Downton Abbey – America’s ardour for Edwardian Britain
Cora: “Things are different in America.”
Lady Grantham: “I know. They live in wigwams.”
The period drama series Downton Abbey is undoubtedly a huge success at home and abroad, with more than 100 countries gaining broadcasting rights.
It’s not the first time a British drama has proved incredibly successful over the pond. Brideshead Revisited, Pride and Prejudice and Upstairs Downstairs all established themselves overseas and won international recognition, dispersing the notion that genre programming will only reach limited audiences.
A fascination with British culture
Downton Abbey’s recent soar in popularity in the US has drawn attention to the distinction between the two countries, a factor why Downton is irresistible to our American friends.
We may share a common language, but British English and American English are not the same, and language variation is not the only dissimilarity.
We differ both culturally and historically, which is manifested in Downton’s portrayal of the relationship between mother-in-law, the Dowager Lady Grantham an English Countess (terribly posh), and her daughter-in-law Cora, an American heiress (terribly rich).
Americans have always been attracted to the British class system and it is something that most cannot envisage being part of. They have no Royal Family or titles to distinguish themselves from others, whereas Downton portrays a world where it is not unquestionable to marry a Prince. Even 100 years later, Kate Middleton’s recent Royal elevation has shown it is not a distant dream.
The US audience may be nostalgic for a conventional time or fixated by customs unlike their own (it was perfectly normal and common to marry your cousin then and is not unheard of now, in the US it is illegal).
I believe what makes Downton so irresistible is that it offers a form of escapism; the characters enjoy wealth and opulence unimaginable by many Americans, where finding your fortune will always label you as ‘new money’ and institutions are positively new-spangled in comparison.
The Dowager Lady Grantham – International public relations professional:
Cora: “I hope I don’t hear sounds of a disagreement.”
Lady Grantham: “Is that what they call discussion in New York?”
‘‘Of course it would happen to a foreigner. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.’’
On the prospect of a swivel chair: ‘‘why does everyday involve a fight with an American?’’
‘‘We’ll just have to take her abroad, in these moments you can normally find an Italian who isn’t too picky.’’
Sybil: “Nobody learns anything from a governess, apart from French and how to curtsy.”
Lady Grantham: “What else do you need? Are you thinking of a career in banking?”
Cora: “I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.”
Lady Grantham: “Oh, I don’t think things are quite that desperate.”
‘‘One can’t go to pieces with the death of every foreigner, we’d all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.’’