There’s more to “Downton Abbey” than beautiful people beautifully dressed. The show’s many devoted fans are giving it the status of a classic as they follow the twists and turns of the plot, so this is a good time to examine its lineage.
The place to start is with the biography of its creator, the multi-talented actor, writer, and director Julian Fellowes. Actually, and this is an important point for him, he is Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, and is a member of the House of Lords, no less. Only a true aristocrat who grew up with servants in a manor house could get the dazzling ambience of “Downtown Abbey” right-the proper place settings, the proper roles for the servants, and so forth.
If we wish to follow the lineage of “Downton Abbey” further, we can stay with Fellowes, and consider the 2001 film “Gosford Park,” for which Fellowes wrote the script, and which was the last film that the great Robert Altman directed.
In fact “Downton Abbey” was originally conceived as a spinoff of “Gosford Park,” very much as Aaron Sorkin’s classic tv series “The West Wing,” was conceived as a spinoff of his film “The American President.” Like “Downton Abbey,” “Gosford Park” takes place in a stately home complete with servants and elegant furniture. There is also some similarity between the characters; for example, the redoubtable Maggie Smith plays very much the same character in “Gosford Park” that she plays in “Downton Abbey.”
Yet the differences between “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey” are striking; they are as much a matter of tone as of anything else. To put it simply, “Gosford Park” is a tough-minded movie. It takes a hard look at the smugness and self-absorption of the aristocrats. Maggie Smith’s character is much less appealing than in “Downton Abbey.” In the movie, her quips and one-liners have a real sting. Then, too, let us not forget the strong hand of Robert Altman in “Gosford Park,” which is very subversive movie. It is a democratic, American take on inequities of the British class structure.
However, to work up a full genealogy of “Downton Abbey,” we must also mention “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the long-running series (1971-5) about the lives of masters and servants in a house in Edwardian London. The urban setting makes a crucial difference, though.
The isolated setting of Downton Abbey enhances its symbolic status and historical resonance. So we need to examine comparable British films set in the countryside. Three British historical films, or “period pieces,” as they are called in the movie industry, from the 1980s and 1990s, have some relevance here, as do the predecessors of these films.
The movie “Chariots of Fire” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1981, and has a good deal of relevance to “Downton Abbey.” For one thing, it shows the experiences of the British track team at the 1924 Olympics; it’s in the right time period for “Downton Abbey,” so the clothing styles are similar.
But movie characters can’t just sit around in elegant clothing; they have to do something. The essence of drama is conflict, so there has to be conflict of some kind, even if it’s not a war movie. “Chariots of Fire” is based on real events, and real people, and very conveniently for the future movie, the conflict was provided by two outsiders- Eric Liddel, a devout Scotsman, and Harold Abraham, a Jew. Liddell refused to run on Sunday, and the Olympic committee attempted to prevent Abraham from running because he had a professional trainer.
It is just this conflict in 1920s Britain between insiders and outsiders-outsiders who attempt to become insiders and thus represent social change-that makes “Chariots of Fire” so much a forerunner of “Downton Abbey.” There is even one character who could go directly from “Chariots of Fire” into “Downton Abbey.” This is hurdler Lord Andrew Lindsay, ably played by Nigel Havers. In one memorable scene he practices on a the spreading lawn of his estate, which looks a lot like Downton Abbey.
The conflict between aristocrats, and upstarts engages something essential in British history and appears in two films produced by the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory with their usual elegance: “Howard’s End”(1992) and “The Remains of the Day”(1993). (“Howards End” is based on the novel of the same name by E. M. Forster.) Both films have the exquisite attention to detail and elegant clothing that keeps people riveted to their screens as they watch “Downton Abbey.”
Howards End is the name of a house, and the conflict concerns the question of who will inherit it. Because in England venerable houses in the countryside represent the continuity of English life, the question of who will inherit Howards End, a microcosm of England suggests the larger question of who will inherit England itself.
