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Down on Downton.

NOT BEING A watcher of costume dramas, apart from the occasional adaptation of Dickens, I have no idea what goes on in the popular TV series, Downton Abbey. I know it’s about a bunch of British toffs in the post-Edwardian period, has plenty of famous actors in it, and that women, in particular, like it, but that’s about all.

I do know that Polly Toynbee, however, is one of the few women who don’t like it. Polly thinks it’s bad because it misrepresents the utter awfulness of the class system of the time. In doing so she’s just the latest in a long and predictable line of whingers who loathe any popular TV programmes set in Britain’s past that don’t look like something written by Marx and Engels during one of their lighter moments. The toffs were clearly brutal and their servants no better than sweaty serfs so to portray the situation as anything different is no better than capitalist Tory propaganda.

Everyone knows that maidservants got up early in the morning from their straw beds in cold cramped attic rooms, lived off the greasy scraps left by the dogs, polished the lady’s corsets by candlelight, scrubbed furniture all day till their fingers wore down to stumps, and got impregnated by the lord of house (and probably his sons as well), only to be turfed out in their millions into the workhouses with no references to get them onto social mobility schemes. Or something like that.

I SAID EVERYONE, but obviously that’s incorrect. In the eyes of Polly and the other guardians of public morality, the majority of those watching Downton don’t know or care. They prefer to believe in the niceness of the nobs. Not only that, they’re too stupid to realise they’re being hoodwinked and are “easily deceived by a modern veneer of classlessness.” This is doubleplus bad because they think things are better now. They may have a point there, of course, since they don’t sleep on straw in crowded attics and live off leftover dogs’ dinners, etc, but tend to have duvets, the vote, free education, free healthcare and benefits if they’re without jobs. And females no longer have to act as sex slaves to the master of the house (and his sons).

Still, it’s the dogma that counts. Underneath that thin veneer of classlessness Polly perceives the spectre of the fat capitalist with cigar and top hat, dancing on the bodies of the downtrodden poor. The sooner the proles get a dose of programmes that highlight the racism, violence, oppression and imperial snobbery of British colonialism the better. Although I would have thought that since this is what passes for history in schools these days, they wouldn’t need it.

If Polly doesn’t like Downton Abbey she doesn’t have to watch it. Instead she should get together with some of her like-minded colleagues and write a gritty, worker-friendly series showing the proletariat rising up against the snooty aristos. Marx in the Mansion, for instance, or Engels Topples the Toffs. Preachy and dull it would be, but inadvertently comic. I’d definitely watch that.

Michael Blackburn.

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