lessons of history being bound to repeat its mistakes. There are two reasons I would not normally sit down on a Sunday evening and watch this sort of television: it’s period drama, and it’s on a commercial station. I have no problem with some of the programs on the stations that aren’t ABC/SBS, I just cannot abide ads. I refuse to sit and watch them, and so it is less convenient and downright infuriating to have to actively avoid them every 10.4 minutes, so I just avoid Channels 7, 9 and 10 altogether. Sorry boys. But that is not my point here anyway…
What I see beginning to unfold in Downton Abbey is a world in transition: Edwardian England finding itself sliding inexorably into the post-steam age, the age of the motor car and the telegraph, the ‘unsinkable’ super-liner, the beginning of the end of immutable class divisions, the beginning of democracy, and in a year or two, war on a scale never seen before. Lord Grantham is a decent caring man, satisfied with his station in life but also very caring of those beneath him. He likes – believes fervently in – the old order and its stability. He creates a social safety net where the structure has none. He is bewildered by rapid social change.
I have only seen two episodes, but I suspect we are going to see upheaval in the lives of those who live under the protection of Lord Grantham. Change is coming on a scale he cannot begin to imagine, because he has not heeded its warning signs. He has chosen to ignore the birth pangs of the 20th century, and I will put my two bob’s worth on things not going according to his plans.
The lesson for the viewer with enough forebearance to endure the banal world of continual interruptions from banal advertisers with their banal mind-numbingly purile advertisements? My guess is the lesson is very simple: those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat its mistakes. The world as we have known it is changing, at all levels. Will we anticipate, change and adapt? Or will we be battered by the change into whatever shape is left for us by our inappropriate choices?
What are the changes coming our a hundred years after Lord and Lady Grantham? Population, economics, and climate – each linked inseparably. 9 billion people by 2050; a new economic order where the USA is not king, but maybe China is; a global ecosystem changed in response to 3 or 4 degrees warmer conditions, with all of the agricultural and sea level changes that brings. This is the new world we are hurtling into. Will be make choices that – minimise the change? – mitigate the adaptation needed?
At present society generally look very much like the Lord Grantham of old.