“The Remains of the Day” is something like a sequel to “Howards End” because again what is at issue is the fate of an English country house, and in this film it is sold to something like an ultimate outsider to the British class system, an American congressman.
Clearly, then, “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day” anticipate not just the style of “Downton Abbey,” but also the crucial underlying issue: “Who will get the house?” Moreover: “If the house has to be sold, does this not mean the end of English life as so many have known it for so long?”
As it happens, the threat to a manor house-and the eventual reality-that an upstart, a non-aristocrat will come in, take over the house, and drive out the rightful owners is precisely the plot of the play that anticipates “Downton Abbey” as well as the Merchant-Ivory films-Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”(1904).
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian short-story writer and playwright whose ironic, seemingly simple work has proven very influential, especially in England. When Chekhov’s work became available in English in the 1920s (that decade again!) in the translations of Constance Garnett, they became immensely popular. His short stories left a lasting mark on the prose of Catherine Mansfield, for example.
But it is Chekhov’s plays that have so much relevance to “Downton Abbey,” especially his quartet of masterpieces: “The Seagull” (1896); “Uncle Vanya” (1899); “The Three Sisters” (1902); and “The Cherry Orchard” (1904). These plays represent evolving variations on a theme. In each of them someone arrives at a house, causes agitation of various kinds, and leaves. In the pivotal play, “The Three Sisters,” it is the sister-in-law of one of the sisters who arrives and then takes over the house. Finally, in “The Cherry Orchard” an entrepreneur and real estate developer named Lopakhin arrives at the house (where his father was a serf), and buys it. He plans to chop down the cherry orchard and build a development of middle-class homes there. No greater trauma for the aristocrats could have been imagined at the time.
It’s easy to understand why Chekhov’s plays had such an effect in an England that was reeling from the demise of the crowned heads of state in Europe after World War I. London audiences must have felt that history was being played out before their very eyes.
This is not the place to trace in detail the effect of Chekhov’s plays on the British well-dressed film, in which a house that symbolizes the country as a whole is threatened by commoners. It must suffice here to mention three characters in “Downton Abbey” that have particular importance.
The redoubtable Maggie Smith’s character, Countess Violet Crawley, ultimately derives from Lyubov Andreyevna Gayeva in “The Cherry Orchard.” Both women are by turns self-absorbed and perceptive about others. Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley bears a noticeable resemblance to Leonid Gayev, Lyubov Andreyevna’s brother, Like Leonid Gayev, Robert Crawley dithers about the future of the estate yet can’t/doesn’t take decisive action.
The character of Firs, the old butler in “The Cherry Orchard” deserves a special note. After an enterprising developer named Lopakhin buys the estate at auction, the Gayevs and their entourage leave in a flurry self-indulgent distress. At this moment audiences who don’t know the play start to clap. However, in an exceptionally effective coup de theatre, Chekhov has faithful old Firs stagger out onto the stage. The Gayevs have simply forgotten about him. When Firs realizes that he has been forgotten, he doesn’t get upset; he simply lies down on the couch and accepts his fate.
Firs anticipates Mr. Stevens, Anthony Hopkins’ character in “The Remains of the Day.” As Hopkins plays him, he has served the masters of Darlington Hall for so long that he has lost touch with his emotions, and lost his sense of self. Although Mr. Stevens is a more fully developed character than Firs, they have similar emotional profiles.
And of course Charles Carson, the head butler at Downton Abbey, as played by Jim Carter, is much more fully developed than Firs. Carson is in fact the co-lead of “Downton Abbey” with Robert Crawley. Although he is more active and more authoritative than Firs, he also knows his place in his household, and doesn’t challenge the establish order of things.
There is more to be said in general about the lineage of “Downton Abbey” and about the widespread influence of Chekhov’s plays on British film. To conclude with one final comment, though, Chekhov’s plays strike a chord with the British public and with British playwrights. They have become so much a part of the dramatic heritage of that country that leading creative spirits like Julian Fellowes hardly need to think about them to draw on them.