2015: a futuristic year we never believed would ever come. We leap forward without a flying car but with plenty of techie gadgets to wow our past selves. So much so that one might ask, with our growing adoration for all things shiny and digital, what’s the global appeal of the 1920’s British period drama “Downton Abbey“? Perhaps paradoxically, as we steamroll further into FaceTime and shared Google Docs, we pine for handwritten letters carried into our drawing room on a footman’s silver tray. Secretly we question if the future always portends undesirable change. Downton’s loyal butler, Carson, likens the shifts in his era to the ground shaking under his feet and longs for an earlier stability. We too romanticize our past, including that of the Edwardians of Downton Abbey and in the case of myself and several hundred ticket holders, this shared obsession is manifested at a wonderful gala, a night to live out our fantasy of days long past in costume.
For the past three years, my spouse and I have attended a PBS fundraiser called An Evening Inspired by Downton Abbey. The gala involves a big screen showing of the season opener, as well as plentiful food and drink of the era, and ends with a jazz band playing old favorites while we, costumed as dapper flappers and their charming escorts, spin about the dance floor. Catered by careful chefs, each mouthful is to die for! Even the cocktails are period-themed (and have won me over as a gin fan). While many people troll online to purchase their costume, my dear partner and I comb our deep closet to piece together a new look each year; from elegant to pedestrian we have tried to embody Downton characters.
But all of this great fun and folly begs the question, why is it that as sand slips through the hourglass, we want time to stand still? Why is it that as time marches forward we turn to look back? Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt hinted at a possible answer when he said, “During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
In the Depression years films such as “Snow White” and “Gone With the Wind” made box office hits. People needed an escape from their hardships. And the more fantastical the better.
“Popular culture was alive and well at the movies and in music and dancing. Children read about Superman in Action Comics and followed the adventures of Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Terry and the Pirates in newspaper comic strips. Adults loved to read about the exciting lives of rich people in big cities” (Having Fun in the Depression). In the midst of unfair conditions people have sought equanimity. In the aftermath of loss they look for strength. Finding either on the big screen was far easier than in real life.
“Movies provided an escape from the hardships of the Great Depression, allowing a glimpse into high society life, so far from rural life. People were fascinated by the movies themselves and by the glamorous lives of the men and women who starred in the films. For example, the movie “My Man Godfrey” told the story of a man who lost his entire fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. To make a living, he became a butler for a rich family, and he ended up saving the family.
While thousands of people struggled to find a paying job, Hollywood entered a golden age. People flocked to watch movie stars Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, little Shirley Temple, and elegant dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Comedians W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, and others made people laugh and forget their troubles” (Having Fun-Movies). No matter the motivation, with satin and silk sashaying across our screen, people became hooked on the drama of the upper class and as our depression weary country steadied themselves for yet another world war, the role of movies became even more pressing.
“The entertainment industry during World War II underwent changes to help aid the cause of the war. The entertainment industry during this time was often controlled by a country’s government. Since the governments believed that a supportive home front was crucial to their countries’ victory, they generally sought to keep the civilian spirits high and to depict the war in a positive light. With this motive in mind, governments engaged in the regulation and censorship of the forms of media, as well as the introduction of new methods of informing citizens through these media outlets.
Government censorship of mass media was enforced in much of the world during this time period in fear of threatening the domestic harmony of a nation. Some of the most popular forms of entertainment during World War II were radio, film, and music. In conjunction with one another, these forms of media kept citizens entertained with a pastime, informed about their country’s war efforts, and motivated to contribute to the cause of the war” (Entertainment Industry during WWII).
During wartime, perhaps even more so than the depression, the historian Dixton Wector noted, “The content of the motion picture still was designed for escape, the majority reflecting the tastes of tired or jaded adults seeking a never-never land of luxury and melodrama, sex and sentiment.”
Once movies established themselves as the peoples’ escape, there was no going back. For decades, a date night includes a box of popcorn while you stare into a distant sphere. “I think certain things happen when we are in manifestly dark times,” said New York Times columnist and Oscar season blogger David Carr. “And I think when darkness is intruding from every direction, people like to go in a room and hold hands and stare at a little campfire in common. It’s a way, number one, to forget about what’s out there.” It’s an appetite for uplift, says Carr.”
We are reminded that hope is at the core of all enduring films, “that things will turn out right.” Hope even in bad times: An idea that drove many of the films made during the Depression. “We tend to think of movies during the Depression as being escapist,” he said. But that, he says, isn’t the whole picture.
“There are as many movies during the Depression that deal with serious issues as there are films that allow us to escape and not have to confront the Depression at all.” And even those screwball comedies, such as “My Man Godfrey,” he says, came with a message: “‘My Man Godfrey,’ in which some ditzy rich people pick up allegedly just a bum, turns out there’s a switcheroo at the end in which you know the lower classes teach the upper classes something.”
“So these movies do provide catharsis… by showing you how people on screen have managed these problems, problems that you yourself may confront. Problems which you yourself may not be able to solve, but which you can see people on screen solve” (What Movies Mean to Us in Hard Times).
While we might not be the communal-movie-going-community of the Great Depression era, instead a fractured let-me-watch-on-my-personal-device audience, Downton Abbey has the power to bring us together, even if separated in our own living rooms, the wide spectrum of viewers are united by a singular love. “Season 4 drew an average audience of 13.2 million viewers, making it the top PBS drama of all time and one of the highest-rated dramas now on American television” (News). While most films and TV shows are created for slices of the population, adult vs. children, teens vs boomers, and so forth, Downton Abbey crosses divides to bridge those differences. We have the glamor of upstairs as well as the real struggles downstairs. We have romance as well as loss. Dynamic actors young and old.
Downton Abbey arrived on our local public broadcasting station just as the U.S. economy flattened into a national disaster. Likened to the Great Depression, during our recent recession vast numbers of Americans suffered severe unemployment and the landslide of foreclosure. But for one hour on a Sunday night, free from commercials, we found an escape. Through the trials portrayed by the Crawley family and those who cater to them, we learned how to cope. “This is a very complicated time, not only economically but because it is so complicated economically it affects the psychology. It isn’t only the dollar and cents. It’s the fact that there isn’t dollars and cents, or they’re so hard to obtain it affects the psychology, and the falling away of so many things in our life” (What Movies Mean to Us). Downton Abbey does what Disney did in the 1930’s: it gave us light in the dark.
Last February I was fortunate to visit Ealing Studio where most of the internal filming of Downton Abbey happens; needless to say that experience is now a treasured memory. As luck would have it the entire downstairs cast was on set that morning. They were rehearsing and filming the first episode for Season 5, which just aired in the U.S. last Sunday night. I stayed behind the scenes while Bates and Anna shared concerns about Lady Mary’s new suitor and the rest of the cast filled in around that familiar downstairs table. Afterwards I was treated to a tour of the working kitchen, both Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ sitting room, as well as Mary’s bedroom, and the mock staircase headed to the upstairs.
Standing beneath the iconic bells I was greeted by each actor with a sincere hello and warm hand shake– all in full costume, hair and makeup–to me they were characters come to life. Despite the three-walled rooms, camera and boom, artificial light filtered through prop windows, the mystic miraculously remained intact. Chalk it up to the power of entertainment! Mrs. Hughes invited me into Mr. Carson’s room for a chat, Daisy gave me a warm hug, Cook Patmore made me laugh and secretive Baxtor didn’t reveal anything. I was pulled by the fiction easily.
Thankfully in 2015 we have left the depression era and much of our recent recession ills, but for millions, better days are still a ways away, so we continue to seek a respite where ever we can, on big or small screens, in new or old novels, forever grateful for the depth of wondrous fiction. By watching compelling dramas such as Downton Abbey we observe how characters cope with misfortune, with tragic death and lost love, along with the fabulous life of jazz clubs and scrumptious dinners. How do we cope with our tribulations? We, at least in my home, cope far better with a little help from Downton Abbey, especially with a string of faux pearls and a cup of Earl Grey.